Buying Furniture Online: A Retail Industry Transitions
We recently spent a day talking to exhibitors at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) in NYC. This annual show featured talented designers who make everything imaginable for the home. Their work was sublime.
Exhibitors shared that the big topic on the floor this year was “the future of retail.” With this theme in mind, the companies we met represented a range of retail strategies, from selling nothing online to selling only online. And everything in between. We wanted to get the pulse on the furniture industry today, and we did. As this industry transitions, here are some of the main themes we uncovered.
Ecommerce: The Investment is Worth It
Michael Cahill of Stone Forest was one of the most enthusiastic voices for ecommerce at the show. His company has been around for 28 years, and they sell beautiful outdoor garden sculptures online. Their products can run upwards to 2000lbs in weight. Stone Forest revamped their ecommerce store in 2016 and never looked back.
As Michael described, their old buying process went like this: people called up and requested a catalog, Stone Forest mailed the catalog, the customer reviewed it, and then called to place an order. Today that cumbersome process is gone, and customers complete all the steps online.
Stone Forest is one of the biggest shippers in their home state, New Mexico. They ship by freight, and they’ve developed strong relationships with local shippers over their years in business. As a result of these relationships, Stone Forest is able to offer very competitive pricing on their shipping. It usually takes them one week to prep an order and then two to three weeks to ship it.
In tandem with selling online, Stone Forest remains very attentive in customer service. As Michael explained, “During any step in the process, our customers can always call our office. I’ve had lots of times when someone called with their landscape designer and we walked through an installation over the phone.”
Shipping Runs the Gamut
After learning about Stone Forest’s freight shipping, we were curious to hear how other furniture makers send out their orders.
When we asked, we frequently heard one word: dropshipping. (Dropshipping is when a company holds inventory with another entity, i.e. a 3rd party warehouse, and the 3rd party handles all the shipping logistics.)
The companies that use dropshipping tend to love it. As one vendor shared, “Customers usually get our products within 7-10 days, and dropshipping takes out a big headache for us.”
Another exhibitor, Katrine Kjersgaard, of the Danish company, Ferm Living, said they have to use dropshipping. It’s vital to the way they run the business. Additionally, she had a compelling take on it: she’s thinking about product design as it relates to packaging from the very start. Companies tend to design a product and then figure out the packaging later. Katrine said one of her goals is to think more holistically about this; a product isn’t ready to go into the next stage of design until it’s packaging has also been worked out. Very cool approach – and we agree!
In a different strategy, Cody from Bend Goods said that his company keeps their own warehouse in Los Angeles. They ship via UPS and can often send an order from start to finish in 48 hours. He said the key to in-house shipping is to keep their inventory up-to-date, especially with their best selling products.
The Furniture Showroom Network Remains Robust
While some furniture companies fully embrace ecommerce and sing its praises, other exhibitors have yet to dive in. They cited long-standing ways of doing business as the main source of their reluctance. Namely, furniture showrooms and designer discounts are still important sales channels for the industry.
As one designer said, “As soon as you sell online, you shoot yourself in the foot with showrooms. They don’t want to carry your line any longer.”
Another company rep said that a lot of his business comes from interior designers. They buy furniture at or near wholesale prices, and then charge retail in the design process. He said he’s worried about offending the interior designers who buy from him if he were to starting selling online.
In response, we shared two key updates with companies that are hesitant to sell online:
- The wholesale world is online now, too. Companies can sell directly to showrooms and designers online. It doesn’t have to be either/or. For instance, Shopify Plus offers a seamless wholesale channel. Furniture companies can run both a retail and a wholesale business from the same online store.
- An online store can strengthen business that is already in place. Look to Stone Forest as an example. Ecommerce gave them the ability to expedite the order process. They still very much run a customer-centric business — only the cumbersome ordering process was eliminiated.
Ecommerce Lets Companies Tell Their Own Story
ICFF exhibitors shared another benefit to selling through their own online store: it allows them to brand their products. A lot of companies sell via marketplaces such as Wayfair and Lumens. But as one person told us, “There’s no curating in the online marketplaces. You are the company you keep. We put so much care into our line, and then they put us next to something of half the quality.”
Katrine from Ferm Living had another interesting take on this. She described their branded online store as a “flagship” site for other online retailers. The Ferm Living store shows other online retailers what’s possible when selling Ferm Living products. Their online store becomes a source of inspiration for other online sales channels.
Tariq Dixon, one of the co-founders of TRNK, said they have always been an ecommerce company. They started three years ago and make graceful, hand-crafted pieces. As he said, “With our own site, we get to tell the story behind the products we make.”
We believe this to be true. We were happy to meet incredible designers at ICFF, and now we want to help the industry transition into ecommerce. This can be done in a way that serves a company’s retail and wholesale buyers while offering easier, more effective transactions for everybody.