Furniture Shopping in the Digital Age

I was recently recruited to help my college-grad son buy some furniture for his first apartment. Let’s start at Ikea, I advised. That’s where twenty-somethings shop, after all. It’s one of the biggest furniture chains in the world, so surely it has a web site.

So what do we find at A site that lists its stores (none near us in Boston), and invites visitors to fill in a form to be sent a catalog (via snail mail). After receiving the catalog, in a week or two at best, we could phone in an order. But no online ordering. Who’s got time for that?

Well, then. Let’s try Jordan’s Furniture, one of the largest chains in the Boston area at $250 million annual sales, recently acquired by tycoon Warren Buffett’s conglomerate, Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Surely its web site, we thought, would offer photos of its furniture, which we could then view personally at one of its stores.

Unfortunately, Jordan’s site was worse than Ikea’s. It announced “a major and exciting facelift” due to be completed “sometime in the year 2000.” Oh, and “Furniture pictures are not available at this time.”

The Touchy-Feely Part

So why not just head off to one of the many online furniture web sites like,, or Well, I suppose we could have. But we wanted to see and feel the furniture. How well did the dresser drawers slide in and out? How deep were the individual drawers? Was there real wood or plywood on the backs of the dressers? Were the drawers flush or did they stick out slightly when pushed in?

We headed over to the nearest Jordan’s Furniture, where a very pleasant saleswoman asked us about our price range and preferred style of furniture, and then took us on a 20-minute tour of five different options. Two interested us, and we went back and looked over the details of the furniture – how high each piece was, how the drawers compared in feel and design, and other such details.

After we selected the option we wanted, the saleswoman asked us about when and where the furniture could be delivered. We wanted the furniture delivered on a particular day, as early in the morning as possible, so my son would minimize time away from work. Yes, they could deliver between 7 and 10 a.m. And she would request that the delivery be made as close to 7 a.m. as possible.

The Online Anxiety

Now I suppose I could have jotted down the manufacturer names and model numbers of the furniture we wanted to purchase, then gone to or one of the others and tried to compare prices before actually committing to buy. But somehow it seemed more trouble than it was worth. Not that I don’t like to save a few dollars as much as the next person.

Perhaps because I’m a man, I detest real-world shopping, probably almost as much as my son does. If I went back to and compared items, I might find everything that I wanted at a somewhat lower price. But more likely, I’d discover that a particular model wasn’t available online, or out of stock. Then I’d have to make another trip back to Jordan’s to seal the deal. So when presented with an opportunity to get the whole thing out of the way in the space of an hour, I grabbed it.

And the fact that the delivery time was controllable via the store – well, that was the clincher. promises that its delivery service will arrange delivery within a four-hour “window” between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., unless you live in certain undefined “weekly” or “remote” areas, where delivery is more erratic.

I’ve been through enough delivery situations to know how tentative such promises can be. I also knew that I had some leverage with Jordan’s, since it is local. And sure enough, when Jordan’s screwed up, calling the day before the promised delivery and wanting to deliver in the middle of the day rather than the previously promised early morning, I was able to yell and scream enough to get the time changed back to the original 7 a.m. Could I have done that with’s delivery subcontractor on its way from the factory? Doubtful.

The Foregone Opportunity

The point of all this? Selling big-ticket, taste-sensitive items like furniture exclusively over the Internet is a tough row to hoe. Furniture, and other such items as jewelry and artwork, are more difficult to deal with via the Internet because customers want to look over the real thing rather than a picture, and in some cases, touch and feel the items. There may be concerns, especially with jewelry or artwork, about authenticity.

That’s why offers a 30-day trial, and will pay to ship unwanted items back to the factory.

What’s amazing is that large retail chains like Ikea and Jordan’s aren’t using the Internet to enhance the real-store selling experience.

Our furniture shopping experience would have been much more pleasant and interesting if we could have seen online photos of Jordan’s inventory, and then gone over to view it in real life. Receiving confirmation emails and monitoring delivery details via the Internet would have helped ease our concerns around a particularly stressful part of the entire experience.

In the meantime, the real-world companies are giving the online e-tailers time to hone their pitches. advertises heavily via sophisticated TV ads, promising a worry-free experience in which your home winds up looking fashionable, and you wind up saving money in the process.

Perhaps most importantly, online furniture sellers are amassing databases of customers and learning about each individual’s tastes and buying approaches. As time goes on, they’ll learn how to lure reluctant shoppers like me. Large, conventional chains are losing out on a perfect opportunity to exploit the combination of online and offline tactics.

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