Ashley Furniture Uses Assistive Web Tech to Reach New Demographics

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Merchant: Ashley Furniture
Headquarters: Arcadia, Wisconsin
Vendors: eSSENTIAL Accessibility, TouchCommerce
Bottom Line: Adding accessibility features to an e-commerce website can help brands reach demographics they might otherwise miss.

Selling furniture on the Internet has never been an easy proposition. People want to feel the fabrics on sofas and test the sturdiness tables before spending thousands on furniture purchases, but that hasn’t stopped Ashley Furniture from expanding its digital footprint in recent years.

“While our history is rooted in brick and mortar—and will always be—our future is in e-commerce,” says Matt Sparks, e-commerce optimization manager at Ashley. “Online shopping of any kind has a major stake in overall revenue and we are diverting the necessary resources now to make sure all of our customers have the best experience possible on our website.”

With more than 700 Ashley HomeStore locations spread across the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Central America, and Asia, Ashley Furniture is considered to be one of the world’s largest home furniture manufacturers. Although the company does sell furniture online, its e-commerce website is often used as a resource for customers researching products that they’ll ultimately purchase at their local stores. A live chat widget, powered by TouchCommerce (which was acquired by Nuance in 2016), provides additional assistance to online shoppers, similar to the type of personalized help that shoppers would find inside physical stores.

Ashley has also partnered with a company called eSSENTIAL Accessibility, which offers assistive technology and web accessibility services, to ensure its website is accessible to people with disabilities. Sparks says the partnership between Ashley and eSSENTIAL came about when the company’s user experience department saw a need for the e-commerce platform they were building to be more compliant accessibly to those with disabilities.

“In doing so, we knew it meant we could also offer our brand to a demographic not always targeted,” Sparks says.

Today, Ashley uses eSSENTIAL’s technology in a number of ways. eSSENTIAL runs audits on Ashley’s website anytime Sparks’ team makes changes or upgrades. During those audits, eSSENTIAL checks for errors and offers solutions for features on the site that can be made available to accessibility-enabled devices.

Based on the results of those audits, Sparks says he and his team scope out the changes and prioritize them, then send them to developers to become permanent fixes on the website. eSSENTIAL also captions many of the videos posted on Ashley’s website, as well as offers a landing page exclusively for information and statements about accessibility for people with disabilities.

“Naturally, having our website constantly checked for improvements to accessibility means our customers get a better experience, leading to purchases made by a satisfied customer likely to shop our brand again,” Sparks says.

Tracking the ROI is as simple as looking at the user traffic numbers before and after Ashley implements the latest batch of suggested accessibility fixes, but Sparks says the value goes beyond that, since working with eSSENTIAL helps to ensure that Ashley stays compliant with WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) and ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act ) standards.

He sees the future of e-commerce—both as an industry, and within Ashley Furniture specifically—as being intrinsically tied to accessibility, as companies like his own will have to expand their reach if they want to sell to shoppers using accessibility-enabled devices.

“Our future of the e-commerce division is to grow into a customized site that offers unique experiences personalized by the type of customer shopping online, as well as adding cutting edge features like AR (augmented reality), VR (virtual reality) and computer generated imagery (CGI),” he says. “This includes accessibility, in that as we offer these personalized experiences, customers using an accessibility enabled device will be able to take advantage of a lot of what’s being offered.”

Stephanie Miles is a senior editor at Street Fight.

Stephanie Miles is a journalist who covers personal finance, technology, and real estate. As Street Fight’s senior editor, she is particularly interested in how local merchants and national brands are utilizing hyperlocal technology to reach consumers. She has written for FHM, the Daily News, Working World, Gawker, Cityfile, and Recessionwire.