December 31, 2002, 12:00 AM

Playing House

(Page 2 of 3)

Some, like Lowes.com, boost the likelihood that shoppers will fulfill at their stores by putting links to manufacturer’s sites and design tools on their own site. “Retailers and manufacturers in that space are trying to push the shopping assistance angle in an attempt to increase overall spending in the category. And hopefully, some of that spending is going to happen at the site where they’re doing that, not at someone else’s,” says analyst Geoff Wissman of consultants Retail Forward Inc.

Furniture.com developed an online Room Planner to tackle what CEO Carl Prindle says is one of the biggest challenges in designing a room: the issue of scale. Built internally and launched online in 1999 under an earlier corporate organization, it was one of the first of such interactive design tools available in the web’s home product consumer marketplace. The tool allows site visitors to create an online floor plan and place in it accurately scaled outlines of furniture pulled from the retailers’ inventory or already in the customer’s home.

New customers

While Prindle did not disclose the tool’s precise impact on sales either online or in the showrooms of its partners, the Levitz Furniture Co. Inc. and Seaman Furniture Co. Inc. chains, he says, “Our retailers are seeing a large segment of customers finding Furniture.com, falling in love with a product, and purchasing from the retailer. Some would not have gone into those stores without the additional information available online. We’re also getting more people who purchase online without ever going to a showroom.” Prindle adds that the dimensional information available on Room Planner also reduces returns.

No more than 10% to 15% of Furniture.com visitors use Room Planner, but Prindle says that meets his utilization target for the tool. “Home furnishings sites attract many types of customers. Some come to the site just to look at pictures and get ideas. Our objective is to move those customers farther down the conversion trail,” he says. “Given the number who come to the site just to browse, we’re happy with getting 10% to 15% to take the next step and design a room online.”

Home improvement and home product retailers who have a longer history with online design tools or who simply have less volume and fewer retail outlets to track have made some headway linking the tools to sales.

Take ClosetMaid. So far, consumers can’t actually purchase ClosetMaid wire shelving systems online. Even so, the web is ClosetMaid’s most important tool for increasing store sales of the product and it’s responsible for millions in incremental sales annually, director of product management and Internet marketing Will Rose says.

ClosetMaid put its first closet design tool online at its own site five years ago and now offers access to the tool through links on the retail web sites of Lowe’s Cos. Inc. and Home Depot Inc., ClosetMaid’s two biggest retail partners. The tool generates one of several pre-set closet configurations based on questions a shopper answers online. It instantly delivers an image of the closet system that’s the best match and a shopping list of parts.

ClosetMaid offers the same interactive tool on its own site, plus a more sophisticated version allowing for greater customization as well as a third option, an online professional design service staffed with 17 architects and interior designers. For $15, customers supply dimensions and other information about storage needs online and receive in return a customized closet system plan, color and line art rendering of the system, parts list and retailer list.

When the design is completed, the customer receives an e-mail from ClosetMaid with a link to a web page, set up especially for that customer, from which the customer can view and print out the information. ClosetMaid supports the tool with live chat and e-mail. “We wanted to give the consumer the power to walk into a store already knowing what they want,” Rose says.

Knowledge=spending

The customer who know more buys more, ClosetMaid’s numbers show. 95% of the visitors to the web site use one of the three tools, says Rose. The average ClosetMaid purchase for a customer who buys the shelving at a retailer without first using one of the online design tools is under $100, while the shopper who users either the first-tier or second-tier design tool spends an average $200. Shoppers who use the online professional design service option spend the most: more than $300 on average, according to ClosetMaid’s online customer surveys. “People will spend more on a project if they are confident they’re doing the right thing,” Rose says. “If you can see that closet perfectly laid out online and know exactly what you’re going to get, you’re very willing to spend the money.”

Visualization tools increased web site sales by 45% at Design Within Reach, a San Francisco-based multi-channel retailer of new and classic modern furniture, within a month of when it added clickable swatches and zoom capability for certain products.

The enhanced imaging features allow customers to see fabric and pattern options as they would look on items under consideration, as well as greater detail on appearance and construction, such as how a table’s legs are connected to its top. The enhanced imaging capacity, powered by Scene7, was initially offered on 100 products for which marketers deemed the ability to see enlarged detail or different fabric treatments would increase shoppers’ confidence in making purchase decisions. Design Within Reach says it will extend enhanced visualization across 225 products or about 35% of its online SKUs.

“Our customers love these features, as they make the online shopping experience more tangible and enjoyable,” says Vince Barriero, Design Within Reach’s CIO. “We were able to add the capabilities to our site in a matter of weeks and sales have increased for products showcased with the technology.”

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