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A St. Pete virtual reality company is transforming how Macy’s sells furniture

Marxent has designed the program Macy’s and La-Z-Boy use to create virtual rooms for their customers to try out furniture and decor.

CLEARWATER — The Macy’s at Westfield Countryside Mall doesn’t have the space to store any furniture inventory, but that hasn’t stopped new interior designers on staff from selling it.

Virtual reality and the high-resolution graphics that go along with it have catapulted retailers into the modern age of decor, design and furniture sales. Now at Macy’s, employees can show off furniture with a few clicks of an iPad. Customers can see how a new couch would fit into their living room on a big-screen TV, or in high-definition through virtual reality goggles.

“Our shoppers get to experience the catalog without having it in the store,” said Countryside Macy’s manager Juan Pacheco. “Once you experience it, play with it, you go home and want to redo a whole room."

It’s like being on your own HGTV home makeover show.

And the software and training that made it possible to launch the program chain-wide at Macy’s? That’s thanks to retail tech company Marxent, which is co-headquartered in St. Petersburg. The company was founded in 2011 by brothers Beck and Barry Besecker.

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“Our thesis is that stores are going to get smaller and technology that helps them be more efficient is going to win,” said Beck Besecker, the CEO.

Marxent’s sales and marketing team office is located inside First Central Tower, commonly known as the BB&T building, downtown. It has another office in Dayton, Ohio that handles its software development. It just launched a virtual reality program similar to what’s at Macy’s with La-Z-Boy late last month and has worked with Ashley Furniture and United Kingdom retailer John Lewis & Partners.

The new furniture design hub at the Clearwater Macy’s has been open for about two weeks. The same technology is also at the Macy’s furniture gallery on Gandy Boulevard in Tampa and at another store in Ocala.

Sales associate Amber Lischka uses a tablet to select wall while decorating a virtual room at the Macy's in Clearwater. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times ]

Earlier this week, the Countryside store’s merchandising team manager, William Nash, slid on the Vive virtual reality headgear to see the new program for the first time. He turned his head from side to side to take in the neutral-tone room sales associate Amber Lischka put together in less than 10 minutes as an example.

“I like more color," Nash said, peering down at grayish carpet.

Everything he saw through the goggles, which placed him inside the virtual room, was projected on a big-screen television in the cozy design corner. After a few taps, the carpet turned blue, but Nash didn’t think it popped enough. Lischka picked a bright orange next. Nash said he loved it.

“Bend down and really look at the carpet,” Pacheco told his colleague. “You can see the fibers.”

Nash crouched with his head facing Macy’s glossy white floor, but through the goggles he saw a lush carpet. He wasn’t inside Macy’s home goods department anymore, but a living room with 18-foot ceilings.

“I can even see the depth of the paintings on the walls,” Nash said.

He stood behind the virtual sectional sofa, judging if its distance from a floor lamp would give him enough room to walk through in a real-life version of the room. Then, he picked some wall art to put next to the television.

Macy’s design staff, people like Lischka, will enter a client’s room dimensions to create a space that mimics the room they’re decorating at home. Marxent even trains retailers on how to grab home dimensions from property records online if a shopper didn’t come equipped with their own.

Macy’s is beginning to input layouts and room dimensions from nearby condos and apartments to make it even easier on shoppers.

The technology is more than just a neat tool to get people inside brick-and-mortar stores, Beck Besecker said. Marxent’s data shows customers who use the technology are not only likely to buy more furniture and decor than planned, but also 80 percent less likely to return items purchased. In furniture, product returns are a profit-killer.

“We kind of look at what we do as a confidence-building tool,” Besecker said. “The more you get to see it, experience it, and preview it, the less likely you are to return it.”

Macy's store manager Juan Pacheco, left, observes merchandise team manager William Nash, as he navigates a virtual living room while learning to use the new virtual decorating tool. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times ]

Marxent trains retailers to get customers involved in the process as much as possible so they never feel pushed into buying something they don’t actual want.

Younger shoppers are more likely to log onto Macy’s or La-Z-Boy’s website to begin a room creation on their own before coming into a store to put on the headgear, Besecker said. Older customers tend to prefer having a room quickly created for them in-store so they can make sure the new furniture will fit in the room where they plan to put it.

Marxent has to make digital models of every piece of furniture in a store’s catalog for all of this to work. The digital models can then be used in the augmented reality technology that’s now commonplace in online furniture shopping.

Retailers — Amazon, Target, Walmart — give online shoppers the option to scan a room with their smartphone camera so they can see how the item will look inside their home.

Marxent can create images using the models that are so realistic, it’s nearly impossible to tell they aren’t actual photographs. This also means when a shopper designs a room they’re proud of, they can share a realistic rendering easily on social media.

Marxent is in the midst of an update for its clients called “photo to floor plan.” It will allow customers to look at styled photos of rooms — like a complete, chic mid-century living room — and then drag the items they like directly into the 3D room they’re building.

At Macy’s, Pacheco said the design possibilities feel endless. There’s tens of thousands of available furniture and decor items in its system. He’s even created a replica of his own living room at home.

“You just get lost in this world,” he said.