Features, Trends

Renting Home Furnishings? Been There, Done That

To that ever-growing list of everything that’s old is new again, you can add the idea of renting home furnishings products. Earlier this spring, West Elm made big headlines when it announced a deal with apparel’s Rent the Runway to offer a similar service for its home décor products. Everyone got all hot and bothered by the news, pontificating that this was the new model for the business and that today’s millennials would far more prefer renting their shams than owning them. A seminal change for the ages.

Please.

Renting home furnishings products has been a subset of the business for at least the past 50 years and while the details of this new deal may incorporate a new twist or two it certainly represents absolutely nothing in the way of groundbreaking retailing. Rent the Runway and similar services have hit upon a niche in the apparel business, offering designer – or at least designer-like – clothing for short periods of time. Begun online in 2009 and since expanded into five physical locations, RTR has hit a nerve for fashion-conscious types who don’t necessarily have the budgets to match.

Go West Elm Young Millennial

For its deal with West Elm, Rent the Runway will add home textiles accent pieces like decorative pillows, throws and top-of-the-bed coverings, grouped in bundles, to existing fashion subscriptions. There are two tiers, each of which offers different levels of access to products and the ability to swap them out. Products like sheets and towels are not part of the assortments.

The home industry has always lived in the shadow of fashion apparel, losing that all-important element of going out and being seen in a new outfit versus having somebody come into your home and perhaps rifle through your linen closet. So, it remains to be seen if the fashion rental concept translates into home. Not that West Elm and RTR are the only ones working this angle. Another company called Table and Teaspoon will rent you an entire dinner service, all the way to flatware and placemats.

West Elm itself had a prior arrangement with a furniture rental subscription service called Feather while another player, Fernish, offers its rentals through such retailers as Crate & Barrel and CB2 (sister companies) and direct-to-consumer sellers like Floyd and Campaign. The company also announced in April that it was partnering with Alliance Residential to begin showing its products showroom-style in physical stores. Six are already open with more to come the company says.

Other physical retailers are also getting into the act. Ikea announced earlier this year it is beginning to offer rentals on its products under a plan it calls a “scalable subscription service.” Ikea touts the service as a nod to sustainability and eco-friendliness saying returned products can be spiffed up and put back onto sale, perhaps a dubious claim given the sometimes less-than-skilled-assembly and durability of some of its furniture. All of this rental activity is being dubbed by some as “product-as-a-service (PaaS)” in a nod to similar software models but by any name, the idea of renting home furnishings is far from new.

Paying the Rent is Not New

Two national retailers, Aaron’s and Rent-A-Center, have been operating home furnishings rental businesses for decades, often offering rent-to-own packages that give shoppers a chance to apply rental fees to eventual ownership. Other more local players also operate in this space and it’s not unknown for the finance charges and eventual cost to purchase to drastically exceed the price of the products themselves. These retailers have traditionally appealed to transients and the credit-challenged for whom charge cards were not available and interest charges were just part of the mix.

A simple Google search in any metropolitan area will no doubt turn up a list of retailers renting kitchen and laundry appliances. So, while these new rental arrangements may twist the model a few degrees, they remain variations very much on an existing – and very old – business. As with many of today’s’ retail disruptions they are based more on a lack of historical reference about what has already been tried in the marketplace and less about truly breaking what some people used to call the paradigm. Which may not necessarily be such a bad thing. As Peter Allen, who created the song “Everything That’s Old is New Again,” wrote, “Don’t throw the past away, you might need it some rainy day.”

If you don’t know the song, you can rent it.

Warren Shoulberg is still old and unlikely to be new again.

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