Do furniture retailers need a new approach in the digital age?

Photo: Wayfair
Mar 21, 2019

Caroline Jansen

Through a special arrangement, what follows is a summary of an article from Retail Dive, a publication providing new and exclusive insights to retail executives and decision makers.

Home goods retailers have adapted as retail has become more digitally focused, but it’s still a category in which many consumers need convincing to make a purchase online.

After all, furniture is thought of as an investment piece, the category’s hard to return and typically used almost daily. Simply providing more details online can alleviate hesitations.

“Better descriptions, better photography — we’ve seen a lot of retailers take that in-house and have videos and just more information for the customer,” said Telsey Advisory Group’s Cristina Fernandez. “Online chat and being able to make that experience a lot easier and give the consumer a lot more information so they can make a better decision.”

Some furniture and home furnishing stores are capitalizing on Instagram and Pinterest to interact with consumers and create online communities.

Wayfair and Overstock both added AR capabilities to their apps last March to help customers better visualize pieces in their home. But some question whether mixed reality technologies are actually impacting consumer shopping behavior in the space and they need to advance further.

Hart Posen, associate professor of management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, believes retailers need to figure out how to box furniture up and make it easier to ship and assemble at home.

Reducing time and cost as well as offering consumers greater flexibility in choosing their delivery time and date will alleviate some of the headaches with furniture delivery, added Ms. Fernandez.

RetailNext marketing director Ray Hartjen believes the way traditional home goods retailers operate — very large stores with inventory arranged sporadically — is quickly becoming outdated. The best plan, he thinks, is shrinking square footage and upping the design factor for more of a showroom feel.

But for many legacy furniture stores, the larger-sized format doubles as warehouse spaces and optimizes nearby delivery. “For furniture, and depending on the furniture, local distribution is sometimes preferable,” said Prof. Posen,

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What are the biggest hurdles holding back the furniture category online? Will the online shopping experience, delivery or at-home assembly remain long-term issues for the category?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Online purchases should be a slam dunk for people who don’t own a truck to transport large items, but more accurate information is needed."
"Furniture is one of those categories that just works better in a hybrid model where customers can “touch, see and sit” in a showroom before they buy online and ship it home."
"Many furniture retailers are saddled with legacy systems that were not designed for today’s omnichannel world."

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15 Comments on "Do furniture retailers need a new approach in the digital age?"

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Mark Ryski

Notwithstanding the success of companies like Wayfair, buying furniture is still largely best done in-person. People want to feel the fabric, sit on it, experience it. It’s impossible to do this online. Furthermore, shipping furniture – and the hassle of shipping stuff back that you don’t want – is a major pain. Not all furniture is like IKEA and can easily be assembled at home, and lots of people don’t like doing self-assembly either. Furniture retailers absolutely need to continue to up their online game, which will drive more qualified shoppers into their stores, but I think this is one category where the physical store will have the advantage for a long time.

Charles Dimov

You nailed it Mark. Even with AR/VR – most customers will still want to touch, feel, and jump onto a bed/sofa. It’s one area where homefield advantage is the physical store. Not to suggest that furniture retailers can rest on this… but it is an advantage that most other retailers don’t have.

Chris Petersen, PhD.

Furniture is a purchase that you literally live with everyday. It is highly personal in terms of style, colors, fabric etc. So everything an online retailer can do to provide “rich content” will help customers with choosing items that work for them. Mission critical is exact sizes, 360 photos/videos and lifestyle photos. Even better is AR or other visual means for the customer to visualize their purchase in the living space. At the end of the day, furniture is one of those categories that just works better in a hybrid model where customers can “touch, see and sit” in a showroom before they buy online and ship it home.

Bob Phibbs

You don’t buy furniture to see how it looks in a virtual picture, you buy furniture for how well it helps you make a nest. The answer is not more assemble-your-own furniture; unless you’re going after the IKEA market which already owns that space.

Evan Snively

Until AR figures out how I can sit and feel a piece of furniture virtually, I will need to test those purchases in person. I feel like I always see couches and chairs used in AR examples, and while that is a place to start the purchase journey for those items, it is not the end. Items like desks, armoires, and accent pieces are more fit to be purchased entirely through an online shopping experience.

Bob Amster

I agree with my colleague Mark. There are no measurable standards for the weight and quality of wood, the feel of a cushion as one sits on a couch or dining chair and more. A customer can get an idea online of who carries what product and price but the purchase will be consummated in the physical showroom.

Paula Rosenblum

I generally will buy most anything online. Furniture is the great exception. Unless you’re a math genius and can buy based on dimensions, there’s no way to know how it’s going to feel. I’ve done my own Powerpoints to see how it will look in my room, but ultimately that’s my path to purchase, not the end.

It’s not an “issue” for the category. It’s not solvable.

Anne Howe

Online furniture sales can grow if manufacturers could think outside the box. Find an empty storefront or an area in the walkways at the mall and turn it into a pop-up event space/showroom. Work with the mall promotion group to plan events that are designed to get people to sit for a while. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

I go the the High Point furniture market in NC twice a year. Only retail buyers and designers are allowed, never do they invite the shopper to walk the showrooms and fall in love. No wonder the old school retail model stays locked in place.

Ken Morris
Ken Morris
Retail industry thought leader
9 months 29 days ago

Many furniture retailers are saddled with legacy systems that were not designed for today’s omnichannel world. Furniture sales are more complex than most categories, as there are many details such as custom design and manufacturing, orders that are complex, scheduling deliveries and assembly, financing, etc. Updating these systems is a tall order.

From an online perspective, some new entrants are doing very well in terms of encouraging consumers to buy furniture without visiting a store to touch and see. While AR is still progressing, it will be a great tool for consumers to visualize the furniture in their homes.

Cathy Hotka

I’ve been looking at furniture online and reading many reviews. The chief complaint people seem to have is that the furniture they purchased isn’t the size they thought it would be. Online purchases should be a slam dunk for people who don’t own a truck to transport large items, but more accurate information is needed.

Ralph Jacobson

This is one category in which I actually believe brands have made significant inroads in recent years with many of the hurdles overcome with improved technologies. Many of the obstacles faced are mentioned in the article. When the websites provide multiple photos, offer free returns, etc., the obstacles have been disappearing.

Andrew Blatherwick
Household goods, and furniture in particular, are one of the hardest categories in which to master the last mile in a mass online manner. Most furniture stores are showrooms rather than sales floors in that people go, sit on the furniture, lay on it, whatever they need to do to decide that they like the item, but very few will then leave with that item. Often they are made to order with specific fabric choices or maybe it is just the bulk that makes it impossible to “carry home.” The furniture retail supply chain has long been built around this style of operation — they have fleets of home delivery vans, staff that are customer-facing either to assemble the furniture on-site or just deliver it and place it in the location. Very few mass online categories have delivery staff that actually enter the home, so furniture has a different dynamic where the delivery absolutely represents the brand. Also, as returning an item is so difficult, a whole reverse logistics process needs to be in place… Read more »
Richard J. George, Ph.D.

Some terrific comments by my fellow BrainTrust members. My only add is to emphasize that it’s not digital versus bricks & mortar. The successful furniture retailer will need to offer a blend of the two shopping formats. With such a blend, the retailer can be freed from trying to carry everything in cavernous stores. Instead, the stores could be reformatted to reflect more of a customized showroom experience.

In addition, the online experience can’t be limited to catalog like presentation of furniture. Instead, the use of virtual reality, allowing the customer to see the what the product looks like in her home, needs to become the new reality.

Shipping (final mile) and assembly will continue to be a challenge for furniture retailers of all ilk. However, local bricks & mortar retailers may have an advantage in this area.

Craig Sundstrom

“Simply providing more details online can alleviate hesitations….” I’ll have to respectfully disagree with Caroline — indeed I’m so 180° on this that I wonder if it isn’t a typo; every bit of info helps, of course, but furniture remains very much a “see it, touch it, feel it” category for the very reasons mentioned. Who would spend thousands on something (that will fill up a room in their house for years to come) based on little more than digital info?

Ultimately there may be some things that don’t translate well into online, and while I’d never bet money on it, I think furniture may be one of them.

Christopher P. Ramey

Furniture as a category has been dumbed-down to the point that most consumers do not think of it as an investment. High end furniture brands are losing sales because consumers don’t value the product category — alas there are few well-known consumer brands. The rug industry is experiencing the same. In the past, affluent consumers would only consider a hand-knotted wool heirloom.

There are many hurdles in selling furniture online. Delivery is challenging when the truck driver expects the customer to use their fork lift to get the sofa off the truck. Add to that the cost of shipping. Even the hassles of getting a sofa inside the house is a risk.

Customers expect comfort. But that requires sitting on the sofa before ordering it.

Brick & mortar furniture retailers have a substantial advantage over online retailers. But they have to aggressively compete – and I don’t see that happening.

"Online purchases should be a slam dunk for people who don’t own a truck to transport large items, but more accurate information is needed."
"Furniture is one of those categories that just works better in a hybrid model where customers can “touch, see and sit” in a showroom before they buy online and ship it home."
"Many furniture retailers are saddled with legacy systems that were not designed for today’s omnichannel world."

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