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Amid pandemic delivery delays, can furniture rental and resale brands find mainstream appeal?

Growth of furniture rental and resale platforms has exploded during the pandemic as furniture delays created frustration for consumers - but can it take off?

Rental platform Conjure allows people to furnish their apartments with borrowed tables, chairs and other items of furniture. (Photo: Conjure)
CATEGORY DIVE

Furniture sales have boomed throughout the pandemic — but actually getting these bulky items into customers’ hands has not been easy.

In July, Slate recounted how a customer of Joybird waited months for a furniture delivery — when it eventually arrived, it contained just half a sofa. Another article told the story of a medic who spent six months sleeping on a mattress on her floor, waiting for West Elm to deliver furniture to her new home, while an interior designer told the New York Times that a sofa she has her eye on, from Urban Outfitters, is “back-ordered until November 2021.”

Materials shortages, global shipping issues, and factory shutdowns are all contributing to these unprecedented delays. The solution, for a number of savvy consumers and brands, has been to forget buying brand new furniture altogether, and instead look to rental and resale platforms.

How the pandemic got people switched to furniture rental

Feather, a furniture rental startup that was founded in 2017, says rentals of “work from home products” such as desks and chairs exploded during the pandemic, rising 400% since the beginning of the pandemic. Meanwhile, it says there has been a 260% increase in demand for comfortable items, like sofas, beds and cozy chairs, as people spend more time at home.

“The last year has brought a lot more uncertainty than ever in terms of where people will be and how long they’ll be there,” says Ilyse Kaplan, Feather’s chief operating officer, when reflecting on these increases. “We saw a lot of people, for example, leaving New York and San Francisco during the pandemic. [They’re] now coming back, but they have a different sense that they might only be here for a year or two.” As a result, they may not want to waste time waiting for deliveries — or committing to furniture items that might not work in the next place they rent.

Because customers periodically return items to them, rental platforms like Feather and its peers Fernish, ZZ Driggs, Conjure and others have been somewhat insulated from some of the wider supply chain issues plaguing the furniture sector. The rental platforms promise to deliver and assemble the furniture in around one week, and only products that are currently in stock are listed as available on the platforms.

Conjure’s founder Daniel Ramirez says that furniture has been “flying out of the warehouse” so far in 2021, as people have returned to the cities in which it operates. Ramirez estimates the business has grown “sevenfold” since the start of the year, with sales ramping up as September’s moving season approaches.

Resale is another way to help customers avoid delays. In April, DTC furniture brand Floyd launched Full Cycle, a resale marketplace where consumers can buy pre-loved furniture from the brand with discounts ranging between 15% and 50%. In January, Sabai made a similar move with the launch of its own buy-back program, while furniture giant Ikea launched its own resale service in October 2020. In May, used furniture marketplace Kaiyo raised $5 million in funding to expand its service into new markets across the U.S.

ZZ Driggs sources the furniture for its consumer rental platform from independent American designers. (Photo: ZZ Driggs)
Does furniture rental make sense?

The pain point the furniture rental and resale platforms are targeting is a real one: Americans typically move house 11 or more times during their lifetime (a number which is expected to rise, as people reassess their living situations due to the pandemic), while the average cost of hiring movers to lug your stuff across the country comes in at $1,400, according to Forbes.

The brands argue that as well as providing a more convenient alternative to dragging furniture from apartment to apartment — Feather’s website features curated “packages” tailored to specific rooms in the home — they are also providing them with a more affordable way to elevate their living spaces. ZZ Driggs sources its furniture from independent designers across the U.S. and gives customers the option of renting or buying the item. They don't even need to decide right away: if the renter is later willing to commit, their monthly payments will go towards purchasing the item outright.

Conjure takes a similar design-first approach to the furniture it carries on its platform. “You could theoretically buy the look that we sell, but it’s going to cost you so much more,” Ramirez says, adding that this also requires the purchaser to make a commitment to a single style of decor, when in reality their tastes may change over time.

There is also an environmental imperative that these platforms are responding to: in 2017, Americans threw away 12.2 million tons of furniture, more than 80% of which ended up in landfill. But while cheap, low-quality furniture can be flimsy and difficult to dispose of (MDF and other mixed materials cannot be recycled), higher-quality items that can stand the test of time often come with prohibitive price tags. ZZ Driggs’ founder Whitney Frances Falk says rental is therefore the answer: “That’s the beautiful thing about the sharing economy — at its heart, it is all predicated on goods that last.”

Is furniture rental and resale here to stay?

Furniture rental may make a lot of sense on paper, and the pandemic may have given some consumers the push they needed to try it out — but can the concept find mainstream appeal?

Scaling these services up can be a tricky business. The platforms often tout their “white glove” delivery service, where a team of extra-careful delivery people will not only drop off the item of furniture at your door, but bring it inside, pivot it through awkward doorways and make sure that it is placed exactly where it works best. ZZ Driggs’ delivery team can even reel off facts about the furniture items in question — such as the kilim rug inherited from Dolly Sinatra, Frank Sinatra’s mother, or the chaise lounge that dates back to the mid-1700s. To roll this kind of high-touch service out has to be done slowly, and most of the platforms only operate in a number of cities across the U.S.

Still, ZZ Driggs’ Falk is confident that people will continue to turn away from fast furniture, as they look to reduce the amount of waste they generate — a trend that bodes well for the rental and resale platforms.

“I think in five years from now, if furniture retailers are not offering warranties, guarantees, or they don’t have some sort of buyback program, they’ll become obsolete,” she explains. “Furniture, when made well, is one of the most sustainable products out there. It’s longer lasting than fashion, and it should be.”

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