It has been a year since the COVID-19 pandemic struck and literally paralyzed everyone worldwide, but during this time many manufacturers and distributors of stone, tile and alternative surface materials have strategized and adapted new policies and procedures to make a safe working environment for their employees and customers alike. In particular, making investments and improvements to their websites and digital tools has proven successful. Contemporary Stone & Tile Design (CSTD) recently discussed ways the virtual showroom has evolved with some of the leading industry manufacturers. The panel included:
- Massimo Ballucchi, executive marketing director of Cosentino North America
- Jessica Davis, media manager of MSI
- Mar Esteve, marketing director of Neolith
- Anik Narula, CEO of Universal Granite & Marble (UGM)
CSTD: The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many companies worldwide to change the way they conduct business for the safety of their employees and customers. What new policies/procedures have you implemented for your customers to view your latest products?
Ballucchi: The biggest new initiative we’ve undertaken for our customers and clients to experience our latest product launches are virtual showroom and center visits. This offers our customers the opportunity to view the colors and experience the capabilities of Dekton and Silestone without having to see them in person. Our customers can book appointments and a member of the Cosentino team can walk them through the latest colors in both slab and smaller sample form.
Davis: At MSI, the safety of our customers and employees is our utmost concern. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve implemented digital tools and virtual appointments for those who prefer to browse our assortment from a distance. We’ve implemented safety protocols outlined by the CDC welcoming customers that wish to visit our showroom in person to a clean and healthy environment for a pleasurable shopping experience.
Esteve: At Neolith, we’ve launched a new digital sales tool, Neolith Virtual Experience, which offers potential customers a choice of two virtual visualization options: Neolith AR, an augmented reality app, and Neolith VR, an app that offers a series of virtual reality tours of Neolith’s sales centers across the world.
The Neolith AR app allows the user to test the look of a Neolith surface pattern in any residential or commercial space, using either a real-time photograph or one from the device’s photo gallery. The app includes Perspective, Zoom and Brightness toggles, which can be used to create a rendering that is as realistic as possible to the space and is available on the Apple App Store or Google Play in Spanish, English, French and German.
Neolith VR, also available on the Apple App Store and Google Play, allows users to view, combine and learn more about Neolith’s surfaces in a 360-degree VR environment, akin to the experience of attending a trade show. A pair of specially designed cardboard viewers is available to order within the app, and users may switch seamlessly between the AR and VR apps, depending on preference and location.
With both applications combined, users can also view virtual editions of Neolith’s Urban Boutiques — a series of dedicated showrooms located across the globe.
Like many other companies, we had to evolve to a new landscape. We created new tools to provide an alternative to the events and expos in which we previously participated in order to reach our audience. With many of these exhibitions cancelled, and uncertainty around next year’s schedule, we decided to bring the experience directly to our customers, available 24/7, 365 days a year. With combined AR and VR capabilities, we feel the Neolith Virtual Experience gives a truly comprehensive snapshot of the brand and its materials, as near as we can currently come to observing the material in reality. Excitingly, this is only the beginning for us, as we plan to add further features to these apps with a final goal of eventually hosting our own events and tradeshows, allowing us to bring everyone together, virtually.
Narula: In addition to all of the very basic required COVID-19 measures which are present in our showrooms (mandatory wearing of masks, social distancing protocols, documented employee temperature checks, etc.) UGM has implemented a touchless sign-in system for visitors. Rather than entering their information via pen and paper or a touchscreen kiosk, UGM’s showroom visitors can now simply scan a QR code using their mobile phone upon entry into our facilities. UGM has also recently implemented an online appointment calendar to block off customer visits and avoid overcrowding.
CSTD: Have you made any updates/improvements to your website to present a better virtual experience to viewers?
Ballucchi: We have always had high-definition photography showcasing product rich detail. In most cases, it is easy to zoom in and really appreciate the individual richness of each color. For the newest introductions, like the Silestone Loft series, we have created mood boards. We did so that customers can easily visualize our product colors combined with different finishes.
Davis: We’ve made virtual strides through our digital offerings and robust website throughout the year, making the virtual experience more effortless than ever. MSI has implemented several new tools to help customers plan and help with their purchasing decisions. Offering virtual appointments and video conferences has allowed customers to “stay” in our showrooms and browse products from a distance.
MSI offered the first in the industry multi-surface visualizer, allowing users to upload a photo of their space, then select a combination of MSI materials, including countertops, flooring and wall tile, in seconds. Additionally, MSI recently launched a new image search tool using artificial intelligence to help customers find the product they’ve been looking for or a very close MSI match. Submit a photo of the product you are looking for, and several close product matches will be suggested if an exact match cannot be found.
Esteve: In addition to offering the new Neolith Virtual Experience, we continuously work to make our website more user-friendly, visible and accessible to everyone.
Narula: UGM has made many improvements to our website in order to provide an enhanced user experience during this pandemic. We have added a completely customized, photo-realistic kitchen visualizer which includes over 100 different surface materials. Additionally, our website now offers customers a look at our live inventory, with to the second photos and information about the thousands of slabs that we have in stock.
CSTD: What would you say are some benefits to a virtual showroom?
Ballucchi: Other than providing an added safety measure to our employees and clients, there have been a few benefits to these virtual experiences. Our clients and customers who are living in different areas than normal can still see the products if they aren’t located close to a center or showroom. Many of our customers are renovating what used to be their vacation or second home to make it a more primary dwelling, and this has been a real benefit to them.
Davis: Having over 32 distribution centers located throughout the U.S. and Canada, odds are you are within proximity to one; however, the virtual showroom’s benefit is having the convenience of the same great personal shopping experience within your living room.
Esteve: The main benefit of a virtual showroom is that it is accessible by everyone around the world from the comfort of their home.
CSTD: Do you find that your customers prefer to view product lines virtually these days or do you still receive many requests for in-person appointments?
Ballucchi: We’ve really seen this vary based on location and customer preferences. Some of our customers are excited about the opportunity to preview things digitally, while others really believe that you have to experience the colors in person. Either way, we’re committed to providing the best possible customer experience.
Davis: We see a combination of digital users and in-person showroom customers, and we are adapting to our customers’ needs and comfort levels. If a virtual customer is interested in viewing a product “in person,” we can send a sample to their doorstep.
Esteve: There has certainly been a decrease in the number of in-person appointments due to various travel bans and lockdowns. Our hope is that the information provided on our website, in addition to the new Neolith Digital Experience, can give customers everything they need to make their design decisions during this time, as well as beyond the pandemic. We believe virtual and augmented reality are the future, and can help in the creation of wonderful projects of all types and sizes.
Narula: In recent months, we have seen a giant spike in web traffic to our company websites and social media accounts. While UGM’s in-person material selection has remained strong across our locations, this uptick in online has prompted us as a company to put further resources into our online presence.
CSTD: If you have adapted your website to include more digital tools to help sell, have you received positive feedback from your customers?
Davis: Yes, our website traffic has increased significantly throughout the year and we’ve received positive feedback regarding our latest digital tools utilizing augmented reality and artificial intelligence.
Customers love our multi-surface tool since it’s hard to beat. It shows countertops, wall tile and flooring at once. The latest MSI image search tool is helping our customers find the MSI products they are looking for.
Esteve: We have received very positive feedback thus far, and we believe all three components of the Neolith Virtual Experience — Neolith AR, Neolith VR and Neolith Virtual Urban Boutiques — will continue to evolve into 2021, until we are able to achieve a “virtual tradeshow” experience.
CSTD: Have you invested in any special cleaners or UV lighting to be used in your showrooms for when you do have customers come in for appointments?
Davis: Our showrooms are cleaned throughout the day, and we encourage every customer to use hand sanitizer, which is provided throughout the showroom area. MSI requires everyone – customers and staff — to wear face coverings while practicing social distancing. Plexiglas and barriers are placed in critical locations where interactions typically occur. Modifications to ventilation and HVAC systems have been made and are routinely maintained.
Esteve: Yes, we have implemented the necessary protective measures in all of our facilities, and all spaces and meeting rooms are properly disinfected throughout the day.
Narula: Since the COVID-19 outbreak, UGM has hired professional cleaning teams to regularly sanitize our facilities. Additionally, we have purchased PPE, hand sanitizers and other cleaning supplies in bulk so that all of our employees stay protected.
CSTD: When things do resume to “normal,” will you still keep in place any of the new procedures/updates you have implemented during the pandemic?
Ballucchi: We will continue to offer virtual visits for those who request it when things are “back to normal” and we can gather safely in person.
Davis: Our showrooms’ cleanliness and our customers’ and staff’s health will remain an ongoing effort beyond the pandemic.
Esteve: This depends on the legal guidelines in each city/state. There likely will be measures that will be kept in place for a long time.
Narula: Absolutely. Many of these new processes and safety measures which we have been introduced into our showrooms in 2020 will continue in the future regardless of the pandemic. We understand that everyone has their own level of comfort as it relates to public health, and it is UGM’s duty as a local establishment to be cognizant of this and provide our patrons with confidence when visiting our facilities.
CSTD: Is there anything else you would like our readers to know regarding the efforts you have made to keep your business running during the pandemic?
Ballucchi: Our employee’s safety is a top priority of Cosentino. Cosentino has implemented very strict protocols at its workplaces that are continuously updated in accordance to new guidelines and general circumstances. We have updated our hygiene protocols increasing our standards in sanitizing surfaces and reinforcing the hygiene practices recommended by the CDC in all our activities. The use of facial masks is now mandatory at all locations, and we have implemented many initiatives to ensure social distance among all employees that need to go to work.
Esteve: The company has been operating at its full production capacity, with the exception of two weeks in April during which Spain, where our headquarters is located, was in shutdown. Fortunately, there hasn’t been any workforce reduction due to the pandemic and, in fact, Neolith has grown in terms of its number of employees in 2020 because of the expansion plan we have put in place across the world.