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Hearth & Home November 2019

With the iScape app you can build in augmented reality or from an image.

Designed to Sell

By Lisa Readie Mayer

3-D design software can help retailers sell more outdoor living products. (Psst! It could turn out to be your best salesperson.)

Maybe a picture is worth a thousand words. But when it comes to Outdoor Rooms, that picture may also be worth thousands of dollars in increased sales.

Today, retailers can utilize cutting-edge – but still remarkably easy-to-use – design software to create virtual, three-dimensional “pictures” of outdoor living spaces. When used in proposals, these realistic, photo-like designs help customers visualize the project in their yards, inspire them, and in the process, help retailers close sales and increase project sizes. 

Some design programs create a virtual backyard-living environment within a still photograph of the customer’s yard. Others use augmented reality to enable the retailer to design on a tablet in real time right in the customer’s backyard. 

With a click here and a drag there, realistic, to-scale fire pits, outdoor kitchens, pergolas, water features, plant material, and countless other features can be selected from a library of outdoor elements and dropped into position. Don’t like the fire pit on the right side of the patio? Drag it to the left side. Want to see what an outdoor fireplace would look like instead? Swap it out with a click. Want a 3-D bird flying around your 3-D yard while chirping? Sure, just pick the right program. 

Unlike most CAD design programs, the new design software is inexpensive, intuitive, and easy to master, even for novices. The state-of-the-art programs greatly speed the design timetable and simplify the revision process, so retailers can handle more projects annually. The programs make it super easy to experiment with project elements and visualize potential configurations before the plan is finalized, so they help reduce on-the-job changes, delays, product returns, and other unwelcome surprises. 

Experts say even retailers who are not involved in the construction of Outdoor Rooms, but merely supply the grills and other built-in accessories for projects, can still benefit from using these types of design platforms. For one, they are a good way to introduce Outdoor Room appliances, elements, and furnishings that the customer might not otherwise have been aware of, or that there may not be room to display on the sales floor. 

The realistic designs bring an outdoor space to life, building desire in customers who can visualize it in their backyard and imagine enjoying it with family and friends. Retailers can also share the designs with landscape architects, designers, and masons to educate them about what the client wants. Finally, the video-game-like designs provide a “WOW factor” that knocks customers’ socks off and spurs them to tell their friends. 

iScape is an app that helps homeowners and professionals design and visualize landscaping and Outdoor Room projects.

There’s an App for That

When Patrick Pozzuto was asked to design a small landscaping bed for a friend, it required 10 time-consuming plan revisions using a CAD program to get to the final decision. The frustrating experience inspired Pozzuto to develop iScape, an app that homeowners and professionals can use to design and visualize landscaping and Outdoor Room projects. 

“Most outdoor design software is expensive, complex, and difficult to use,” says Pozzuto, iScape founder and CEO. “As a landscaper out in the field, I saw these pain points.” Though he initially developed the software with do-it-yourself homeowners in mind, Pozzuto says many professionals use it. “Small shops love that it’s easy and makes designing incredibly fast,” he says. “Some people have anxiety about technology; this is good technology that simplifies the process.” 

The iScape app offers two ways to design an outdoor living space. In one, the user imports a photo of the existing outdoor space and then creates a design over the image by selecting elements such as hardscapes, grills, pergolas, fire pits, outdoor kitchens, pizza ovens, plant materials, and more from the iScape library, and dragging and dropping them into the desired place in the photo. 

The app’s augmented-reality option allows the user to open the camera feed on an iPhone or iPad and create a virtual 3-D design in real time right in the backyard by inserting outdoor elements into the image. A “Sun Slider” feature even simulates where shade will fall in the outdoor space throughout the day. “It’s very easy to use,” says Pozzuto. “You can walk around the yard with the client and create a design on the spot.” 

The iScape app compiles all selected elements into a spreadsheet to generate a proposal. Each design revision can be saved for comparison, and the plans can be shared between clients’ family members, design collaborators, and subcontractors. A second-generation version of the app, already in the works, will include a database of retail referral partners. “If a consumer uses the app to design their outdoor space, and has a fire pit in the plans, we will be able to refer that person to a local retailer to purchase it,” says Pozzuto. 

“We’re hearing from garden centers and outdoor living retailers who have had success using iScape,” Pozzuto says. “They’ve had homeowners create their own designs on the app and bring them in to get a proposal on the project. Other retailers have run promotions inviting customers to bring in a photo of their yard, and the retailer will do a quick design in the store using the app.

“It’s a way to get customers excited about the possibilities in their yards, and a way for retailers to grow their business. Homeowners want to enhance their outdoor living areas, but the purchase intent is much stronger when they can visualize the space. iScape helps them visualize the concept so they make an emotional connection and take the next steps.” 

To date, nearly 5 million outdoor living designs have been created using iScape; it has 7,000 reviews in the Apple App Store and a 4.6-out-of-5-stars rating. The app recently gained even more traction after Apple CEO Tim Cook touted it as an example of the future of virtual reality in an HBO documentary interview. 

Professional subscriptions run $19.99 a month (iScape is offering discounted annual subscriptions exclusively for Hearth & Home readers; contact partners@iscapeit.com). Manufacturers interested in featuring products in the app’s elements’ library, retailers who wish to become referral partners in the iScape network, or any company interested in a custom design app can inquire at partners@iscapeit.com. 

YARD (Your Augmented Reality Design) is a new augmented-reality outdoor design app from subscription-based software company Structure Studios, creators of other 3-D design programs, including Pool Studio and VizTerra. 

The intuitive YARD app allows retailers to instantly create 3-D designs on a tablet while standing in the customer’s yard and selecting to-scale images of outdoor kitchens, patio furniture, fire pits, lighting, plant materials, and other elements, and dropping them into the real-time scene. With a few clicks, a design plan can be revised or even turned into a virtual, video walking tour through the proposed outdoor space, complete with special effects such as slow-motion and close-up shots to emphasize specific elements or features. 

Example of a project design created with iScape app.

The Payoff

“(3-D design software) revolutionizes the design process,” says Dean Salvani, Jr., CEO of Backyard Masters in Farmingdale, New York. “The customer can give me their address and I’ll plug it into Google Earth and their yard comes up in the program. People tell us their wants and dreams for their backyard and we’ll include it in the design. We can help them visualize a hot tub beside the pool, an outdoor kitchen close to the house, a fire pit seating area. 

“We can show them things they never thought of and can design the outdoor living space right down to the Sunbrella fabric on the patio furniture and umbrellas. Creating 3-D proposals definitely helps us sell more elements and close sales. We can often get a deposit right then and there in the store.

“Even if a customer can’t do it all at once, the design broadens their imagination,” Salvani, Jr. says. “They can see the big picture and how they might add to it over the years. When they start to see what’s possible and how cool it is, they want it.”

“Consumers have really short attention spans today,” says Jeremy Smith, CEO and president of California Pools & Landscape, a 31-year-old, award-winning, outdoor living design-build firm with two showrooms in the Phoenix area. “Previously, we would sit with them for several hours to talk about what they wanted in an outdoor space and all the possible elements they might incorporate. Today, people want the information quickly, on their timetable, and they want to have the option to research and educate themselves before they come to us.” 

To that end, California Pools & Landscape developed Dreambook, a proprietary app that customers can download for free to learn about outdoor living possibilities and virtually build their ideal outdoor environment. Available for iOS and Android mobile devices, Dreambook allows users to upload an image of their existing outdoor space, then scroll through photo galleries of completed outdoor spaces, as well as individual outdoor elements, for inspiration. Users select their favorite features and place them in the uploaded photo to design their dream Outdoor Room. 

“The app lets consumers envision the overall space, as well as get narrow-focused on individual features such as fire pits, water features, the design of the spa, the type of decking, or landscape plants they like,” says Smith. “For instance, people can plan an outdoor kitchen on the app. Do they want a high-top bar counter? Do they want to add a smoker, a refrigerator, or a kegerator? Do they want an outdoor TV? A modern or rustic look? We have 15 different colors of travertine and different sizes of tiles to choose from. What do they want on the countertop? We try to give them as many specific options as possible so people can quickly swap things in and out of the design to create a pretty in-depth picture of what they want before they even come to the showroom.” 

Family members often create individual Dreambooks within the app, according to Smith, and even the kids weigh in on features such as the type of pool slide they want or whether they would like a soccer goal in the outdoor space. “The backyard is a destination area that families can personalize and customize according to how they would like to use it. We offer our clients additional living space. We help them make the indoors and outdoors seamless.” 

The California Pools & Landscape app helps consumers design a backyard.

California Pools & Landscape is alerted whenever someone downloads the app to build a Dreambook, and the company markets back to the user via email and other targeted strategies. A “Dreamer” also can request a quote directly from the app. Though the app is specific to his business, Smith says, he’s been surprised by the number of out-of-state folks who use it and bring their designs to a nearby retailer. “Retailers in other parts of the country tell us our app helps them sell outdoor living spaces.” 

Local customers who wish to take the next step can schedule a free design consultation with a California Pools & Landscape salesperson. The customer’s Dreambook design is used to inform the final, highly-detailed, customized, 3-D design. For maximum impact, plans are presented on 70-inch, high-definition TVs in the showroom. 

“We virtually walk customers around their whole project on-screen like a video game,” says Smith. “We can show them the view from inside their house looking out. We can put the neighbor’s house in the plans so they can see how it looks from the neighbor’s yard. The plan is extremely realistic. People have a hard time believing it’s a computer rendering.”

Smith says the app has improved the company’s sales-closure rate, and typically expands the number of elements included in a project. Another bonus: last-minute changes on the job site have been reduced significantly. “Getting as close to perfection as possible in the design makes us more efficient and profitable,” he says. “It solves customer paralysis by analysis.”

Old-fashioned “napkin sketches,” line drawings, and even 2-D renderings are dinosaurs, according to the experts. Using 3-D design plans and videos as part of Outdoor Room proposals – and featuring these lifelike designs on websites and in marketing efforts – can increase customer engagement, web-search traffic, leads, and sales. According to Forbes, 64% of consumers are more likely to purchase a product after watching a video. Click-through rates increase over 200% when they’re used in a marketing email. Companies who feature them on a landing page boost conversion rates by 80%.

“People are used to and expect really sophisticated marketing,” says Smith. “If you’re selling outdoor living products, you need to use these tools to be competitive.”

BILT App Makes Product Assembly Easy

It’s hard to imagine the words “easy” and “assembly-required” ever coexisting in the same sentence, but that is exactly the goal behind BILT Intelligent Instructions.

Conceived by a software engineer in 2012 after an IKEA-nightstand-assembly gone wrong, BILT is an app that provides interactive, animated, 3-D assembly instructions for products ranging from dollhouses to trampolines. A growing number of grill and outdoor living brands, including Weber, Pit Boss, Louisiana Grills, Vermont Castings, and Backyard Discovery, now offer assembly instructions through the BILT app.

The app provides an overview of the tools, estimated time, number of people, and total steps required to complete the task, so users know what to expect before beginning the assembly. It also includes a parts inventory, with a graphic depiction and count for each individual part. The animated, step-by-step assembly video is intuitive to use, simple to follow, and supported by both voice and text instructions. With their fingers, users can pause the instructions, zoom in and out to get a closer look at parts and assembly steps, or rotate the image to view it from a different angle.

BILT highlights the part number for each product component to facilitate maintenance, repair, and replacement-part ordering. Consumers can store their purchase receipt and warranty information through the app. It also provides the ability to seamlessly fill out and submit the manufacturer’s product-registration forms and post a product review.

“The BILT app creates a better customer experience,” says Angela Meek, the company’s director of Marketing. “It reduces calls to customer support by 30%, reduces product returns by 30%, and increases revenue 8%. Product registrations go up from an average of 2% for paper forms to 13% with BILT, so it helps manufacturers capture valuable data. Plus, products tend to get more positive reviews when they are posted through the BILT app.”

The app is ideal for DIY consumers assembling products at home, but it’s helpful to retailers, installers, and service technicians, as well, according to Meek. Though many premium-priced specialty grills are shipped already assembled, some more moderately-priced lines are not. “Retailers can download the app to help with assembly,” says Meek. “Since it makes assembly easier and faster, it frees up staff time. It also helps retailers accurately identify replacement parts, which is a tremendous help and eliminates errors.”

Manufacturers pay per product SKU to have assembly instructions generated by BILT and featured on the app, but the app is free for consumers, retailers, technicians, and installers to download. According to Meek, in addition to grills and smokers, shipped-flat, ready-to-assemble outdoor kitchen systems, pergolas, and other outdoor living products requiring multi-step assembly would be ideal candidates for BILT assembly instructions. “There are so many applications for this app,” she says. “Consumers and major retailers expect this kind of experience from manufacturers today.”

No word yet on whether the app tells you what to do with the extra screw that’s inevitably left over when assembly is finished.

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