Virtual Leather

The perennial difficulty with choosing furniture is that it cannot be viewed in the environment for which it is intended. World of Leather addressed this challenge and devised a display unit that allows customers to visualise sofas against a variety of different backgrounds.

Steve Burke, marketing executive for World of Leather, says the system, called the Visualiser, was developed out of in-store studies.

“Research among our customers and sales staff indicated two difficulties experienced by the consumer at the point of purchase. One is that the sofa or suite is likely to be displayed in a different colour. The consumer has to rely upon their imagination in choosing the colour they’re going to have the product made in. The other problem is the consumer cannot visualise their chosen product in their home – at best, they’ve got a small carpet sample.”

For these reasons the company recognised the need to make real leather samples accessible to customers. Burke explains: “When we were planning our new store concepts, we incorporated into the design an area where customers could explore the options offered by leather. This has been achieved by making various grades of leather available to touch and feel. As part of this experience, we wanted to provide a visual aid, to help reduce the uncertainty when people are choosing a colour. The Visualiser provides that.”

World of Leather assigned the creation of the Visualiser to PSD Associates, whose designer, Alan Lee, developed it. Most customers end up buying black sofas, says Lee, but even black has incarnations.

He adds: “People tend to walk straight towards the black sofas. With this system they can choose black on screen and flip through all the different samples in black and choose their style.

“There is a touchscreen device with animated icons which you can choose to change the style and colour of the sofa, the wood on the sofa, and even the carpets and walls. With a loose room set it’s better than having just a white wall when you’re trying to buy a coloured sofa; it does change the effect it has. Then there’s a memory-save button which enables you to flip between your favourite choices of sofa.

“All the colours on the sofas are generated live on the programme and it’s all done in real time. We used a digital camera for the photography because it’s cheaper on film and quicker to have it stored digitally on hard disk and then fed straight to our computers, so we could just work on the sofas straight away. All we had to do was prepare the sofas with their highlights and shadows and the colour is processed independently.”

The novelty of the concept is its use of photographic images. It differs substantially from the on-site design systems used by outlets such as kitchen designers, explains Burke.

“No one else is doing this, to our knowledge. If you look at the kitchen market, they’re using CAD (computer-aided design) systems and their models are built by the computer to give you an image of what it might look like. That is not what ours does.

“On our Visualiser, we’ve taken the three-seater sofa as representative of the product, and every sofa that’s on display has been photographed and put into this system. So you can call up, on-screen, the actual image of the product you are about to purchase, and you then choose from 120 colours. The image that it generates is remarkably precise in product terms, and I have no knowledge of another system like it.”

Response to the system has been encouraging, says Burke. “Early indications, based on staff interpretations of customer enthusiasm, are favourable. There is an element of excitement introduced by this technology in the store.”

Future design developments may include the addition of more complex room sets, says Lee. However, the simplicity of the system will not be compromised. “We’ve had feedback and people are asking for more striking wallpapers and obviously we can include that, but at the moment we’ve just got the basic colours taken off the charts from the big DIY stores. It’s very straightforward to use.”

Fiona McDaniel, director at PSD Associates, believes that World of Leather has yet to realise the extent to which the system may change the way people shop for furniture.

“I think it’s going to transform the World of Leather shopping experience because it is so easy to use and it’s so much fun. You’re looking at a piece of furniture with a relatively high price point, because leather is expensive, and I think it is going to see a dramatic upsurge in interest and sales.”

The main attraction, in McDaniel’s opinion, is the new ability to get a “near as damn it” approximation of how a piece of furniture will actually look in the home. This removes what she sees as a huge bar to purchase.

“People might love a sofa, but they really can’t envisage it in their sitting room. So if you can call up some wallpaper and a floor-covering that looks like yours, you get rid of the risk.”

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