Rachel is standing in front of a whitewashed wooden wall flanked by an Avocado Green Pillowtop Mattress.
She adjusts her phone camera to fix the framing for the Zoom call. Behind her the Southern California sun spills through large hazy windows—that soft glow is frost applied to the panes or the famous Los Angeles smog that hovers over highways like cotton sheets fluttering toward a freshly made bed.
It’s 11:30 a.m. and Rachel is my Avocado Mattress Virtual Experience Specialist. We chit chat about the weather, she talks about her sons who wrestle, and then tells the story of a spirit-filled Christmas night that ended with an overturned couch and a mad dash to wrap all the gifts the next morning. We laugh and joke and then dig into the details about the organic sleep system in the background.
I scheduled the VX appointment to see for myself what Avocado’s Brett Thornton and his team had cooked up in the 8,000 square foot space that, pre-COVID, was filled with employees.
“The idea of a retail store is a fluid concept right now. We could go back into another shutdown for all we know.”
Rachel’s holding a hand-sized cutaway showing the layers of the Avocado mattress. “I’m going to bring this a little bit closer so you can take a look at it,” she said, holding up to the camera. “Can you see the rippling in the fabric? That’s the GOTS Certified organic cotton cover and the side panels, everything, is covered in that material.”
GOTS stands for Global Organic Textile Standard, the world’s leading processing standard for textiles made from organic fibers.
And then she explains the layer of latex foam and how it’s different than memory foam that sucks you into it. Latex does cradle you Rachel says, “But it also isn’t going to completely flatten and it’s not going to suck you in so deep, so you lie a little bit more on the surface—so you have that uplifting support.”
Rachel is part of a team at Avocado that’s growing. I first saw the Virtual Specialist job description on Brett’s LinkedIn and noticed it was a permanent slot, not a seasonal gig designed to handle holiday demand or a temp job to get the company to the other side of COVID.
Thornton’s the Vice President of VX and Retail at Avocado Green Brands. It’s a role that’s put him at the center of recreating retail for Avocado’s seven stores and reimagining what ecommerce and a direct model can do to serve consumers.
We wanted to create mock showrooms where guests can experience our beds just as if they were in a retail location but obviously just on their phone, said Thornton.
The VX staff have Gimbals—devices that allow your digital camera to rotate smoothly along an axis—and they walk around the showroom engaging guests in an experience that’s as immersive as possible within those virtual constraints.
“We treat that engagement exactly as if you came into the store. We explain pillows, we fit, we go through the beds, we go through all the product, we do everything just like if you were standing in front of a guest. And the reality is that most people have a couple questions they need answered. They have a few things holding them back, just like in traditional retail, whether it’s price, or can it fit on my bed, whatever the questions are—most of those can be answered virtually. The big caveat is going to be feel.”
But, as Brett points out, hundreds of millions of dollars in mattresses are being sold online and the majority of buyers never touch those products before making the purchase. VX is this sexy new selling process that retailers might consider rolling out, but it’s something that may not work for everyone. “I think you’re going to see a lot of people try it, however I think what you’ll also find is that it’s not for a lot of people and the reason is that you’ve got to have something that would drive someone to want to schedule that VX. Do you have a differentiator from a product perspective,” said Thornton.
For mattress and furniture stores interested in connecting with consumers through Zoom or other digital platforms, the challenges around a successful virtual selling program go beyond a product with a unique hook—in fact, too many products could create the problem.
“A traditional retailer would be definitely at a disadvantage with VX because there are so many products. So I can see it being a challenge. Whereas we have a standard green and a pillow top. That’s it. And we have a topper. That’s what we have. So for us, they’re trying to decide, do I want more of a medium-firm or do I want a more medium plush or do I want to add one of these toppers—it’s not that difficult of a decision. You’re just trying to answer those questions. Obviously, if you had a showroom with 50 beds you’d have to figure out how am I going to do this. Am I going to do a one, two, three?” See also
In Thornton’s experience, customers who schedule appointments with Virtual Specialists aren’t looking for a deep dive. “What VX is trying to accomplish is, hey you have two, three, four questions and that’s what’s holding you back, I’ve got you.”
Avocado has each guest book appointments using a web-based scheduler called Calendly that’s connected to a video chat via Zoom. When their time slot arrives, they can choose to have their camera on or off, and if they submitted any questions in advance their VX Specialist has notes and is ready to talk them through whatever’s on their mind.
While Avocado uses a system that combines several softwares, there are other virtual shopping platforms like HeroApp that are designed to humanize online shopping. “We still miss some of the basic ingredients: the ability to touch and see the product, the ability to connect with an expert who can guide you through the purchase. That’s really been missing from ecommerce for so long. And it’s why consumers are less likely to convert because they don’t have that comfort to buy. And from a brand side, it’s why it’s hard to get conversion rates beyond one percent or so because shoppers just don’t have that confidence to buy.”
That’s Adam Levene, not the Maroon 5 singer—but as the founder of Hero, he is someone with a big voice in the virtual selling space. His team is working to help retailers extend the experience they’re famous for in-store to the online world. Levene says websites and ecommerce aren’t that different from what consumers found 20 years ago—a static photo of the product, some text, and maybe a video. Maybe. Levene said that the ecommerce experience is so different from how we communicate these days. “We’re all glued to things like FaceTime and Zoom. We’re on social platforms like Instagram and Snapchat. We communicate in this very rich and immersive way and that hasn’t really come to ecommerce and that’s what we’re trying to achieve.”
And it’s not only about selling products online. The Hero experience is designed to drive traffic into stores. Before the covid chaos began crippling the country Levene said it was working well for their customers that operated brick and mortar stores. “Pre-pandemic about one in three customers would head in-store after beginning an interaction via Hero with a sales associate.” Hero’s platform has proximity built into its algorithm that connects online shoppers to the nearest showroom or store so they can video chat with someone that may be within driving distance. “The same sales associate that assisted me online I’m now going to meet in person—that’s a really magical moment for that shopper,” said Levene.
For Avocado, those magical and fun moments have begun bubbling up on screen. Brett Thornton said the face-to-face virtual experiences are something their more fun-loving customers are having a blast with. “They’ll get asked to jump on the beds. They’ll get asked to bring another person over and lay on the bed while another person jumps on the bed and let’s see how it moves.” And then there was a guest who took it to the next level and got the entire team involved. “We had a guest who was really funny and had one of our associates do a race down the beds, there were seven of them in a row, and the whole store was involved. Just a really cool customer. And that’s the thing sometimes people are really fun and lighthearted, but most of the time they have very serious questions. So it’s usually stuff around certifications and where is this from. We’re happy to help and happy to answer, even if literally we’re just telling them exactly what they read on the website, just hearing it from somebody for whatever reason, they say, oh okay, cool.”
The Virtual Specialists have created a bridge between selling online and going into a store. It serves people who want to limit exposure to the virus or those who don’t have access to one of Avocado’s seven Southern California stores, but it goes further. There are many times when people are shopping online and thinking, “Are there real people behind this business? Or is it a dropship store that some internet wizard spun up to make some dough?” For a considered purchase like a mattress, there are quite a few consumers who want to know there’s a person behind the purchase and their bed will be backed by a company that stands by their goods in case something goes wrong. A quick, friendly chat on the front end might make all the difference.
As a part of Brentwood Home’s family of brands, Avocado is privately held and Brett wasn’t able to share specific results about Avocado’s VX roll out. According to HeroApp’s Levene, when a customer uses face-to-face video shopping versus standard ecommerce they are up to 21x more likely to convert and spend up to 70 percent more—those numbers aren’t specific to the mattress category but provide some insights into the power of seeing and talking to a real person—someone like Rachel.