Firm says no place like home for virtual furniture

Allen Wixted, founder of No Place Like.

Global online retail spending continues to grow at an exponential rate, though some markets are lagging, writes Ruth Doris.

Take homewares, for example. While UK consumers spent over £17bn (€19.1bn) in 2017 on furniture and furnishings, with a third going online to find information about products before making a purchase, many of us still struggle with buying certain items without seeing them in a bricks-and-mortar store.

It’s difficult to visualise how that ‘compact’ sofa bed on a retailer’s website will look in your bijou apartment.

An Irish startup has come up with a solution to this dilemma for customers, while at the same time helping retailers increase their sales conversion rates and reduce returns.

No Place Like uses augmented reality technology to let customers view products in 3D in their own homes.

Founder Allen Wixted says the AR technology gives customers the chance to try out the furniture virtually before deciding to buy.

“In Ireland, if you have customers wary about getting an item they can take it home digitally instead. You’re at home shopping and go onto their website, you click a button and, hey presto, a couch, chair, or table appears into your room in one-to-one scale. You can drag it around the place to see exactly what it would look like, take a photo of it and send it to someone else by text or email.”

Mr Wixted was studying for a master’s in Interactive Media at the University of Limerick when he became interested in augmented reality.

Taking part in Enterprise Ireland’s New Frontiers programme in Limerick last year helped him focus his idea, and he began developing the technology and got some test customers on board. In early 2018 Mark O’Sullivan joined the team as project manager.

Test customers include EZ Living Furniture and Casey’s Furniture which has shops in Cork and Limerick.

Mr Wixted says each 3D model is designed from scratch and the level of detail required is close to that of a PlayStation game.

“We take photographs of the products from the website and recreate them using 3D software. We make sure they look realistic, optimise them for mobile, put them onto our own server, and send the retailer a simple code they can copy and paste into their site.”

The pricing for retailers is €20 per product per month with custom pricing for multiple products — for example, one chair in 10 different colours. On average it works out at approximately €240 per product per year.

There’s a “tonne of data” showing that competitors using similar technology see up to 11 times jump in sales conversion rates. “If you could sell one or two extra items per year you’ve broken even, but we expect it will be more than that.”

While there are no statistics available for Ireland, UK figures show that returns cost retailers there £60bn per year. “It’s a massive cost,” says Mr Wixted. “If you think of one couch being returned, it’s a van, three guys, and the whole sales process wasted.”

While the “big guys” like Ikea, Amazon, and Wayfair have their own tech teams and big budgets to spend, No Place Like is for retailers who don’t have a big tech team or in-house 3D designers.

The global market is growing quickly. Mr Wixted says that in China the furniture and homeware market is set to double in the next few years.

Having kept overheads to a minimum, No Place Like received €15,000 from the New Frontiers programme, and a €2,500 grant from the Local Enterprise Office.

Currently taking part in the six-week global pre-accelerator Startup Boost in Dublin, No Place Like has also been chosen by Google as one of 30 for its Adopt a Startup programme.

Mr Wixted’s short-term plans are to scale the business and grow customers. He’s looking to explore potential partnerships with other e-commerce platforms.

The next step is to move into the UK market. While Ireland is a good spot to start with as “people spend quite a bit on furniture”” he says the size of the market is limited, with just a dozen potential customers here.

The product and service are ready to go, he says, and No Place Like will be rolling out content with EZ Living in the coming months.

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