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Pulling together a room design may look easy and fun on HGTV or Pinterest—until you try to pull together different elements from various inspirations in one project. Will that paint color really look good with the couch? What if that dining room set turns out to be an expensive mismatch? It can be paralyzing.
To combat that design inertia, home goods retailers have been expanding into the advice business, offering shoppers free in-store classes and home consultations on room layout, color choices and pulling together the look of a room. West Elm introduced in-home design services in late 2012; sister brand Pottery Barn added a fleet of vans last year so that designers helping with an in-home décor project could more easily bring along elements for shoppers to experiment with (and purchase).
"What we wanted to do was make the process of creating your personal space as easy as possible," said Abigail Jacobs, vice president of brand marketing for West Elm. "A lot of people just needed a little bit of help with confidence knowing they could pull a space together."
For a fee, retailers will even tackle some hands-on projects: West Elm stores in Los Angeles, New York City, New Jersey, Connecticut and Seattle will now send employees to wall-mount shelves or hang a gallery wall of photos for as little as $129; painting a 12' by 12' room costs $379 and up. IKEA, which has offered in-store home design consultations for 20 years, branched out into kitchen design and installation in 2010. Prices start at $199, depending on the scope of the project, for an in-home visit to plan out the new kitchen; a flat fee of $799 also includes the services of a licensed general contractor who will manage the project from start to finish.
Using the store designers can represent substantial savings. "It's definitely more accessible than your traditional designer," said Andy Brennan, an industry analyst at IBISWorld. Paid installation services can come in roughly the same price, or cheaper, than other sources. (Best Buy, for example, charges $200 to wall-mount a TV, versus $129 at West Elm.) Consumers avoid hourly or project consultation fees, and limit expensive missteps. Fully redoing a space, from paint and carpet to furniture, lighting and smaller touches, can cost thousands of dollars. In Los Angeles, the average room décor and furnishing project costs $12,651, while Providence, R.I., residents shelled out $13,681, according to Houzz.com's Real Cost Finder.
Of course, there are benefits for the retailers, too. Free services are likely to net more purchases from designer-recommended items, and paid installation services typically have a higher profit margin than products. As stores such as Home Depot and Lowe's have found, consumers like to bundle products and installation, reasoning that the process will be easier with a big-name brand than an independent contractor, said Jaime Katz, an industry analyst at Morningstar. "You get more people in for more things," she said. "It just drives traffic."
Audrey Gerber, vice president of brand marketing for Pottery Barn brands, said the store has seen that many people ask for an initial consultation on a small project, and then branch out. "Once they see what Pottery Barn can do for them, other doors start to open," she said. With that demand, designers have started branching out into sister brands Pottery Barn Kids and PB teen.
But turning to a retailer for home design help isn't always a perfect fit. The free consultations typically include just an hour or so of the designer's time, plus follow-up calls and emails. That's a good start, but may not be enough for a complex project. Independent designers are also more likely to give you a more "professionally layered space," versus a look straight out of the store showroom, since they can source items from multiple brands and designers that fit your budget, said Liza Hausman, vice president of community at Houzz. "Their style should resonate with you," she said.
Retailers say the aim isn't to turn your living room into an exact replica of Pg. 15 in the spring catalog, and the bedroom, Pg. 27. "The catalog is just inspiration," said Gerber. "We really want each person's home to be unique to them." Designers do offer recommendations on products they don't sell, such as paint and wall-to-wall carpeting, and are able to work around existing items and planned purchases from other brands.
"Our pictures are all IKEA products primarily, because that's what we're selling, but we know everyone lives with a blend," said Marty Marston, a spokeswoman for IKEA US. "The whole end goal is for the customer to create that space that they feel that they are the most comfortable living in. It's their vision coming to life; we're just helping them."
For consumers interested in taking advantage of stores' design services, it pays to come prepared. Appointments, after all, may give you just a short time to consult. Have on hand:
•A list of must-keep items. If your new-ish couch, a favorite painting or Mom's antique chair need to be worked into the plan, designers say, then it helps to know that upfront. (Heading for an in-store consultation? Bring pictures of the pieces, and of the room or rooms you're redecorating.)
•Inspiration. "It's really great if they can go in with a mood board or wish board," said Marston. Most people describe their style as "eclectic," so shots of how you want your space to look, from an inspiration site like Houzz or Pinterest, or the store's own website, can help the designer get a better feel, fast, of what you like.
•Special considerations. Need fabric that can stand up to kids and pets? A dining room table that'll work for regular dinner parties? Expect designers to ask a lot of lifestyle questions, said Jacobs
•Measurements. The scope of the room is necessary for planning layout, as well as determining whether or where large pieces will fit.