Home: Tips for buying furniture online


Would you buy a major piece of furniture, like a sofa, online? Apparently, a lot of people would.

The research firm IBISWorld reports that online furniture sales have grown at an annual rate of 9.6 percent over the last five years. And according to Furniture Today, the online furniture store Wayfair has even seen year-to-year gains of 50 percent. Clearly, furniture shoppers have caught the online shopping bug.

But unlike buying a book from an e-commerce site, online furniture shopping comes with unique challenges for consumers. The price points are higher. Shipping charges can add hundreds of dollars to the bill. And you can’t touch, feel or interact with a piece of furniture through your computer monitor.

Much of my online furniture shopping is for research. It saves me from driving all over town looking to see what different stores carry. For “brick and click” (or “click and mortar”) stores such as  Pottery Barn and Crate and Barrel, which have both online and physical presences, I can investigate their offerings on their websites before going into the stores to actually see the pieces. 

There have been plenty of times, though, that I bought furniture items online without seeing them in person. Most e-tailers — Houzz, Hayneedle, Wayfair, Amazon, Ballard Designs, etc. — don’t have brick-and-mortar stores. And even when they do, I’m often just too lazy to get in my car, go there and deal with a salesperson. Just this week I bought a lamp at lampsplus.com so I wouldn’t have to go into the store.

With all the online shopping I’ve done, I’ve learned a lot and made quite a few mistakes. So to help you on your own online shopping expeditions, here’s a handy guide to furnishing your home via the web.

Research the website

If you come across a site that you aren’t familiar with, do some homework on it. Start by reading the “About Us” page. A legitimate company will provide information about when it was founded, where it is located, and contact information such as a phone number or address. I get wary of sites that are nonspecific in the About Us page. And if the page has spelling or grammatical errors, a red flag immediately goes up. There’s a good chance it’s an overseas company, which means little to no customer service, longer delivery times and fewer guarantees of quality. Besides reading the About Us page, I also do an online search of the company name, often with the keywords “scam,” “legitimate” and “review,” to see if there are any complaints about the company.

Read the reviews

Everybody’s a critic, and that’s a good thing when buying furniture online. When you find a piece you like, check out what other buyers think of it. You’ll get an honest assessment of how comfortable the furniture is, how durable the materials are, and if the colors are true to how they look on the computer screen. And if assembly is involved, reviewers will often give advice about putting together the piece. 

Make sure it fits the room

It’s difficult to determine the true scale of furniture from a photograph alone. Find out the dimensions of the piece and use masking tape to map it out in the room where you intend to put it. (This is a good thing to do before you buy any piece, even when you aren’t buying online.) Even smaller items need to be checked for size. For example, a coffee table might look perfect next to your sofa. But take out a ruler to measure if it would be too high or too low. Double-checking measurements now will save you a lot of inconvenience in returns later.

Make sure it fits through the door

Don’t assume everything is going to fit through your front door — or narrow hallways and staircases. If items are disassembled and in separate boxes, that’s usually not a problem. But if a large furniture piece comes fully assembled, take note of the dimensions and then measure your front door and the pathway to its eventual room. I once bought a desk for a client from roomandboard.com (this was before there was a local store), and, to my horror, it would not fit through the door. Ultimately, I had to rent a crane to lift the desk to the second floor and through the French doors. Wow, that was expensive.

Compare prices

You can usually find the same furniture piece on several websites, so it’s a good idea to do some comparison shopping for the best combination of item price and shipping cost. An online search of the name of the piece will bring you to all the websites where it is sold. Sometimes I’ll jump straight to Amazon to check if it’s stocked there, and if free two-day shipping is available. And if the piece does not have a specific brand name to type into a search engine, copy a photo of it onto your desktop and conduct a Google image search of it. You may be able to find the exact piece on other websites, or at least items that look similar.

Order swatches

It’s very difficult to see true colors and finishes on your computer screen. Many furniture e-tailers will happily send you fabric or wood finish swatches so you know exactly what you’re getting. That way, you can look at the samples in the context of actual wall colors and other pieces in the room before making a decision.

Check the return policy

Know what the e-tailer’s return policy is before purchasing. (There is usually a link at the bottom of the home page.) Although they might allow returns, you may have to pay for return shipping. On smaller items, the cost may be negligible, but the return shipping on larger pieces can be prohibitive. For websites that have local brick-and-mortar retail stores, you may be able to return the item to the store. And check to see if you’ll need a Return Merchandise Authorization (RMA), whether you’re making a return via a shipping company or directly to the store. 

Consider the type of delivery

Online furniture stores offer various levels of delivery, ranging from curbside drop-off to white-glove in-home service. If you’re purchasing a heavy item, curbside drop-off can be a real inconvenience, as you have to recruit someone to help you lug it inside your home. However, in-home delivery can come with hefty surcharges; still I find it’s worth the money, because they typically provide simple assembly and remove all the packing material for you. Just be prepared for whichever type of delivery service to expect when ordering.

Beware of back orders

When you find a piece marked as “on back order,” it does not necessarily mean that the item is so popular that there is a waiting list to purchase it. That may be the case, but in my experience, it has frequently meant that there are hiccups in manufacturing, and the company is not ready to ship the item. I once ordered some wrought-iron candleholders from ” target=”_blank”> jonathanfongstyle.com.

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