Like many other industries and professions, interior design is becoming increasingly digitized. From conception and rendering, to project management, to how designers communicate with their teams and their clients, basic processes and procedures are transferring to digital platforms. One of the areas most affected by this transformation is sourcing and purchasing.

What began as a gradual shift towards e-commerce at the beginning of the decade has exploded into a robust online universe of interior design products and services. E-commerce has pulled back the curtain on interior design sourcing.

Many manufacturers whose products were once available to the trade only now sell at least part of their inventory directly to consumers, and many more vendors have entered the space offering to broker products or promoting cheaper lookalike goods. Most of these products — and their prices — can easily be found and ordered using web browsers, apps, and social media platforms from any smart device.

This trend is only going to get stronger. E-commerce sales in the U.S. last year reached somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 billion dollars, more than twice what they were just five years ago.

At the same time, brick-and-mortar spaces are becoming more expensive, and the whole approach to furniture and design is changing. More and more clients are opting for a mix of custom and retail products. In addition, due to other trends, such as empty nesters who are downsizing and millennials who prefer smaller, uncluttered spaces, many clients these days want less furniture and accessories in the home.

At the same time, designer services have become more commoditized. Born out of the post-recession industry slowdown, new design-online firms keep popping up all the time, offering everything from low-cost turnkey design packages to full-scale bespoke services that include sourcing and purchasing. Some clients just want the product, others the expertise, some both.

These days, the client is often seeking a consultation from the designer but prefers to do their own purchasing. That creates a challenge for designers, showrooms and design centers that cater to professional purchasers. Both need to rethink their business model if they want to survive in a digital economy.

Designers can no longer sell their services at a low rate and make up the difference on mark-ups and custom charges. Consumers can go to a retailer and do their purchasing and get basic design advice for free. Serious clients are looking for an experienced, knowledgeable advisor who will work with them, not for them.

They know the result they want, but not how to get it. Designers need to set clear expectations, develop a collaborative working relationship with their clients, understand what makes them tick, and provide value around that.

Showrooms and design centers need to become more proactive. They cannot just have product in a space and hope designers (and/or consumers) will show. Instead, they should have outside reps to call on design firms and develop relationships with the designers. Then, they really need to help with the selling process to make sure the value of their product is clear.

The most frequent complaint I hear about showrooms is poor customer service. Some designers have just given up working with their local showroom and prefer to deal directly with the manufacturer. Showrooms really need to step up their customer service if they want to retain designers’ business. That includes keeping on top of orders and delivery schedules, and following through during the entire process, through installation and after, if problems occur.

Because many services and purchases are becoming digitized and automated, the value for professionals has shifted even more to relationships. Whether dealing with customer service or engaging a particular professional, customers want a great interactive experience with the person they’re dealing with. Exceed their expectations, and they will be willing to pay professional fees or custom prices.