10 Things Furniture Stores Won’t Say
AnnaMaria Andriotis / SmartMoney
1. We don’t get paid until you buy. That’s why we’re so pushy.
As a former furniture store owner, Stephen Antisdel says he’s familiar with marketing tactics salespeople often use to boost sales. But that didn’t prepare him for a visit to a major department store near his home in Buchanan, Mich., where he says he was on the furniture floor for about 30 seconds before a saleswoman approached him. Stephen, 59, explained that he and his wife Shelli wanted to replace their 15-year-old sofa and that he was fine searching the store by himself. But the saleswoman hovered over him for another fifteen minutes, suggesting that he make a purchase quickly before the store’s sale ended, before he gave up and left. He hasn’t been back to that department since. “It was painful,” says Antisdel, who is now an adjunct professor of business at Indiana Tech’s College of Professional Studies.
Most furniture stores pay salespeople a salary and commission, with heavy volume retailers giving 4% to 8% and some upscale retailers offering 10% or more, says Nicole Larrauri, managing partner at the Retail Marketing Group, a marketing and consulting firm that works with furniture stores. But, raking in commissions is harder since furniture store sales are still down. In December, they totaled $7.6 billion in sales, down 15% from December 2007, according to the Commerce Department. And some stores require salespeople to sell a minimum dollar amount of furniture before they qualify for any commission, says Larrauri. With fewer couches and four-poster beds moving and a high bar for commissions, the result is often aggressive sales pitches–like claiming a living room set is almost sold out or that a weekend sale won’t occur again. Usually it’s not true; furniture stores often repeat sales and incentives, especially during national holidays. Industry reps contend that salespeople are simply trying to figure out what the customer is looking for. “If you have a salesperson trying to discover those objectives, they’re probably going to ask a bunch of questions and some people will interpret that as being pushy,” Steve DeHaan, executive vice president at the National Home Furnishings Association
2. No matter what I say, your furniture might not arrive anytime soon.
Three months before Dana Marlowe, 34, gave birth to her now two-year-old son, she ordered a customized rocking chair from an independent retailer in her hometown of Silver Spring, Md. She was looking forward to rocking her newborn son in it and was assured the chair would arrive one month before her due date. But that day came and went, with no sign of the rocker. “Every time I called, they said they were working on it but there was no exact delivery date,” says Marlowe, president of Accessibility Partners, an IT consulting firm for people with disabilities. When the chair finally arrived, her son was already two months old.
Once a purchase is made, there’s little guarantee the furniture will arrive in the time frame that the store claims, says Jeff Green, an independent retail consultant. Even major retailers, like Crate & Barrel and Macy’s, sometimes deliver weeks after the date they promise. A Macy’s spokesman says late deliveries are rare but occur if the store learns the furniture is damaged or if the furniture manufacturer doesn’t ship the right order to the store’s distribution center. He adds that in few cases in the past couple of years, furniture manufacturers weren’t able to fill an order because of financial problems they were experiencing. Crate & Barrel didn’t respond to requests for comment. Before purchasing an item, confirm that the order can be canceled in case of delay. For furniture that a consumer purchases on the phone or online (or via the mail), there’s the Federal Trade Commission’s mail order rule, which states a company must ship an order within 30 days unless it states a different time period. Otherwise, the retailer must notify customers of the delay and give them the chance to cancel instead of continuing to wait.
3. We’re not responsible for any damage to the furniture—and that crack in the wall the couch made? Not our problem either.
Shortly after Jessica Commins and her husband Andrew bought their new home in Raleigh, N.C., Jessica, 32, visited a local independent furniture shop where she purchased a queen-sized mattress and box spring. The shop delivered them the same day for free–but the process was anything but smooth. By the time the box spring made it into the guest room, where it would accommodate Andrew’s parents when they visited, there was a small, two-inch tear on its fabric. But the real damage, she says, occurred elsewhere. As the deliveryman tried to navigate the narrow hallway into the house, she says she watched in horror as he jammed the box spring into the wall, removing part of the stucco from the ceiling and exposing the metal support beam (and making that tear).
Around 20% of consumer complaints filed against furniture stores, or roughly 7,500 from 2007 to 2009, involved broken or damaged furniture, according to the Better Business Bureau. Consumers should inspect the furniture closely before it’s moved into their home. If it’s damaged, don’t sign for it or accept it – instead tell the company to take it back. DeHaan says that stores typically inspect furniture before it’s loaded on a truck for delivery to a customer’s home, but in some cases it’s possible they might not notice the damage or that it could have occurred during the delivery process. Consumers who accept damaged furniture will have a harder time making the case for a refund. Also, if it’s clear that the furniture can’t fit through the hallway or up the stairs without banging up against the wall, think twice about allowing the deliverymen to try anyway; if damage is caused, they could claim you were aware of the issues and told them to proceed anyway. To avoid problems, measure the doorway, hallway corners and staircase heights to confirm the furniture can fit into the house before you buy, says Jackie Hirschhaut, vice president of the American Home Furnishings Alliance, a trade association of more than 225 furniture manufacturers and importers.
4. There’s a lot you don’t know about our quality.
Not all furniture is created equal. When comparing wooden furniture, pieces made with solid wood typically tend to weather the elements – like a science project gone wrong at a kitchen table – better. And repairing scratches or water marks is usually easier than with veneer wood. Furniture made with the latter is usually more affordable because manufacturers use thin surface material over composite wood or fiberboard. But it could be more susceptible to chipping, which isn’t easy to fix. Hirschhaut says that with careful use, including wiping down with a damp cloth on a regular basis, a veneer finish should last for 15 years.
Separately, consumers should conduct some quality tests of their own at the store before making a purchase including checking bed and chair frames to confirm that the joints are solid, she says. If it wobbles, that’s a sign of a breakdown to come. And look for seams, on couches for example, that are in a straight line, consistent and not fraying. For upholstered furniture, look for a gold label from the Upholstered Furniture Action Council, which signals that the materials used to make the product are less susceptible to catching fire.
5. You should never pay the full sticker price.
Getting a good price at a furniture store doesn’t just mean shopping during a sale. Most furniture retailers mark up their prices by about 80% (and in some cases more) to maximize profits. When stores run a promotion, they “mark the price back down to give the illusion that there’s a big sale,” says Antisdel. But they’re still profiting.In general, retailers typically make a gross margin, the difference between the sale and operational expenses, between 38% and 46%, says DeHaan.
That’s why consumers should try to negotiate even beyond the discounted price, says Green. But don’t expect a salesperson to agree to a lower price right away – the biggest discounts can take hours to negotiate. Often, consumers who pay with cash have more bargaining room, and the biggest discounts that follow from haggling usually occur at independent mom-and-pop shops where the person on the sales floor is usually an owner who doesn’t have to ask for permission to discount. If negotiations fail – a possibility since not all retailers allow for negotiating, says DeHaan — hold onto the barcode number or product name. In some cases, you might be able to search online for other retailers who sell the same piece at a lower price.
6. Prepare to spend hundreds more after making the purchase.
Negotiating the sticker price is only half the battle. After purchasing furniture, consumers can incur hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in additional expenses. If charged, home delivery or assembly fees are typically up to $100 each, says Green. In some cases, delivery prices can cost more especially if a consumer purchases many pieces, like an entire bedroom or dining room set. For upholstered furniture, many stores pitch fabric protection plans that, for around $300, provide roughly three years of coverage in case of stains. But these plans – which can be helpful for consumers with young children or pets — usually don’t cover every incident and can require the buyer to report problems within the first few days. Stores sell this plan partly because of the high gross margin, and salespeople can make a commission of up to 20% for each plan they sell, says Antisdel.
Fees also kick in when the furniture arrives. Customers in major cities who live in non-elevator buildings or complexes with narrow hallways often have to pay extra to get furniture up the stairs. In some cases, the only option is to hire a company that disassembles furniture in the hallway and reassembles it inside the room or lifts the furniture through an outside balcony door; in New York, for example, these services cost around $250. And few of these companies accept responsibility if the furniture gets damaged during the process.
7. Our financing plans may do damage to your credit score.
No cash on hand to buy that dining room set? No problem. At least not for the retailers. Most major furniture stores now pitch financing programs to consumers – especially to those who don’t pay with cash. To do this, most furniture retailers pair up with a lender, often for interest-free plans where the borrower pays zero interest if he or she makes each monthly payment on time during the promotional period. The pitch is often meant to make furniture appear more affordable. “They’re doing this to make the sale if people don’t have cash,” says DeHaan.
But miss a payment and the interest rate spikes to 20% or more and it’s retroactive to the original balance, says Sheryl Garrett, a fee-only certified financial planner. These plans, and others that feature deferred interest for a year, often wreck havoc on consumers’ credit scores. When a shopper buys, say, $3,000 of furniture, their line of credit could be for the same amount – leaving them maxed out on that credit line, skewing their credit utilization ratio (size of debt compared to overall line of credit), which contributes to 30% of a FICO credit score. And that line of credit often drops in tandem with payments to remain maxed out until the account is paid in full. DeHaan says that furniture stores are now required, due to financial reform, to explain to customers – before they sign up — the terms of their financing plan and what occurs if they miss payments or don’t pay the entire balance during the promotional period.
8. “Design consultant” is a fancy title for salesperson.
Unless a consumer has a keen eye for interior design, he or she can’t be sure that the three-piece sectional they’re eyeing in the store will complement their room’s coffee table, draperies and lighting. Retailers are aware of this, which is why some are pitching design consultants to shoppers. At Ethan Allen, salespeople are all called design consultants and they have indeed studied the field or previously worked as interior designers. Customers can arrange for a consultant – who is paid by salary and commission — to visit their home for free to provide advice about whether, say, the kitchen table they’re planning to buy matches their décor. But their real job is to sell you more furniture, and a customer who intended to purchase one piece risks buying much more because of the consultant’s pitches, says Larrauri. The company sees things differently: “If the customer says, ‘I just want this couch,’ then they respect that,” says Marta Eriquez, director of interior design at Ethan Allen. And even if the customer decides not to buy at all, the service is free of charge.
Given the array of retailer pitches, consumers should be firm about the furniture they need so that they don’t spend more than planned, says Hirschhaut of the AHFA. With that in mind, these services can help consumers by offering guidance on fabrics and colors especially if there are hundreds of options to choose from, she says. For less intrusive help, check out a furniture retailer’s website to see if it features a design studio where shoppers, on their own, can build a room with the furniture and accessories the store carries.
9. The best deals are in the back.
Most large furniture companies use a racetrack or maze layout in their showrooms rather than traditional rows. Here’s why: In order to see a specific piece of furniture that they came into the store for, consumers will have to walk through most of the inventory, including accessories like pillows, first to find it, says Claudia Sagan, a retail consultant and former vice president of real estate at Williams-Sonoma. This strategy is meant to boost sales by increasing the chances of impulse buys. “The goal is to tempt you,” says Antisdel. There are also some extreme layouts where upon entering the store shoppers have to pass all the merchandise before arriving at the registers – a method that IKEA, for example, uses. An IKEA spokesman says the stores’ layout is intended for customers to see the range of its products and that their stores have seven shortcuts to skip through sections or straight to the register. But not everyone spots those shortcuts. “If you don’t go to IKEA very often, you might not,” he says.
The layout also works to a store’s advantage when it advertises sales. Most discounted furniture is typically placed in the back of the store – so that the shopper walks through the entire store first seeing the newer and more expensive furniture that’s up front. The store is betting that some shoppers will end up buying a non-sale piece rather than the advertised product that brought them into the store in the first place – or better yet, they’ll end up buying both.
10. Good luck reselling your pieces.
Three years ago, Stephen Antisdel’s then 10-year-old daughter asked her parents for a new bedroom set – one to match her horseback riding hobby, as opposed to the princess motif she had since age four. Her parents purchased the set, which included a canopy bed, a dresser, mirror, armoire and a night table, for more than $2,000. But when they sold it to a buyer on Craigslist six years later, it fetched just $400 – even though it was in good condition without any dents or chips.
Like a new car, furniture loses a chunk of its value once it leaves the store and for each year of usage, so consumers are unlikely to recoup much of their money selling it. In other words, you shouldn’t depend on the money from a sale to go a long way toward buying new furniture. On the flip side, consumers can find big savings by shopping online for gently used, fairly new furniture – especially if the seller is in a hurry because they’re moving to a different city in a few days. For would-be sellers, another option is to donate furniture to a charity and qualify for a deduction. In most cases, according to Internal Revenue Service rules, a qualified appraiser will need to view the furniture for a deduction of above $500.