If business owners had known the pandemic was coming, what would they have done to prepare? Meganne Wecker offers a glimpse. As the president and chief creative officer of Skyline Furniture, and co-founder of sister company Cloth & Company, Wecker works with an import business operating out of China, Vietnam and Cambodia. At Las Vegas Market in February 2020, she began to hear about Chinese factories facing coronavirus-related issues and making adjustments to protect their employees’ health and maintain production flow.
“We learned a lot watching them go through it before us—it was sort of a peek into the future,” Wecker tells host Dennis Scully on the latest episode of The Business of Home Podcast. “It was very fortunate that they were such amazing partners to share a lot of the things that worked for them and a lot of the things that didn’t, and I think it really helped us navigate through our early days of shutting down, and then again when we had to get back up and running.”
Anticipating where things were heading, Skyline and Cloth & Company began implementing social distancing tactics modeled after those adopted in factories and workplaces in China. They also bought raw materials from overseas in greater quantities and began to plan for a 6-feet-apart workflow in their factories, along with the use of masks and hand sanitizer—not yet staples of everyday life at that time.
It’s not the first time the 75-year-old family-owned company has been ahead of the industry curve. In this episode, Wecker touches on Skyline’s willingness to engage with emerging technology and new business practices—along with how it has benefited from the resulting payoff.
E-commerce early adopters
In the early days of the dot-com era, Wecker was 22 years old and fresh out of college. Her father, then president of Skyline, gave her the go-ahead to design a line that could be sold online, and she settled on furnishings fit for someone like her, moving into their first adult apartment. “Turns out, that’s also who was shopping online at the time,” she says. “So it was sort of the right place at the right time, and we really became hyperfocused on the e-commerce channel.” The move wasn’t a huge departure from the company’s existing business operations—they were still packaging custom-made orders and sending them straight to consumers, just through a new channel. “My dad has always let me play in different areas and given me that opportunity,” says Wecker. “I think he was also very intrigued by what e-commerce was going to do. … It was a successful bet on all of our parts.”
Digital fabric pioneers
When the digital fabric printer first arrived in Skyline’s factories in 2016, Wecker says it was only the second purchased by a company in the U.S. and the first owned by a furniture manufacturer. Needless to say, figuring out how to utilize it was a process of trial and error. “Everyone did look at it a little bit like an alien had landed here,” she says. “We spent two years learning and trying to figure out how to make this work for our business.” In the end, it was time well spent. The benefits for product development were huge—the company could now create a fabric collection in one day, leaving behind a process that previously took 60 to 90 days. The technology even led to the 2016 founding of Cloth & Company, where Wecker has the freedom to play with new design strategies to create unique collections.
Contemplating virtual product content
The next frontier for e-commerce, according to Wecker, is collapsing the distance between online shoppers and digital representations of the product. “As close as you can get people to the product through the screen is important,” she says. “You really want customers to understand what they’re buying upfront and feel confident in the purchase that they’re going to make, especially if they’re new to buying big-ticket items online.” There are a number of ways to do this, and Wecker’s team is still playing around with what works best—from 3D visualizations to virtual and augmented reality experiences. The ultimate goal is to help customers get more comfortable with e-commerce.