COVID-19 took virtual staging from the wings and placed it center stage. Now that we have, through necessity, experienced digital staging firsthand, it will be a dominant factor going forward.

August is Listings Tech theme month at Inman. All month, we’re digging into listing technology, a conversation which spans portals to single-listing sites, landing pages, 3-D tours, photography, videos, promotion and more.

As the owners of one of the larger staging companies in our region, we have a lot invested in physical staging. With the average price in our primary county over $1,000,000, it is assumed that staging will be included in the listing package, and it is the exception to encounter a “naked” listing.

With a large investment in physical inventory, trucks and a highly trained staging crew, we have been leery about virtual staging. COVID-19, however, changed our mindset. Fully conscious of the value of sizzling listing pictures, but with our staging crew deemed unessential and forced to shelter in place, we opted for digitally enhanced photos.

It goes without saying that high-quality visuals are critical. Backed by research done by Proctor & Gamble, I have long taught that a seller has mere seconds to sell their home. I have also advocated that it will not happen in the seller’s home — but on a buyer’s mobile device.

Selling a home has become like online dating: If you cannot capture the interest of a potential buyer in the first few seconds, the buyer will “swipe left” and move on. Put another way, if they do not like what they see on their mobile devices, they will never visit in person. Consequently, we have utilized physical staging and high-quality visual media to maximize those first few seconds.

The first thing we noticed with virtual staging was the hit rate on our listings stayed the same as with physical staging. Not only were our listings still being viewed online, they were also continuing to sell.

We came to two conclusions: first, a buyer’s initial assessment of an online listing was contingent on the quality of the pictures, not whether or not the staging was real or virtual. In fact, in many cases, it was impossible to tell the difference.

Second, we concluded that buyers, understanding the nature of COVID’s restrictions, were willing to cut us some slack in our marketing. The question that remains as COVID restrictions have eased is, “Will this goodwill continue?”

Having shown thousands of homes over the years, I have personally watched buyers respond to both physical and virtual staging. I have watched homeowner wannabes sit in a living room chair and gaze around a room, visualizing themselves in that space.

I have seen them run their hands over the backs of sofas and overheard discussions about the stager’s use of any given space. I have responded to the countless queries from buyer’s agents who, at the request of the buyers, call and ask if our staging can be included in the sale of the home.

On the flip side, I have seen the disappointment on buyer’s faces as they have entered a home they assumed was physically staged, but was instead staged virtually. Gone is the interaction with the staging itself. Present are the questions, “Will our furniture fit in this space?”

I have actually heard buyers voicing their disappointment over the lack of physical staging and a few have even made comments akin to “bait and switch.” Based on our experience with both types of staging, I have reached the following conclusions.

1. Buyers still prefer actual staging

This is not to say that virtual staging is “bad.” It is simply a reflection of the countless comments we have received over the years from buyers.

In the same way consumers still prefer to walk into a showroom and “experience” the furniture they will be purchasing versus simply buying it online, physical staging provides a more tangible experience.

2. Virtual staging is dramatically more cost effective

The difference is literally hundreds of dollars versus thousands. For those who have balked at the upfront cost of physical staging, the virtual process provides the same visual effect on listing portals at a fraction of the cost.

This makes virtual staging ideal for homes at the lower end of the market or for situations where marketing funds are limited. While some virtual staging companies provide a 360-degree “virtual tour,” it still does not have the flexibility offered by platforms such as Matterport.

3. Virtual staging can be faster

Normally, the staging crew goes in and furnishes the home. Then, the photographer follows, capturing high-quality snaps of the space. Virtual staging works the exact opposite: The photographer goes in first, then the finished pictures are sent to the virtual staging company. In many cases, the pictures can be completed in as little as 12 hours.

With some virtual staging companies located on the opposite side of the planet, pictures sent in at the end of day can be finished and waiting in your inbox when you arrive at work the following morning.

In a hot market, actual staging companies can be booked out for weeks, making it difficult to get homes on the market quickly. If speed to market is an issue, virtual may be the way to go. There are also virtual staging companies such as Barion Design which specializes in virtually staging upscale properties where physical staging is not a practical reality.

4. Virtual staging has more flexibility

Companies such as BoxBrownie offer numerous styles to suit any property’s specific architecture. While physical staging companies can do the same, it requires a very large inventory to be able to effectively stage across a wide variety of styles and price points.

Consequently, most staging companies tend to specialize in a few key styles. As an example, if your staging company provides traditional or casual contemporary, you may need to find another company to do a luxury modern property.

Adding to the flexibility is the ability to enhance the pictures to a specific time of day. If we want twilight shots for specific property, we need to send the photographer out twice: once during normal daylight hours and the second time a few hours later at dusk. While some photography services will do time-of-day picture enhancement for you, it is a standard feature with some virtual staging companies.

5. Virtual staging can provide before and after pictures

Looking to help a seller understand the need to upgrade their home prior to a sale to maximize their selling potential? Many virtual staging companies can take your “before” pictures and create stunning “after” visuals to help reluctant sellers visualize their home after upgrades.

They can also create renders from plans to help a client visualize a home before it is even built, including 360-degree virtual tours enabling a client to “walk” through the home before a single nail is hammered in.

While not excited about the devastation wreaked upon our nation by COVID-19, there have been benefits as traditional real estate agents have been forced to reevaluate digital technology to enhance their listings. Even though we personally have so much invested in physical staging, we agree that digital staging is useful in a variety of applications and will be part of our marketing arsenal going forward.

Carl Medford is the CEO of The Medford Team.

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