I'm shopping at Clay Terrace, an upscale open-air mall in suburban Indianapolis. I find a courtyard with red bistro tables. Ah, a cafe. A lovely place to enjoy the evening, I think—and then I notice that the chairs have price tags. Is this a Pottery Barn spin-off?
I have stumbled into HOMExperience, a novel concept that opened in February, intended to make the task of buying a home as enjoyable as the best retail shopping. In addition to the full array of home products, I find computer kiosks where I can take virtual-home tours. Unable to help myself, I'm soon altering floor plans. At one point, an attractive sales associate tells me that a batch of chocolate-chip cookies is fresh out of the oven—an old gimmick, but a good one. "We want the place to smell like home," says president Paul Estridge Jr. All of a sudden, I'm house-hunting.
HOMExperience lets buyers get a taste of custom building without the sticker shock—and lets everyone else dream. Buyers, seduced by the choice of dream kitchens and the design help they get, have responded by spending an average of $10,000 more on upgrades than they did at Estridge's previous 500-square-foot facility. "We're almost giddy about it," he says. And based on my experience, customers are too.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.