Bellvine Founder, Heather Sawtelle Looks Ahead at What’s Next for Design Centers.

As consumer interest shifts from spending on products to experiences, Design Centers are poised to become the next hot social centers.

Design Centers across the country have been struggling with dwindling foot traffic for years. While visitation at design centers is down the interest in interior design has never been higher with the home furnishings market valued at $728 Billion in the U.S. and growing at an estimated annual rate of 5.1%. Half of all products for any given design project now come from online sources. Designers have more to choose from at the tips of their fingers with expanded and diverse retail options, direct ship manufacturers, and a multitude of vintage furnishings all available to buy online.

If we look at the retail industry as a benchmark for buying habits and trends we find there is a growing number of consumers who are choosing to invest in experiences rather than products. Retailers are trying to meet these new needs by focusing on immersive, in store encounters with brands and products also known as experiential retail. This new retail trend provides consumers with a physical place to interact with a brand and its culture, to showcase what makes it unique and often focuses on localization, service and social shareability. Experiential retail offers consumers a chance to buy and share a new memory rather than solely an object or service. A natural fit for experiential retail is to have locations in mixed use developments that combine live, work, and play elements built around a theme like food or home. These developments naturally create experience as well as vibrant social hubs that support a multitude of business types and grow both social and economic networks. Examples of some food based mix use developments that support diverse and thriving communities include the Chelsea Market in New York, the Ferry Building in San Francisco and The Pearl in San Antonio.

The Pearl is a revitalized former brewery turned social hub that hosts farmers markets, restaurants, a food hall, shops, live and work spaces, a hotel and The Culinary Institute of America.

While design centers are typically focused on selling wholesale to designers rather than retailers selling to consumers, they have the potential to offer a fantastic assortment of immersive and unique interactions built around the design process. If design centers transformed from exclusive collections of wholesale showrooms into inclusive mixed use developments, tremendous opportunities would abound. A mixed use design center could include bookstores, food courts, pop ups, wholesale showrooms, retail, discount and vintage shops, design studios, co-working spaces and much more. As diverse offerings in mixed use development increase, they directly relate to the increased growth in crossover experiences and ultimately more engaged consumers.  

Mixed use developments centered around interior design are just starting to crop up. A recently opened example of a mixed use destination development based on furnishings can be seen in the Boston Design Center, a refurbished waterfront property that combines trade-only showrooms with retail shops, corporate offices, restaurants and cafes. Another mixed use development that evolved more organically is Magnolia Market at the Silos, in Waco, Texas founded by HGTV stars Chip and Joanna Gaines. Magnolia Market is a destination home and garden center that includes offices, food and community events centered around a gathering space. 

As consumers want effortless and seamless online and offline experiences, developments will begin to layer technology into their properties to provide a cohesive experience on and offline.  Design centers of the (not so distant) future will also link the online and offline worlds allowing customers to enjoy an experience that harmonizes the best parts of the design process with the speed and convenience of online shopping. 

After 20 years in the interior design industry, I envision design centers being hubs for innovation where the various players interact and create crossover experiences that result in highly engaged customers and grow community. I founded Bellvine to help designers, sellers and makers be discovered, celebrated and valued. Bellvine is an online interior design marketplace and platform connecting designers, showrooms and manufacturers in real time to discover, buy and track faster. 

Bellvine is an online marketplace for the luxury interior design industry, connecting interior design professionals with bespoke manufacturers to discover and buy custom furniture, lighting, textiles and and decor faster.

The next generation of design centers will thrive as mixed use developments where people will live, work, learn, design, shop and go to be inspired. Technology platforms like Bellvine will bring new ways to access products, save time, streamline communication and raise awareness of the value of bespoke products. Accomplished by connecting consumers, designers, sellers and manufacturers in person and online. My idea of a mixed use design center would include designers, product experts, sellers (retail, wholesale, discount, vintage, art and antiques) who work side by side where a contagion of new ideas will abound fostering growth and prosperity for the whole community.  

Consumers now expect the products and services they want, to be accessible online. They  value well designed spaces and demand unique products linked to experience. By expanding the reach of bespoke products and services online and connecting consumers to the interior design community from concept through distribution in mixed use developments, the interior design industry, related businesses and surrounding communities will thrive.


Heather Sawtelle is the founder of Bellvine and an interior design industry expert with over 20 years experience.
Her desire to help artists, craftspeople and designers be discovered, celebrated and valued led her to found Bellvine in 2018. Bellvine is an online marketplace helping manufacturers of luxury furnishings capture online sales while designers discover, buy and track faster. 

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