By Roberta Maynard. The selections process isn't what it used to be, and I mean that in a good way. Once a seeming afterthought, with carpet samples propped up against a garage wall and photocopied images of refrigerators stuffed into a well-worn plastic binder, the process left a lot to be desired.

As the number of options mushroomed, customizing a home got more complicated and a lot less fun. Mistakes and omissions, frustrating and costly, took a toll on customer satisfaction. Builders that had jumped in with both feet found themselves grappling with how to track the mountain of selections details, how to nail down pricing, and how to give buyers choice without losing control of the production schedule. Buyers faced more choices than they knew what to do with. (Some still do.) Worst of all, few builders knew what their margins from upgrades really were.

But efficiency has come to the process, and sophistication, too, especially in the presentation of products and the sharing of data among departments and with customers. Smart builders no longer add a new product to the lineup just because sales raves about it, certainly not before considering the effect on cycle time and warranty. Technology has helped tremendously, of course. Profitability reports track what sells and what doesn't, pinpointing which items don't merit shelf space.

"Sophistication is really what's happening," designer Linda Kirby tells me. Kirby, the creative director for Masco Design Solutions, in Carmel, Ind., has several years' experience working with builders to create design studios. She says pioneers like Oakwood Homes have made "leaps and bounds in sophistication and profitability," and that they continue to refine the selections process and add features.

"I hesitate to call them selections centers," she says. "They are retail stores."

Photo: Katherine Lambert

In Denver, Oakwood is expanding its 6,000-square-foot center to 10,000 square feet, to make room for a buyers' club, training, education, product demonstrations, an area for landscaping, and possibly furnishings for sale. We can expect to see more of this in the industry, Kirby says, noting that the wholesalers she works with are moving in the same direction to better compete with big-box stores. The best builders' design centers are professional, well organized, and well thought out. There's a growing recognition that retail principles must apply to the flow of the space and the product display. Good studios are a study in how to delight customers without overwhelming and in the clever use of space by making samples smaller or tucking them efficiently behind displays.

Next Phase: Ambience

Count on the innovative builders to experiment with new product categories, particularly soft goods such as fabrics. Added services, product training, and buyer education will be the new focal points for the next generation of design centers.

The way studios look and function will surely change, as products like appliances and security systems continue to get smarter and drive interactivity. Such niceties as comfortable, soft seating will help create a warmer, friendly atmosphere and make the experience less obviously a selling scenario. It's one of many things designers are doing to make the process less stressful for customers. When it comes to customization, there's plenty to talk about. And, as you'll see in this special options and upgrades issue of Big Builder, fresh ideas abound.

Roberta Maynard



Published in BIG BUILDER Magazine, August 2002