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Focus on: Tools and Technology

New technology takes the guesswork out of furniture selection
A common-area furniture grouping, such as the one shown in Westfield Valley Fair, San Jose, Calif., can now easily be created with an online tool that allows designers and mall-based management to purchase pre-sorted arrangements.
The interactive website features a full range of furniture and accessory choices — from sofas and chairs to sectionals and side tables, as well as lamps, area rugs, planters and more.
A mall manager can log on to the site, view pre-sorted items that have been screened by Westfield and make selections based on need, space and budget.

Last fall, Los Angeles-based mega mall owner Westfield Group announced it had partnered with tvsdesign on an innovative Web-based solution that would transform the art of common-area interior design into a more consistent and reliable science.

The Atlanta-based architecture and interior design firm created a series of a la carte furniture and accessories packages and made them available through a third-party-developed interactive website. The solution, which went live in spring 2011, allows internal design staff and mall-based management teams at all 57 Westfield U.S. malls to customize retail common areas with furniture arrangements and accessories appropriate to specific locations and demographics, while maintaining a consistent Westfield brand.

To develop the amenities packages, tvsdesign — over about a four-month period — visited Westfield’s design studio in Los Angeles, participated in workshops, visited current mall projects and collaborated with the company’s internal design team.

“Westfield’s in-house design staff is very up-to-date on current and industry trends, and its international arm has kept them open to new ideas,” said Donna Childs, principal, tvsdesign. “But they are also very keyed into ROI and maintenance concerns.”

Coupling Westfield’s need for fashion-forward, cost-effective and durable furnishings with tvsdesign’s own investigations into furniture styles, color psychology, price points and retail trends, the firm was able to present an end product that impressed Westfield with its clarity of information and concise delivery.

“They provided us with creative furniture recommendations that were consistent with our financial, operational and design objectives,” said Chris Kitchen, VP design, Westfield.

A major challenge in pulling together the various furniture packages was the sheer size of the Westfield portfolio, which spans the country and encompasses a variety of demographics and regional tastes.

“Some of the Westfield malls are more geared toward the everyday shopper, while others are decidedly more high-end,” Childs said. “Anything we selected had to be appropriate for both.”

The website features the full range of furniture and accessory choices — from sofas to chairs, to sectionals and side tables, as well as lamps, area rugs, planters and more — but not every item is accessible to each user. Designers, whether at the Westfield corporate office or at tvsdesign, have full access to every item with complete pricing. “Designers aren’t intimidated by the range of offerings, whereas mall-based personnel would be,” Childs said. The design > teams, which are recognized at login, can search by piece, by style, by price point or even by size of space; then choose the finishes such as wood or metal; select upholstery options that have been pre-approved by Westfield for style, color, price and durability; and then place the selected items in a shopping cart, just the way a consumer online shopping site works.

Mall-based personnel have limited access, and use the site mainly for furniture replacement or special additions, such as an outside bench for smokers. Prior to the Web tool, mall managers would typically shop locally for products that may or may not match Westfield’s design criteria or durability requirements. Today, a mall employee can log on to the site, view pre-sorted items that have been screened by Westfield and make selections based on need, space and budget. For those users who are purchasing a full grouping, the website provides a floor plan detail that shows where the various pieces are positioned.

“With this technology, we can all be confident that the mall teams are using items that are embedded at a corporate level and don’t have to resort to sourcing their own products and solutions,” Kitchen said.

The tool will also allow Westfield to better adapt its common areas to specific users. Because the mall owner often tries to group its retail tenants by category — arranging teen retailers in one area of the mall, for example — the adjacent common area can potentially be customized toward that demographic. Teen retailers may face out to a common area designed toward young people, with hip furnishings and accessories. That, Childs said, could lead to more tech innovations one day. “Imagine teens being able to sit in a common area and literally window shop, using their smartphones to access information about an item in the storefront window and making a mobile purchase for in-store pickup,” she said. “There are so many possibilities.”

The website itself will continue to evolve. Both Childs and Kitchen emphasize that it is a work in progress. “Our furniture will always change so the contents of the catalog will change accordingly,” Kitchen said. “As well, we are tracking customer response to our furniture offerings and will respond by removing some items and modifying others.”

Collaboration between Westfield and tvsdesign has been key to the tool’s success. “Not only did it give us the opportunity to see design through Westfield’s eyes, but we developed a level of trust that allowed us to help them look at some things differently and explore new ideas together,” Childs said.

kfield@chainstoreage.com

© 2014