December 31, 2002, 12:00 AM

Playing House

Online tools bring sophisticated design and visualization technology to shoppers and help close sales of high-end home products.

For a lot of home improvement projects, the 1,000-mile journey to dream home nirvana ends with the first step. Faced with millions of options in colors and materials, bound by floor plans whose dimensions they’ve only guessed at, fearful of making expensive mistakes, some would-be rehabbers and renovators get no farther on a project than breaking into a cold sweat at the prospect.

That’s given rise to a new crop of interactive, online visualization tools aimed at converting thought into action and, more specifically, into purchases of home improvement products and materials. These web-enabled design tools range from technology that swaps out colors and finishes in room settings to online floor plans in which shoppers can arrange accurately scaled outlines of their own or a manufacturer’s furniture.

Advanced visualization technology also has made its way into the online presentation of other merchandise such as apparel, but one of the largest clusters of such tools today is found on the web sites of home improvement retailers and manufacturers. At Scene7 Inc., for example, whose technology powers a variety of interactive visualization tools at web sites spanning several industries, CEO Doug Mack estimates that half of his business is with web sites of companies in the home improvement and home furnishings sector.

And while consumers in some cases can try out different looks and then order home accent pieces or some items of furniture online, plenty of the design tools are on sites that aren’t even e-commerce-enabled. Supply chain issues, the challenge of last-mile delivery, and the sheer bulk and high ticket attached to products such as flooring, sinks and sofas have made them poor candidates for online sales and fulfillment. Nevertheless, home goods and home improvement materials companies ranging from La-Z-Boy Inc. to Congoleum Corp. are rolling out increasingly sophisticated online visualization technology.

Why? Home improvement purchases are some of the most heavily researched, and the web offers the potential of breaking through what’s always been a barrier to sales: customers’ inability to see how the product will look or fit in their own homes before they buy. By letting customers select a product online and then try out different materials and colors, even room arrangements, “The web does what you can’t do in other channels,” Mack says.

In implementing online design tools from a vendor, as with any enterprise software, retailers pay based on how much capacity they buy. At Scene7, for example, some clients pay for service as simple as dynamic imaging for a single product while others pay for a large number of visualization tools. Most of Scene7’s retail and manufacturer clients fall in the middle, says Mack, paying $50,000 to the low to mid six figures in one-time software licensing fees, depending on breadth of applications deployed and volume of use.

Technology providers say the investment pays off. In the case of higher-end interior building materials or furniture, purchases are typically large ticket, even into five figures, and it may take the consumer three months or longer to buy, Mack notes. “You have to keep them engaged in the process and remove their purchase objections so they don’t freeze to a stop,” he adds. “This type of technology is so spot-on for home improvement and home furnishings products that it should be the centerpiece of a web strategy.”

That’s the promise, but does the technology deliver? Utilization rates of the tools range from high to low on the sites that have them. 95% of visitors at home shelving systems provider, a division of Emerson Electric Co.’s Emerson Storage Solutions unit, use one of the site’s three design tools, for example, while 10% to 15% of visitors to deploy its Room Planner feature. Operators of both sites say the tools do a good job of engaging customers, but across the board, metrics linking tool use to store purchases are harder to come by.

Armstrong World Industries Inc.’s Design-A-Room feature, which lets users try out 2,000 hardwood, laminate and vinyl flooring products in various room settings online, went up as a link on home improvement retailer last year, and it’s been up on for two years. The tool, created by UK firm MakeIt, is the most popular interactive feature on a site that also includes a materials estimator and store locator, says Armstrong general manager of e-marketing Jesse Engle.

The company doesn’t have a system for thoroughly tracking utilization of the online tool through to store sales, though it’s piloting a program that will close the loop post-sale to provide some of that information, Engle says. For now, Armstrong measures the tool’s effectiveness based on the percentage of site visitors who use it, about 25% to 40%, as well as on feedback from a survey of Design-A-Room users.

Not a hard sales job

But Engle adds it didn’t take hard numbers to get Armstrong’s marketing organization behind online design tools. The ability to visualize how the product will look installed in the shopper’s own rooms has always been central to flooring products sales; the online tools bring a new solution to an old problem.

“Like many considered purchases, flooring involves an emotional and rational component,” Engle says. “There’s the emotional component of making my home match the image I have of myself-that’s the piece where Design-A-Room comes into play. On the rational side, we try to have tools that will help consumers understand what type of floor is right for them and what it’s going to cost. That’s as far as we take them on the site today. We then want to deliver a predisposed consumer to the appropriate retail outlet.”

Because Armstrong sells product at multiple locations from big boxes to independent flooring retailers, that could be any of hundreds of outlets-one reason tracking tool use through to sale is difficult. What it means for retailers is that while manufacturers are investing in the tools to increase product sales overall, there’s no guarantee of sales for particular retailers.

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