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Best Seat in the House Could Be as Close as a Computer Screen : TECHNOLOGY


You've chosen the Lawson over the Chesterfield, but the fabric is still up in the air. Should it be green plaid, solid red or green-and-red floral? And would the sofa look better with a tailored skirt or with the legs exposed?

Such questions are enough to turn some potential furniture buyers into procrastinators. To help these skittish customers make up their minds, retailers are turning to computerized video catalogues. Thus, a customer may sit in front of a PC and watch as a variety of furniture styles "try on" several fabrics electronically. Color printouts can make visualizing even easier.

These video catalogues have been available for about five years on a limited basis but are becoming more widespread.

"Almost all the major manufacturers are aligned with a system, and the number of stores with video catalogues is probably 10 times what it was last year," says John Case, vice president of marketing for La-Z-Boy Furniture Co. in Monroe, Mich. "Retailers who have the system feel it shortens the decision-making process."

Floor space limits retailers to only a sampling of what's available from a manufacturer, but video catalogues allow them to show it all. La-Z-Boy estimates that about one in five of its dealers will have a video catalogue by the end of this year. (In Orange County, the La-Z-Boy stores in Lake Forest, Costa Mesa and Anaheim all use the video catalogues.) By typing in a code number, the customer can see any of some 1,400 fabric options to try on various frame styles.

The La-Z-Boy video catalogue, one of 35 developed by Intellitek of Omaha, operates on a satellite-based communications network that regularly updates fabric and frame information. The computer also figures out how much fabric is required, the approximate delivery date and the total price. Retailers generally opt for three manufacturers' catalogues from Intellitek for about $450 a month. Additional catalogues are available for about $50 each.

"Video catalogues enhance the shopping experience with furniture, draperies and rugs," says Jerry Schneider, president of Intellitek. "These are all areas in which customers have to visualize something that hasn't been built yet and where figuring out the price is complicated because there are a number of variables."

Norwalk Furniture Corp., a Norwalk, Ohio, company that makes upholstered furniture, has had a computerized video catalogue for nearly five years. It is in 108 company-owned and independent furniture stores nationwide.

Jim Gerken, vice president of marketing services, says Norwalk's database includes more than 500 frames and 2,000 upholstery fabrics. Multiple images can be displayed for comparison, and a "zoom" feature offers a close-up look at details. If a fabric is unsuitable for a specific use, the computer will say so. In addition, a menu lists complementary fabrics for accent pillows and trims.

The Norwalk Computerized Catalog System is produced by ModaCAD, a computer-aided design system developed in Los Angeles. ModaCAD also designs and markets systems for use in the textile, apparel, industrial design and entertainment industries.

ModaCAD recently put the fabric collection of Boussac of France on video for a presentation to interior designers at Boussac's New York showroom.

Although known for their ability to visualize how a fabric and frame will look together, the designers appreciated the computer aid, according to Eileen Samet, communications director of Boussac.

"It doesn't totally take the place of the real fabric," Samet says. "But it was captivating to watch as a fabric design was draped over a sofa or materialized before your eyes on the wall of a room setting."

Video fabric draping has been limited mostly to catalogues. But the weekly syndicated TV show "Haven," sponsored by the Home Furnishings Council, an industry trade group, is doing electronic make-overs using the Intellitek system ("Haven" airs locally on Channel 42).

"We have done about four of these electronic make-overs so far," Schneider says. "A room setting taken from our database that includes the catalogues of 31 manufacturers is flashed on the screen. Then, the color and pattern are changed in several different ways right on the screen.

"Next season, we plan to do the make-overs by remote control. We'll be in the studio in New York, and the video make-overs can be taking place in a store in Arizona or anywhere else."

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