Furniture products, despite massive advancements in technology and generational changes in the consuming habits of their customer base, have largely remained unchanged for centuries. A sofa is a dresser is a dining room table. So too has the process of buying furniture. Customers walk into a store, perhaps once every 10 or 15 years, largely ignorant and uneducated about what they are buying and then, four to 16 weeks later strong men arrive at their doorstep with the purchase…which a surprising number of times needs to be returned because it’s damaged or won’t fit through the front door.
The products may not be changing much but the furniture buying process is now undergoing a near-radical transformation. A new wave of furniture sellers is bringing a transformational dynamic to the business, not only giving consumers new options but also shaking up the existing base of furniture retailers making them more attuned to the changing marketplace.
Blame It on the Internet
Of course, you have to point to the internet as the primary instigator of all of this and in doing so, first Amazon and then Wayfair have led the way. The former moved slowly into furniture, focusing on easier-to-handle, smaller ticket items before it targeted the category for real over the past two years. It has developed private labels under a variety of millennial-tinged names to appeal to today’s furniture buyers.
Wayfair came along later, consolidating a veritable laundry list of selling points under one name, while maintaining niche sites like Joss & Main and All Modern. It too is building its private label strategy, adding advanced virtual reality software to enhance the purchasing process. Almost universal free delivery hasn’t hurt it either.
But as we’ve seen in category after category, a fair number of specialized sellers – call them The Furniture Fighters — have emerged online, each with its own hook and back story. Some of the more interesting ones:
- Floyd came out of Detroit funded by Kickstarter, launching in 2014 with a very basic premise: a limited number of products with a modern design aesthetic, shipped flat -and free — to be assembled by the consumer. And limited is really an understatement: there is literally just one sofa, one dining table, one bed and that’s about it. Floyd even offers same-day delivery in a few select cities, addressing one of the pain points for consumers buying furniture. It operates a store in its home town.
- Joybird started around the same time by four partners who had experience in the business, but they went another way, offering a wider variety of custom-made products, though limited to sofas, sectionals and chairs. It plays all the appropriate new age cards: fast (though paid) delivery, free returns and replacing the trees it uses with each purchase. It has one more thing in common with Floyd: both are owned whole (Joybird) or in part (Floyd, through a seed round investment) by traditional furniture manufacturing powerhouse La-Z-Boy.
- Inside Weather is another company that does its own manufacturing, to order from its San Francisco area facilities. The company’s products take a mid-century modern design approach and delivery is free for less expensive products and never more expensive than $100. Returns are free within 30 days.
- Article is another 2014 startup, selling a variety of furniture from other manufacturers, offering $49 flat shipping and a 30-day no-questions-asked return policy.
- Renegade Furniture bills itself as the number-one online seller of furniture and seems to mirror a more conventional physical store, offering furniture from other suppliers (a few dozen, it says) but combining it with the online advantages of free delivery, enhanced by free set-up in customer homes. Renegade grew out of Coleman Furniture, which was founded in 1999 as an online seller.
In addition to all of these recent entries – and there are many more — virtually every existing physical furniture retailer offers online sales, in addition to other internet sites like Overstock, Furniture.com and many of the manufacturers themselves. Houzz, which started out as a design site, moved into its own e-commerce business several years ago. And we can’t forget the so-called furnishings “lifestyle” retailers like Crate & Barrel, West Elm and RH, each of whom gets as much as half its sales online. Furniture is estimated to be a $90-$100 billion a year business, yet compared to other consumer products like books, consumer electronics and now even apparel, it is relatively underpenetrated online.
But all of that seems to be changing now. A credenza may always look like a credenza but how it gets from the forest to your living room will likely never be the same again.
Warren Shoulberg has bought furniture online. Unfortunately, he’s also returned it.