SHOPPERS AT CLAY TERRACE, AN upscale mall in Carmel, Ind., can find a high-quality suit or pair of shoes, eat dinner at a great restaurant, shop for plasma screen TVs or sign up for a new cellular plan. Starting this month, on their way to Ann Taylor Loft or Circuit City, they're likely to see some interesting activity at The Estridge Home Experience. It might be a trunk show from a home décor manufacturer, a chef doing a cooking demonstration, a painter swirling a faux finish on a wall, or a local TV personality taping a home-improvement show. If shoppers stop in, they might find the accent pillows they wanted for their living room sofa or the perfect lamp for the den.

This is a design center?

HANGOUT: An inviting outdoor seating area gives shoppers a place to relax outside The Estridge Home Experience in an upscale mall in Carmel, Ind.
HANGOUT: An inviting outdoor seating area gives shoppers a place to relax outside The Estridge Home Experience in an upscale mall in Carmel, Ind.

Well, yes and no. To be sure, customers of Carmel-based The Estridge Cos. come to the Home Experience to meet with a designer and select their options and upgrades. But the center also is a central part of the builder's marketing plan.

“Most builders will put design centers in industrial parks and look at their customers as people who have bought their homes,” says Paul Estridge, president of The Estridge Cos., which builds homes under five different names for markets ranging from value-conscious, entry-level buyers to multimillion-dollar luxury buyers. “We wanted to locate our design studio in the midst of a very high-end lifestyle shopping mall. ... I think a lot of people will have their first experience with us here instead of at a construction trailer 14 miles out in the suburbs. We're coming to where they live.”

Estridge is also making a statement about his own brand by positioning it near respected home décor retailers such as Z Gallerie.

“We're locating our home design studio amongst those other incredibly great national names, so we get bounce off those,” Estridge says.

He's not alone. Builders across the country are starting to view design centers in a radically different way. Once relegated to a garage or fourth bedroom in a model home or in a nondescript space in an office park, the next generation of design centers has the look and feel of a high-end store. They're open in the evenings and on weekends, not only for customers with signed contracts to select their carpet and cabinets but also for those who just want to check out the latest products and get some decorating ideas.

FAMILIAR FEEL: The Estridge Home Experience offers the public the opportunity to see the latest in home décor trends, learn about Estridge communities, observe the options and upgrades process, and buy something wonderful for their home—all in the comfortable, convenient surroundings of a retail store at their favorite mall.
FAMILIAR FEEL: The Estridge Home Experience offers the public the opportunity to see the latest in home décor trends, learn about Estridge communities, observe the options and upgrades process, and buy something wonderful for their home—all in the comfortable, convenient surroundings of a retail store at their favorite mall.

It's a change that has to happen, says Linda Kirby, creative director of Masco Design Solutions, which works with builders to design and build their design centers. Customer demand and competition from big-box home improvement retailers such as The Home Depot and Lowe's are driving the shift. Customers are used to walking into a brightly lit showroom with wide aisles, attractive displays (no carpet samples stacked on the floor), competitive prices, and convenient hours.

“Builders don't realize how much of their profits go down the street,” says Kirby, whose company helped Estridge create his new center.

Plus, builders are finding that traditional advertising is losing its impact, says Jaimi Julian Thompson, president of Artisan Design Group in San Diego and a design center consultant to home builders. It's not possible to make a simple, high-impact statement to consumers through newspapers, radio, and television, she says.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: San Diego, CA, Indianapolis, IN.