Karl Sopke, 60, a 38-year veteran of the real-estate brokerage business and the president of Pacific Union Real Estate Group in San Francisco, knows what's wrong with the house-hunting process: "Real-estate brokerages make money by putting buyers last and by withholding information from people." His solution: Create an environment where customers feel at home, and stock it with powerful information tools and useful services.
Six months ago, the development partnership that Sopke set up to pursue his vision unveiled SOMA Living, an innovative real-estate storefront in San Francisco's trendy South of Market (SOMA) neighborhood. Web kiosks offer access to home listings, databases of financing sources, and house-hunting tips. Customers can settle into café-style tables to flip through listings or meet with one of the store's on-site agents in a private consultation room. The result is equal parts sleek boutique, reference room, and Internet café.
SOMA Living's high-tech, high-touch environment has lured a steady stream of browsers from both the street and the Web. Over the next eight years, Sopke's group plans to open 434 more outlets nationwide. Says Sopke: "As far as home buying goes, the American dream has become the American nightmare. We're showing people a better way."
For more information on SOMA Living, visit the Web (www.somaliving.com)
A version of this article appeared in the November 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.