With the advent of fast fashion, clothing became on-trend, affordable—and ultimately disposable. Now, a new breed of quick-ship ventures is using that same model to upend the furniture industry.
Fast furniture is a relatively recent phenomenon—a late-20th-century exercise in encouraging consumers to buy more goods, more frequently, and at a lower price point. By speeding up production and delivery, trends can travel from the catwalk to the racks of stores like Zara and H&M in record time, sometimes in as little as 15 days. With such rapid turnaround, seasons dictated by runway brands become almost irrelevant. Instead, each cycle of new styles is abbreviated, allowing more rounds of clothing to hit stores each season, resulting in increased sales and profits for retailers. Aided by more efficient production technologies, a host of online-only brands are now using a similar strategy to sell furniture, delivering speed and savings in the process.
Largely selling directly to consumers via online storefronts, few of these young businesses carry stock. Instead, most have opted for made-to-order goods that carry the cachet of “custom” while sparing the company the cost of warehousing. Turnaround times vary from a mere four days up to three weeks—much more immediate than the six- to 12-week model of many traditional furniture showrooms. Unlike other retailers with relatively quick shipping times, fast furniture brands either don’t require assembly or assembly has been drastically simplified and requires no tools. And by and large, they forego conventional (and expensive) print and television advertising in favor of digital channels and targeted social media posts.
Fast furniture may not foreshadow the immediate decline of to-the-trade showrooms, but it’s a growing trend that offers insights into shifting consumer values and behaviors that are worth a closer look.
One of the newest companies to hit the fast furniture scene is Christiane Lemieux’s the Inside, which launched in September 2017. Lemieux is the founder of furniture and textiles brand DwellStudio, which she sold to Wayfair in 2013. Her aim with The Inside embodies the fast fashion ethos: “I love print and pattern,” she says. “The Inside is about bringing fashion, fun and ease to the consumer.” The site—backed by $1.5 million in seed funding from the venture capital fund that also backed e-commerce darlings like Glossier, Dollar Shave Club and Bonobos—offers a range of made-to-order goods that retail for $89 to $1,300, from seating, headboards and upholstered room screens to pillows, all in a wide array of colors and patterns. Fashion designer Peter Som and handbag designer Clare Vivier have both designed capsule collections that complement the site’s regular offerings. It’s quick, too—products are made in less than two weeks and shipped via FedEx.
Lemieux also partnered with Meganne Wecker, president of wholesale upholstery business Skyline Furniture, to found Cloth & Company. Launched in 2016, the company develops collections that are sold in partnerships with sites like One Kings Lane and Amazon. They also manufacture designer capsule collections, sold through retailers like Target. “With Cloth & Company, we can meet the opening price points of everyone from Walmart to Neiman Marcus,” says Wecker. The secret to the company’s versatility is a digital printer that “spits out 100 yards an hour”—custom fabrics produced on an as-needed basis with little or no waste. The textiles, printed on a linen-cotton base cloth, are then fitted onto furniture forms manufactured by Skyline.
For many fast furniture brands, social media offers heretofore unimagined marketing possibilities. Cloth & Company, in particular, is cleverly exploiting this medium. For its 13-silhouette collaboration with Apartment Therapy, launched at High Point Market in April 2017, Wecker’s design team used search criteria from visitors to the website—keywords like global or hunter green—to inform the design of a collection that was sold on Amazon and promoted on Apartment Therapy. In another savvy move, designer-blogger-fashionista Joy Cho of Oh Joy! Created vignettes using her furniture collection for Target—which featured the Cloth & Company fabrics she designed—and posted them on Instagram for her 383,000-plus followers. Links then drove shoppers to Target’s website for purchase. “This is a part of the business that’s changing every single minute,” says Lemieux. “We want to grow organically, so it’s about creating a community around design.” And there’s no faster way to do that than online.
Another take on direct-to-consumer furniture is Burrow, which streamlines manufacturing and delivery to an absolute minimum. The company started with only one product: a modular sofa that arrives in standard-size UPS boxes and can be assembled in minutes using snaps and latches. It was borne out of the frustrations of two friends, Kabeer Chopra (exasperated by the wait time on a West Elm sofa) and Stephen Kuhl (who had “a miserable experience,” he told the New York Post, trying to assemble a sofa for more than two hours). They launched Burrow in April 2017 and have expanded the line to include a chaise, an armchair and an ottoman. “Our ultimate goal is to be able to furnish a whole living room,” says Chopra. “Get it in a week and assemble it in an hour, but still have a high-quality product.”
Then there is Article, whose site launched in 2013. Founded by four software engineers, the company gets a leg up from stringent vetting of its manufacturing partners and regular factory visits. (Their vendors have achieved extraordinarily low defect and damage rates—less than 0.5 percent.) “No showrooms. No salespeople. No unnecessary layers,” reads the site. “We design the entire product, get it contract-manufactured, and store it in our warehouse,” explains Aamir Baig, the company’s co-founder, CEO and director. Article has already developed an extensive product range, from sofas to case goods and decorative accessories. “On average, customers save 30 percent compared to products of comparable quality,” says Baig, who considers CB2 and West Elm competitors. On top of the savings, 80 percent of the company’s products (it has more than 1,000 SKUs) arrive on a customer’s doorstep in less than two weeks; 30 percent arrive in one week. And for now, beyond targeted digital marketing campaigns and sponsored social media posts, Article’s marketing strategy is simple: If you deliver quality, Baig says, your customers will do your marketing for you.
Another player with a similar business model is Sixpenny, which launched in January 2017 and offers a range of furniture and case goods for living and dining rooms. The company prides itself on both its made-to-order capabilities and a vast collection of pieces that are ready to ship in just 14 days—as well as on the commitment to donate 6 percent of net proceeds to charity.
Interior Define sits somewhere in between fast furniture brands and more established retail outlets. Like its e-tail competitors, the upholstered furniture brand does not carry inventory. But unlike many of the businesses detailed here, Interior Defines lead time is eight to 12 weeks, more akin to traditional furniture stores. The company’s collaborations with Apartment Therapy founder Maxwell Ryan and the bloggers behind the sites The Everygirl and Chris Loves Julia, as well as editorial partnerships and online advertising, have attracted consumers. So has a robust retail presence—another unique feature of this brand—thanks to founder and CEO Rob Royer’s boots-on-the-ground approach to the brand’s major markets. (More on that later.)
Together, these companies are giving Swedish furniture giant IKEA—which launched in the United States in the 1980s and has grown its American retail presence to 46 stores—a run for its money. The company is responding. “We are adapting and looking at how we can be more competitive with our services and products in the multichannel shopping environment,” says Mary Lunghi, IKEA USA’s head of market intelligence. That includes an emphasis on versatility, modularity and speed. Thanks to a new wedge dowel, the company’s Lisabo and Regissor tables can now be assembled faster and with minimal tools, while the Odger chair snaps together and requires no tools. In markets where IKEA has stores, sofas purchased online have traditionally had a seven- to 10-day lead time, but the company’s goal is to shorten that time frame to five days.
“It’s all millennial,” says Wecker of Cloth & Company’s target market. “Our customers are starting out in their 20s, in their first apartment, through their mid-to-late-30s.” Chopra sees Burrow’s sweet spot as consumers in their late 20s to early 40s, too—“people shopping at CB2, Pottery Barn and West Elm,” he says. And, at Article, “We’re shipping to the cities in the U.S. and Canada with the highest concentration of people aged 25 to 34—consumers that put a lot of value on design and convenience,” says Baig.
Millennial are the biggest generation in history—there are 92 million 18- to 38-year-olds in the U.S. alone. They grew up on the internet and with smart phones in their hands, but have less money to spend and are more encumbered by debt than their predecessors. “With product information, reviews and price comparisons at their fingertips, millennial are turning to brands that can offer maximum convenience and lowest cost,” a recent Goldman Sachs study confirmed—a fact that makes this age group the ideal consumers of fast furniture.
Millennial also move, on average, every two years. “They don’t keep things for 20 or 30 years,” says Chopra. “They’re moving and changing a lot,” agrees Lemieux, whose customers at The Inside tend to live in cities. “Every time they move, they redecorate, so affordability becomes very important.”
Millennial also value self-expression. In furniture, that manifests as an enthusiasm for modularity and personalization, whether of the furniture or the textiles that cover it. “We want the backdrop of people’s lives to be every bit as unique as their individual personalities,” said Lemieux in a press release heralding the company’s launch. “The Inside will transform the way people shop for furniture by making it less onerous, infusing as much joy and personality into the buying experience as the products themselves. We can give customers something very special, very quickly, and at a price that makes refreshing their style attainable.”
All of these disruptors are embracing online sales for good reason—that’s where the money is right now. In 2017, the National Retail Federation reported that e-commerce retailers could expect to experience three times the growth of brick-and-mortar retailers—an 8 to 12 percent increase for online sales versus a paltry 2.8 percent in stores. In addition, eliminating costs like rent for storefronts and retail employees to staff them—plus, for many of these brands, the cost of warehousing back stock—delivers a significant savings for both the company itself and consumers.
There’s a leap of faith involved in buying something online, though it’s one that more and more shoppers are willing to make. But being an online-only brand has its own set of drawbacks, particularly when it comes to conveying quality. “It’s a challenge making the customer understand how you can have quality, low price and flexibility all at once,” says Chopra. Wecker acknowledges the same problem: “Does the customer understand that they’re receiving a custom chair instead of a cheaply made chair?” she asks. It is also hard to perceive texture online, which is one reason Cloth & Company, emphasizes color and pattern.
And just as e-tailors like Warby Parker and Amazon are now exploring retail stores, some fast furniture brands are looking to brick-and-mortar as a complementary business strategy, assuaging the customer’s natural desire to sit on a sofa before clicking “Add to Cart.” In addition to its site, Interior Define has opened four Guide shops—storefronts in Chicago (home to the company’s headquarters), Manhattan, Los Angeles and Austin, Texas—that allow customers to experience the company’s offerings. “We’re an online-first brand—more than 80 percent of our business is still online—but we’ve always believed in offering a physical outlet for people to engage with us,” says Royer.
The Guide shops, relatively small for a furniture showroom at only 1,700 to 2,500 square feet, are staffed by employees who can help customers tailor their upholstered piece. “Customers who visit a Guide shop are more likely to purchase companion pieces, like an ottoman,” explains Royer. “They’re also much more likely to customize their piece to the max—the length of the piece, the length of the chaise at the end of a sofa, and in some cases, the depth, filling, and cushion configuration.” The Guide shop model attracts not only consumers, but also interior designers. “Originally, designers were interested in us for second homes and secondary rooms,” says Royer, whose product served as a quality option for spaces where clients were less inclined to invest. “Now, they’re coming back and shopping with us for primary and secondary homes.”
Instead of putting down permanent roots, Sixpenny has embraced trunk show–like pop-ups, called Road Shops, where customers can sit before they spend. (They were in New York and Los Angeles in late 2016 to preview the brand, and occupied a Denver storefront in November and December 2017.) Burrow has developed its own unique workaround: “We partner with like-minded brands that serve as proxy showrooms for us—places like Bonobos, where you can touch and feel the product,” explains Chopra.
Though Article has yet to open up retail location, Baig acknowledges the advantages of a physical space. “We’re psychologically conditioned to trust something more when we’ve seen it—many furniture buyers still won’t even consider buying online,” he says. “Digital will still be first, but that’s not to say we won’t have brick-and-mortar at some point. Showroom experiences will have a role in the future, too, but more to add value and convenience versus as an alternative to digital.”
Whether or not online brands embrace physical spaces, one key piece of the fast furniture puzzle is a generous, hassle-free return policy. The shoes don’t fit? Sending them back with a prepaid mailing label is second nature. Same goes for mattresses, where free, no-questions-asked pickups within the first 100 nights are fairly standard. Fast furniture companies—even those making custom, one-of-a-kind pieces—are doing it, too: Interior Define accepts returns for a full 365 days (14 days at no cost; after that, a 10 percent restocking fee and $400 shipping fee); customers of Article, Burrow, Sixpenny and The Inside have a 30-day window for returns.
So where does this new model leave trade showrooms and other traditional furniture retailers? It might be wise for West Elm and CB2 to start looking over their shoulders as this category encroaches on their borders. But Wecker and Lemieux insist fast furniture isn’t replacing high-end furniture anytime soon. “The showroom model is a totally different price point,” says Lemieux. “It doesn’t have to all be heirloom. Ours is a chair you’ll have for five years versus 50.” Wecker agrees: “You’re not putting a digitally printed fabric on a $5,000 sofa.”
Alex Kubo, Burrow’s vice president of growth, sees it differently. He is betting on the fact that even as millennial get older and start trading up for newer, better furniture, they still won’t want to wait. “Upgrading quality has traditionally meant shelling out a lot of money and waiting for weeks on end,” he says. “Now those folks don’t have to settle for paying exorbitant premiums and waiting a trimester after buying to get a high-quality sofa delivered.” Baig agrees: “When it comes to the aging of the millennial generation, we believe the propensity for convenience and value won’t change.”
“It doesn't have to all be heirloom. Ours is a chair you’ll have for five years versus 50.”
Yet quality and convenience mean different things to different consumers. It would be hard for even the most enthusiastic fast furniture devotee to argue that their brand’s sofa—while unquestionably well-built and, yes, maybe even “better” than many choices available at a higher price point—is the same quality as a solid-frame, leather-upholstered custom sofa from Poliform, Liaigre or Ralph Lauren Home. Not everyone is going to want that vaguely midcentury modern aesthetic all their lives, either. Tastes change. Convenience, too, is relative. There is also a large audience that considers a 12-week wait time a small price to pay for an absolutely unique, exquisitely handcrafted piece of furniture.
As with the relationship between couture connoisseurs and fast fashion consumers, these are two different audiences with little crossover. Most consumers of fast fashion still consider couture an unattainable luxury. They might splurge on a brand-name bag or pair of sunglasses, but being dressed head-to-toe in Valentino isn’t within their budget. The luxury customer, though she may fancy herself chic when rocking a high-low look accentuated by some finds scored at TJ Maxx, is after a certain level of quality found only within the ranks of high-end retailers. In the realm of furniture, it’s the same. For the moment, at least, there’s still room for everyone.
Source: This article originally appeared in winter 2018 issue of Business of Home.