IF AUSTIN, TEXAS-BASED BUILDER Homesite CEO Tim Costello has his way, the processes builders endure to oversee options management may never be the same again. Gone may be the days of photocopied product sheets, limited specification information, and rushed and frustrated customers. “Buyers need more time, and we need more product information,” says Brian Hutt, Lennar's national director of design studios.

At a September summit held in Austin, more than 300 builder and manufacturer representatives worked together to prepare the launch of Envision, an online options management program that, in effect, creates virtual design centers customized for each builder. Under collaborative development with builder and manufacturer input for almost three years, Envision is scheduled to deploy as early as April.

The benefits are obvious: With Envision, builders can access a central data collection of option information that integrates seam-lessly into their company's Web site. The program is designed to overcome traditional barriers to effective options marketing, including complex data management, integration issues, and the limitations of selling options in physical design centers.

Technology Takes Hold Unlike the false starts of the past, builders and manufacturers agree that the possibilities they have always hoped for may now become a reality. “This is huge for builders,” says Barry Depew, senior vice president of Toll Brothers. “We've tried for years to come up with better ways to present this information.”

According to Costello, there are a variety of environmental influences that have finally led the industry to collaborate successfully: Consumer market trends show that buyers are looking for an experience when they make a purchase. Offering a feeling of luxury and style and creating a made-to-order product helps transport them to an alternative lifestyle. Consumer research also shows a pervasive use of the Internet, with 71 percent of consumers using the tool during their home search.

In addition, advancements in home technology and product sophistication have created a complex selling environment. And as our industry has matured, builder's information technology systems have evolved and integrated, creating the foundation for a project such as Envision to succeed. “When you put all these pieces together, what Envision does is help builders and manufacturers do a better job of ‘retailing' to consumers,” says Costello.

“We had all tried to do something like this on our own,” recalls Karen Mendel-sohn, vice president of sales and marketing for MASCO, which is working with each of the 10 participating builders. “Everyone has realized it has to be a collaboration.”

Proof Positive In fact, Lennar has already seen the effects. In December of 2002, it became the first builder to implement Envision as a pilot program in its Sacramento region. Spanning 15 communities, the program was provided to more than 500 customers and included 40 different floor plans. Lennar's findings showed a 93 percent adaptation (or customer usage). Beyond that, customers on average logged in 11 times prior to their design center appointments and 26 times in total. In addition, Lennar was able to show a 10.2 percent increase in option sales for Internet versus non-Internet users.

“The biggest hurdle to overcome has been convincing others that Envision isn't about technology,” says Mendelsohn. “It's about understanding the consumer, and learning how to present information to them.”

Builders agree: “Integrating this into the industry may present some challenges,” says Ian McCarthy, CEO of Beazer Homes. “But I believe this will quickly become the industry standard for buying options.”

Builder Partners:
Beazer Homes USA
Capital Pacific Holdings
Centex Corp.
David Weekley Homes
KB Home
Lennar Corp.
McGuyer Homebuilders
Morrison Homes
Toll Brothers
Village Homes