DISRUPTORS: Online Funeral Director services and information are offering more industry transparency.
DISRUPTORS: Online Funeral Director services and information are offering more industry transparency. gustavofrazao

Online disruptors changing the business of funerals

FUNERAL director business disruptors have taken to the internet offering potential clients service cost comparison tools, presented in various ways.

There are three websites that came officially online in the last three months - gatheredhere.com.au, funeralplanner.com and salvosfunerals.com.au.

But are we ready for this disruption?

After talking to care-givers, hospice staff and medical service providers, there appears that while the old ways of choosing a funeral director are still very popular, change is afoot.

Using word-of-mouth, previous experience and talking among family and friends are still considered the strongest tools being used by those people who are deciding now, or in the not too distant future, about booking a funeral.

Even newspaper advertisements were mentioned as being another way to find a provider, but mainly for the older generation who still liked to read the news on paper.

Using the internet is making its way into the process in which people manage the highly sensitive decision which is often made in a compressed time. It appears more and more people, mainly Baby Boomers and "younger" generations, but even some "older" generation members, are using websites to shop around to compare costs and make an initial booking.

Embedded in the feedback is that more people are more cost conscious, which is not surprising when the average cost of a "basic funeral" in NSW, as found by Sydney University's Professor Sandra van der Laan, is $5758.

The online platforms are starting to feed these cost-aware enquiring minds by offering them the ability to search local funeral businesses to compare the list of services and costs.

The newest website to hit the market, Gathered Here, was set up by former solicitor turned online entrepreneur Colin Wong.

He has collected information on 600 funeral director businesses from around Australia after spending several months on the phone 'mystery shopping' the details of each provider's service costs.

Mr Wong was driven to develop Gathered Here off the back of dealing with the funeral arrangements for his great-aunt in 2013.

"The experience was really terrible, actually. I basically found that no one would give me a straight answer regarding pricing. There was lots of different excuses and reasons why they weren't able to give me any detail.

"Basically they were all angling so that we would come and meet them in person."

Mr Wong said he found this approach was a common sales tactic employed within the industry.

"Once (they) have been through a two-hour planning meeting which is highly emotional, highly stressful, and often that is when the deal is closed because families then find it really difficult to say I am going to go through this process again with another two or three funeral directors so I can find the best price and the best funeral director," he said

Consumers can access the listed funeral business for free.

Businesses are listed for free, but to ensure their information is kept current, they are being invited to upgrade to a monthly premium service which will also increase the search engine rankings.

Mr Wong's vision is that funeral director businesses will come to him to update their information. In the first month of operation, the website has signed up nine fee-paying subscribers.

Industry leader InvoCare, which has about 34% of Australia's funeral director market, and owns 1000 funeral businesses, including 32 funeral director business brands, has also entered the online market in the last two months, in response to a demand for "industry-wide transparency of costs and services associated with a funeral / cremation".

InvoCare's Funeral Planner website offers consumers cost comparisons across each of its businesses servicing a selected area. It also has a 24/7 phone helpline.

And this is where these two websites diverge.

"We welcome sites such as gatheredhere.com.au as a resource to help families plan a service for their loved ones," an InvoCare spokesperson stated.

"Our hesitation with this particular site is there is no reference as to where the services or pricing was sourced, therefore it may not provide accurate information to the general public."

InvoCare goes on to state that its Funeral Planner; "is a step-by-step digital service to help plan a funeral, making the process of organising a service as easy, transparent, and personal as possible".

Taking a different approach again to online service marketing is Salvos Funerals. The Salvation Army business officially came online in March.

The salvosfunerals.com.au website lists details of its services and costs for its business which is currently limited to the NSW Central Coast and to Sydney. It's not possible to book a service online, as yet.

Chief executive officer Malcolm Pittendrigh said the not-for-profit business will extend inter-state in the future, but that it is "early days" for the business and its expansion.

"We're not rushing to follow our competitors," Mr Pittendrigh said.

Salvos Funerals offer a low-cost service, achieved through working with partners to provide the funeral products and services. "Our most affordable option is $2,180 for a cremation without a ceremony. Our average funeral is less than $6,000," the website states.

This web presence for Salvos Funerals is proving to be a useful tool in its bid to increase brand awareness, but Mr Pittendrigh said, "word of mouth is still powerful".

"People like to know who they are dealing with. It's a rich connection when meeting face-to-face," he added.

Other funeral director business cost comparison websites are there for the viewing. Many small funeral businesses have also established their own websites.

Going online is the way of the world for just about everything, so why not for researching and booking a funeral?

With over 159,000 people dying in 2015 and that number expected to increase in coming years, even more of these websites could appear online.

If more transparency around funeral costs and options is achieved by these competing businesses, then Australians look more than ready to welcome this disruption.

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