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What's Wrong With Buying Furniture and Mattresses Online?

The Promise

Buying things online seems to offer so much it's almost magical. Instantly have the whole world at your fingertips without even leaving home. And this is mostly true when:

  • You can make a good buying decision by only seeing a small image on a laptop or phone screen
  • The item is small enough be put in an envelope or box and dropped on your doorstep
  • It can be easily assembled and installed by the average person

That's why hundreds of bookstores have closed their doors and gone out of business.

Furniture is Different

But furniture stores are still around. What makes furniture harder to buy online? Why are even e-commerce brands opening their own brick and mortar stores? Here's why.

  • The only way to know how a couch sits, how a mattress feels, or be sure of true color and texture is through actual physical experience. Pictures on a screen just don't cut it.
  • Good quality, non-rickety sofas, dressers, and cabinets must be factory assembled and shipped in one piece. Even furniture that is designed to be assembled on site (like a bed frames or futon) requires some experience and aptitude to install properly.
  • Furniture boxes shipping via UPS or Amazon arrive beat-up and dirty - often with concealed damage. Ask package sorters and drivers (I've spoken to many) how the job compels them to do solo work that really should be done by a team.
  • Even after arrival on the porch you still have the door, the hallway and maybe even stairs to navigate- without scraping and denting house or furniture.

"Free Shipping" - The Big Lie

Acknowledging the downsides and hassles of purchasing online furniture, it still might be worthwhile if you could get a great deal. But here is where e-commerce become the most deceptive

  • There is no "Free Shipping". Let's say you order an imported (usually from Asia) sofa from an online brand. The actual true cost (in 2022) to ship that sofa from the West Coast distribution center to your home in Western New England is $350-$500. This cost gets built into the final price you pay.
  • If you pay $1399 for on online sofa (with "Free Delivery") you are really getting $899 worth of Sofa and $500 of Delivery.
  • Of course we bricks-and-mortar retailers also pay shipping costs, but they are much lower. Our warehouse team quickly unloads 12-50 sofas per shipment onto an elevated dock with wheeled dollies and forklifts. So the trucking fee is only $75 per sofa.
  • Now take that $75 and add it to our local White Glove delivery fee of $50 - with us you pay a total of $125 to get the sofa from the factory into your living room. That's a fourth of the real $500 shipping cost of the online sofa. Local bricks-and-mortar furniture brands can offer better value.

Here's a little back-story. Fly By Night started in 1988. In 1999 we launched webfuton.com, one of the very first e-commerce sites selling futon furniture on the internet. We did good business selling high quality US and European made products- almost $650,000 by our second year. We coded a shipping calculator that took the customer's zip code and calculated how much to add for UPS shipping. If the futon cost $400 and UPS shipping was $100. We would charge $500.

Around 2002 the online landscape began to shift. Some e-commerce sites selling cheaper imported furniture began photoshopping the pictures to eliminate the knots, finish streaks, and wrinkles that these cheaper products actually had.

The product photos looked so much better than the real thing. Customers were getting deceived about what they were actually purchasing (today this is standard practice but at the time it seemed scandalous.)

The doctored photographs made it impossible to discern the better wood, nicer fit and finish, and superior hardware of the American made products.

The Invention of "Free Shipping"

In addition, these same sites stopped using shipping calculators. Instead of itemizing the final cost as $400 for furniture and $100 for shipping they charged the same $500 but dishonestly claimed that shipping was free.

We refused to join in this sleazy game. We continued to be transparent about shipping costs. We knew that trucks, truck drivers and diesel fuel aren't free. We were sure people would see right through this phony "Free Delivery" - they would never believe such nonsense.

Oh how wrong we were. We learned the hard way that those who refuse to play along with the "Free Shipping" gambit get punished, not rewarded. Eventually we closed webfuton.com and focused our energy into Fly By Night. We built a new warehouse in Easthampton and a 20,000 sq foot showroom in Downtown Northampton.

I suppose the final lesson is that emotion trumps logic. There is just something so powerful in the (logically untrue) promise of getting something for "Free" that it has become a standard practice in American business. And to this day "Free Shipping" remains the Big Lie at the heart of internet commerce.

Conclusion: Buying Furniture From a Real Store is Better Than Online

  • Many customers regret buying a couch they never sat on or a mattress they never lied on.
  • Furniture is not well suited for direct shipping to the end user because it's large, heavy, easy to damage and hard to get upstairs.
  • Buying furniture online doesn't really save money. "Free Shipping" is a trick because shipping costs are just built-in to the final price. Most online sellers don't eliminate the middle-man, they become the Middle-man.
  • Even online brands are opening real stores. A bricks and mortar experience allows customers to save time, make better choices and eliminate mistakes.

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