How coronavirus led interior design companies to start virtual consultations

'It wasn't an option to not do anything'

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In the early weeks of the spread of the coronavirus across the U.S., interior design companies saw their clients freeze with the uncertainty.

Projects were postponed or canceled as stay-at-home orders were put in place, nonessential businesses were forced to close or make operations remote and millions of Americans lost their jobs.

Even for people who were fortunate to work from home, mandated social distancing practices prevented interior design workers from going into their homes for consultations or installations.

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Despite the challenges, interior design companies had to come up with a solution in order to survive the economic downturn. Many -- like Sonie Skogerson, the owner of two Budget Blinds franchises in Bergen County, N.J. -- turned to virtual consultations.

"It was a big learning curve trying to figure out how to do it, how to make it work," Skogerson told FOX Business. "But the reality was, in this new world, we have to adapt or we're going to go out of business … it wasn't an option to not do anything."

Because of stay at home orders and social distancing, many interior design companies have turned to online consultations to stay afloat during the coronavirus. (iStock)

Before the coronavirus, Budget Blinds -- a window treatment design brand owned by Home Franchise Concepts -- did all its consultations -- and, of course, installations --  in clients' homes.

Of course, once designers and installers weren't allowed to go into clients’ homes, Skogerson said she started telling her clients that if they had a measuring tape and a phone or computer to do a video chat, she could help them get started on designs.

"That's kind of how we started doing these virtual consults," Skogerson said. "And then it evolved into, wait a second, this is actually working really, really well. So we started advertising that we were doing virtual consults and we made it really, really simple."

"Every time we do them, I think we evolve a little bit more on how to do them even better the next time," she added. "It's constantly a learning process, but it's going really well."

In fact, Budget Blinds franchises across the country have adopted virtual consultations.

"We learned a lesson from COVID-19 and I think what that was is how quickly we could come together as a brand and pivot," Heather Nykolaychuk, Home Franchise Concepts' chief marketing officer, told FOX Business.

"What we realized is that foundationally, this is a long term endeavor for us,” Nykolaychuk added. "So even outside of the pandemic, we should do this. We should be available to our consumers however they need us to be available."

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Like Budget Blinds, Tailored Living franchises -- a home organization company owned by Home Franchise Concepts -- have taken on virtual consultations. Previously, Tailored Living was also focused on local, in-home consultations.

Todd and Juliana Carter own a Tailored Living franchise in Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C. Because of the coronavirus and stay at home orders, they saw a huge drop off in work during March and April.

“It was kind of like starting a company all over again because you had to really dig deep and try to stay ahead of the curve on what was happening next, because ... it was almost like an hour to hour basis where things were changing in real time," Todd told FOX Business.

However, designers at Todd and Juliana’s franchise were at something of an advantage.

“We had some experience with these technologies, where we have clients that are moving to this area from out of state or out of country,” Todd said. “Now we've just taken it to an entirely different level of engagement online.”

"It doesn't certainly replace the face to face," he added. "That's the hard part."

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Professional designers on Houzz -- a home renovation and design platform -- have also turned to promoting their online consultations, according to Liza Hausman, the company’s vice president of industry marketing.

Much like Skogerson and the Carters saw less business in March, Houzz saw a drop in web traffic from homeowners at the end of March, Hausman told FOX Business.

“But ever since we've seen just crazy increasing numbers,” she said. “People are using Houzz and the app like crazy. They are on Houzz all the time doing ... way more than we expected and way more than usual.”

That’s probably because as the weeks went on and people were stuck in their homes all day, they started noticing the things that needed to be improved or changed, Hausman said.

“We've seen a spike in office product sales,” she said. “People are buying office furniture. So it's been kind of interesting to see the kind of evolution ... I think everybody has had this kind of mental evolution of how they're dealing with it.”

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Similarly, Skogerson and the Carters started seeing an uptick in clients and leads after a few weeks -- especially as they’ve promoted virtual consultations.

“The first week, I think everybody was kind of frozen like, what are you doing?” Skogerson said. “Second week, my phone starts ringing. And I want to say the last three weeks, I have a ton of leads coming in every day. And people know about the virtual consults now, because we've been advertising it.”

Juliana said that part of the increased interest is also because people actually have time to focus on renovations.

“I think that people are thinking, take advantage of that time,” Juliana said. “And then the other thing is -- home offices, pantries, turning your garage into a gym -- there are so many ways that you can use your home. And I think people are getting creative about that and we can help them do that. We've always said we turned chaos into calm. And I think people like to have control over something right now.”

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Hausman said that overall, this could be a good time to start a home design project because everyone has a little more time to focus.

“Sometimes homeowners are reluctant to start a project because they're worried about finding the time to focus on it and give it proper attention,” she said. “Well, a lot of them are saying, guess what, I'm home, in front of my computer. I can do this.”

“On the professional side, a lot of them do have more bandwidth,” she added. “And so you're more likely to be able to find a time to talk and get that extra attention. Now, we're at a time in our technology evolution where the tools are available … It's a great opportunity for homeowners to take advantage of that and get started.”