Nothing says “I’m about to be 30” like buying furniture by the truckload. It seems like every day, I’ve got a shipment coming in from IKEA or Wayfair. From big box chains to scratch and dent stores, the sales staff know my face.
And it got me wondering: why is it, wherever we go, that furniture shopping feels like shit?
I should probably explain myself.
Everywhere I go for furniture, I’ve noticed a few trends. Everything seems square and rectangular – from couches to bed frames to bookshelves – in a way that you don’t see with furniture from the past. The beautiful and complete furniture that you see in the store, if you look closely often enough, occasionally still has little stickers on it saying “B” or “E”, indicating that it was assembled in-store with Allen wrenches or wood screws.
Whether you pay $200 or $2,000 for a couch, it seems like they all could have come from Wayfair with their angular designs. If you spend $4,000 on a bedroom set from Ashley Furniture, you’ll end up assembling it like Kallax shelves from IKEA.
And if that weren’t chaotic enough? If you do a reverse image search of furniture when you’re online, you can often find it cheaper under five different names at five different stores. I did this myself with some bookshelves from Wayfair, priced at $162 each, finding them on Home Depot under a different name at $119 each.
So what on earth is going on?
Why are all these retailers selling samey looking furniture at different prices? Why are we putting together our own furniture at home while paying a premium? What happened to the big-ass couches with hideous floral patterns from the 1970s that came assembled and stuffed with a ludicrous amount of padding?
The answer is…
Fast furniture, or, how good-looking garbage furniture became dominant in the market.
In the fashion world, there is the concept of fast fashion. In it, the clothing industry will take inspiration from the catwalk and from high-fashion and mass produce their clothes at a low cost. The idea is to flood the retail stores with new inventory while demand is high.
The problem with this is that the vast majority of that clothing is cheaply made, falls apart quickly, and even when it doesn’t, it ends up in a landfill because fashion trends change so fast. It is, in short, planned obsolescence for clothing.
Sometime in the last decade, this concept caught on with furniture. Millennial consumers would see fashionably decorated homes on HGTV and Instagram, and think to themselves, “I want that.”
Furniture manufacturers had to play by new rules. Before, to win over the middle-class consumer, the name of the game was to make furniture that felt heavy. Furniture was expensive so it had to feel like it would last forever, leading many consumers to prioritize comfort and durability over style.
You saw a similar problem happen in, of all things, the apple industry. Up until 2018, the Red Delicious was the most popular apple in the United States despite people generally agreeing that it tasted bad. It looked beautiful and was easy to produce, leading to its dominance on the market despite not really being that good in the first place.
I’m afraid the same thing has happened to furniture. Gorgeous pieces can be made really cheaply and quickly. Hence badly made, samey-looking furniture can be found everywhere all at once, with little to no variation.
I don’t hate Wayfair or IKEA – I have plenty of their furniture in my home. But I’ve also replaced a ton of their furniture too (especially Wayfair).
Keeping prices down for broke Millenials and Gen Z comes with a cost.
Why would people willingly spend their money on lousy furniture that won’t last? I’d argue a lot of that comes down to the fact that Millenials and older members of Gen Z just don’t have that much money to spend. Younger consumers are smart and would probably buy for durability if they could, but in a lot of cases, they just can’t.
So on the one hand, there’s a pressure from TV and social media to have a home that looks chic. On the other hand, there’s a counterpressure to keep spending as low as possible because everything from rent to healthcare costs way more than it used to relative to a typical salary.
Enter IKEA – the company that made it possible to have a stylish home for cheap. Their furniture is genuinely stylish and surprisingly durable. But there are a few catches.
For one, you have to assemble it yourself. IKEA saves on labor and you save on money, but ultimately, putting in your own labor is a cost that older furniture shoppers didn’t have to pay.
And, of course, keeping costs down for flat-pack furniture requires the seller to optimize everything about the shipping process. Nothing ships cheaper than a flat box with no void space. This is why I personally believe so many of the panels and boards and cushions that make up our furniture are suspiciously square. It helps keep the supply chain costs as low as possible from freight to fulfillment.
Keeping that price tag down requires other compromises too. Instead of tough, durable woods, everything is made of lighter, cheaper particle board. The Millenial heather gray edges of desks and tables are an eighth of an inch thick and start to chip away if you so much as breathe on them incorrectly.
The iron rule of cost-cutting spares no company. Every single furniture store I’ve walked into after the pandemic has this problem in a way that wasn’t present when I was first buying furniture after college in 2015.
Furniture companies are using the same suppliers in many cases, giving them the opportunity to charge different prices.
In my quest to find the right bookshelves for my office, I started shopping online. The mission: find cube bookshelves that I could stack. I bought nine of them so I could assemble them all. I had to reinforce them in the back with some plywood because the bookshelves were flimsy. Then I got some decorative board which I painted black and cut with a miter saw to make it look like a built-in.
Of course, to do this, I needed bookshelves of a very specific size. That involved a lot of searching on Wayfair for the perfect size, meaning I would have to pay more. Unhappy with the final total price which was upwards of $1,600, I set out to find coupons. Every coupon code failed, as it always does when online shopping.
But I found a Reddit thread telling me I could reverse image search for furniture to find it cheaper. Turns out, the same exact bookshelves that were going for $162.99 on Wayfair were $119.99 on Home Depot.
This is extremely common.
Not only do furniture companies copy the same styles, but they often end up selling the same furniture under different names at different prices. To me, this is a clear sign that retailers are buying from the same suppliers.
Now in between the lines, that makes me think that this is directly related to the “fast furniture” trend. I can’t confirm this, unfortunately. But consider this argument and decide for yourself whether it makes sense.
Furniture companies are now incentivized to make cheap furniture that looks trendy. Doing so requires a massive, cost-efficient operation that not many manufacturers can manage. That means there are probably only a handful of companies making the vast majority of the furniture on the market. Hence, these retailers are buying from the same suppliers. The only difference in customer experience comes down to loyalty programs, prices, warranties and return policies, and other relatively superficial things.
“Preposterous” isn’t necessarily “bad” – the market functions differently and consumers can still do pretty well, as long as we accept the new normal.
The idea of furniture looking good, but falling apart quickly and going for different prices on different stores might feel incredibly bleak. But if you think about for a little longer, it isn’t necessarily so.
The fact that good-looking furniture can be bought for cheaply is, in a weird way, democratic and optimistic. Someone making $45,000 per year can have an apartment that looks surprisingly similar to that of someone making $150,000 per year. I don’t hate that idea.
Furthermore, as annoying as it is to assemble flat-pack furniture, it’s also nice to have the option to save money. You can always pay extra for “expert assembly” and avoid the hassle entirely. Save the money or save the hassle – it’s your choice!
Plus, how could I possibly complain about having the ability to find the same furniture cheaper in one minute with a reverse image search? It’s a strange thing to have to do, but it’s better than spending all day driving across town to all the furniture stores.
To me, the most important thing to do basically accept – completely and fully – that the furniture market is absurd. Accept that it has some truly terrible aspects. Then behave responsibly with that knowledge.
Long before Carmax and Carfax, buying a used car was a sketchy proposition. You would have to go to a used car dealer, assume everything they’re telling you was a lie, and judge the car by how it appeared. But because of the inefficiency and absurdity of this market, a sufficiently well-educated buyer could get a good car for a really good price.
That’s what buying furniture is like now. You have to get a feel for what’s not going to fall apart as soon as you put it in your apartment. You have to learn to tell by looking what’s going to be comfortable. The average consumer will need to learn how to do a reverse image search to save 30% or so on furniture.
But in return, if you get really good at finding those few quality pieces out of the whole lot, then you will pay $1,500 for something that should cost $5,000.
It’s not really good or bad. It just is.
The marketing lessons in all this
In the end, this is ultimately a marketing blog and I impart marketing lessons into every post. This is no different.
What happens to consumers happens to businesses too. For the generations struggling to make a buck in the post-Recession world, furniture sellers had to find a way to keep costs down. That meant changing the way furniture was manufactured.
Eventually, flat-pack, conspicuously square furniture became common because it was the single most efficient way of serving the target market’s needs. These days, power has likely consolidated behind a handful of suppliers, meaning companies shuffle on, only differentiated by their branding.
Market needs changed and the market responded. Now there’s a new optimal way to sell furniture to the masses.
So if you run a business, here’s what I want you to remember:
- Never stop working on a consistent brand. It can keep you going even as the industry changes around you.
- Pay attention to how consumers spend their money now and not how they used to.
- Find your niche. Whether you do as others do or buck the trend, you’re going to have to respond to the trend one way or another, pro or anti.
- Reverse image search furniture before you buy it for your office. Seriously, small business is hard. Save yourself a buck.