Strategies to help make online furniture shopping less daunting

Marissa Hermanson

THE WASHINGTON POST – In mid-March, as the pandemic was taking hold, my husband, daughter and I were in the process of buying a new house, selling our old house and moving across town.

When we made it safely into our new abode, we felt relieved and eager to start the process of making our house a home.

But as we started to settle in, I realised that furnishing our house was not going to be simple. With bricks-and-mortar stores closed, we couldn’t shop in person for the pieces we needed, so we had to buy online.

Overseas furniture manufacturing and shipping have been disrupted because of the pandemic, leaving many items back-ordered or out of stock. And the thought of navigating a big furniture return during these times was daunting.

Still, we gave it a shot. I ordered a quick-ship sectional in a basic fabric that came in a timely fashion. That perfect kid-friendly piece sits in our sunroom. A lovely dining room table arrived soon after.

But a sofa in a custom fabric was back-ordered several months. We still haven’t received it, and now I’m second-guessing the purchase. Will it be comfortable? Is the fabric family-friendly?

Since the onset of the pandemic, online furniture sales have skyrocketted. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
During the pandemic, Jewel Marlowe gave one of her bathrooms a new look with Hygge & West ‘Palace’ wallpaper and Farrow & Ball Charlotte’s Locks orange paint. She added a Corbett Lighting ‘Rockstar’ agate and gold fixture

Wooden armchairs were delivered weeks late. A back-ordered rug pad arrived long after the rug came and furniture had been positioned on said rug.

A ready-to-assemble dresser was not ready to assemble; its hardware kit was back-ordered. And when a print arrived with a cracked frame, I haggled with customer service all day for a measly discount.

Many of us are in nesting mode while stuck at home, and we are shopping online as we continue social distancing. We want to make the most of our space, because our homes have taken on many roles: office, school, gym, refuge.

“It’s clear shopping for the home has become front of mind,” said Director of Interior Design Becca Roderick at the Furniture and Decor e-tailer One Kings Lane. “This means that there is more attention to making living spaces as comfortable as possible – upgrading worn upholstery, layering in comforting items like throw pillows and adding new art.”

Wayfair has seen a rise in purchases including vanities, faucets and lighting as housebound customers tackle DIY projects, according to a spokeswoman. Its sister sites AllModern and Birch Lane are experiencing surges in sales of storage pieces, outdoor planters and patio furniture.

One Kings Lane has also seen large increases in the outdoor category, specifically furniture, rugs, umbrellas and tableware. “Houses have always fulfilled the role of sanctuary in our lives, but now more so than ever,” Roderick said.

Navigating the virtual design world has been trickier than I anticipated. Five months after moving in, our house is half-furnished. I spoke with experts about how I could have approached this differently. Here is their advice on buying furniture online, during the pandemic and beyond.

DECORATING IN A VIRTUAL WORLD

Jewel Marlowe, an interior stylist in Fairfax Station, Vancouver, has used the pandemic as an excuse to continue sprucing up her home with a mix of high- and low-end furnishings, DIY projects and custom pieces. “Right now is the perfect time to be creative in your own home and find joy in the creative process. There’s ways to have fun without spending a lot of money,” said Marlowe, who also is working with clients virtually.

Through video chats, images, e-mails and phone calls, designers can help clients refresh their home from a distance. But Marlowe said it’s not the same as in-house visits. Colour matching and understanding natural lighting are challenges with virtual design.

“For those people who don’t find it fun, get an e-designer, and they can give you a few simple tips to make the process less stressful,” Marlowe said. But for those who are tackling projects themselves, here are some tips to keep in mind when shopping for furniture and accessories online.

GET PROPORTIONS RIGHT

Scale is the hardest part of shopping online. “When you walk in a store, you think, ‘That is about the size of my room.’ But when ordering online, you have no concept,” Marlowe said. “Sometimes it’s furniture set against a white backdrop with measurements, and you wonder, ‘What do those mean?’ “

Before getting started, know the space you are working with. Carefully measure the room and think about volume.

For instance, if you’re buying a low sectional, don’t pair it with high-back armchairs. Or if you have a small apartment-size sofa, don’t juxtapose it with two super-wide chairs. Think about each piece not just in relation to the room, but also to the furnishings around it. For those who have trouble visualising what a piece might look like in their space, a growing number of retailers offer visualisation tools and apps, such as Wayfair, whose “View in Room” feature on its mobile app lets shoppers place 3-D product images in rooms by using their smartphone cameras.

PRIORITISE QUALITY

Materials and construction methods matter in determining how durable the furniture will be.

Marlowe advises reading descriptions carefully and looking for key words that indicate higher quality. Dovetailed joints, with interlocking pieces of wood, are sturdy and show craftsmanship. Kiln-dried hardwood sofa frames hold up better over time, because there is less moisture in the wood. Pieces constructed with wooden dowels, double wooden dowels, wooden corner blocks or metal screws and brackets are put together well. Avoid pieces with plywood, glue, staples and nails.

Purchasing fabrics online can also be tricky, because colour and texture are hard to gauge. Many stores, including West Elm, Crate & Barrel and RH, offer fabric samples. For leather, Marlowe recommends full grain and top grain, which are more durable than split and bonded leathers. And with luxurious fabrics, such as velvet, look for cotton blends rather than 100 per cent polyester for a higher-quality look and feel. Another way to understand quality while shopping online is to read customer reviews. It’s even better when customers post photos of the item in their space to give context.

Consider comfort. It’s difficult to commit to a USD2,000 sofa without sitting on it. So how do you choose a big-investment piece online? “I start with the inside-out,” said owner of Kim Childs Design Kim Childs in Richmond, Vancouver. “It’s more than just, ‘Will this sofa fit on this wall?'” Many factors come into play – not only where your tush sits but also materials, seating depth, back support and even where your arm rests.

First, decide the function of your seating. A couch for lolling and watching TV is different from a sofa for a formal parlour.

Softer down-filled or down-wrapped cushions feel comfortable initially but won’t stand the test of time because they conform to the weight of your body and lose their shape, Childs said.

More affordable couches use soft Poly-Fil inserts, whereas the pricier, high-quality sofas use thick, high-density foams that hold their shape. Also consider how many cushions you want. If three feels too fussy, look for a couch with a bench cushion. As for backing, ask yourself whether you prefer loose cushions or a tight back with no cushions. Arm styles are important, too. Where will your arm rest, and is that height comfortable? Do you want a clean and contemporary track arm or a more traditional plush, rolled arm? If you’re still worried it might not work out, don’t fret. Returning furniture has gotten a lot easier and less stressful. Just make sure you understand the retailer’s return and exchange policy.

Don’t rule out secondhand pieces. “A room that is 100 per cent purchased online or from a store doesn’t tell the same story as if there are antiques or a vintage piece in the room,” Marlowe said. If you’re finding that items are back-ordered and out of stock, peruse local listings. Newspaper classifieds, Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace are filled with secondhand items and some new pieces.

Online auctions and estate sales are also great places to find affordable designer furniture, statement pieces, antiques and rugs that can add instant character to a room.

I’ve scored antique tables, mid-century lighting and Knoll Tulip chairs through online auctions and estate sales, saving myself hundreds of dollars. I like to compare prices with furnishings listed on high-end secondhand sites like Chairish, 1stDibs and even eBay, to make sure I’m really getting a good deal. Be sure to inquire about a piece’s condition and carefully inspect photos for wear and tear. Also, ask whether upholstered pieces come from a smoke-free and pet-free home.