Interiors: Clicks or bricks to buy the perfect sofa?
The days of bouncing on a bed before buying may be over as a London-based furniture seller challenges traditional retailers with online purchases made to order
Would you buy a bed you hadn't bounced on? One of the main ways that we relate to furniture is through touch, so it goes against the grain to fork out good money for something that you haven't felt up.
But - here's my prediction - online furniture purchase is the way of the future. Remember we said we wouldn't trust our banking online, now most of us do it. We said we wouldn't buy groceries online - we said we needed to squeeze that bread with our own hands first. We said we had to go in and talk to the travel agent ourselves.
And so by 10 more years, I'm convinced there will be no more trips to the big shops for the sake of a bed bouncing or a test lounging on a sofa.
Made (www.made.com) is a London-based company which is a sort of Amazon for kitting out the home. All their furniture is sold online. They don't have a shop but unlike Amazon, they don't have a warehouse either. In fact, until you contact them, they don't even have furniture.
The furniture isn't assembled until someone places an order.
Here's how it works. Normally a shop will predict what furniture the public will want in 12 months time and employs a designer to draw up the designs. Then, they instruct the factory to make the furniture. Some samples will be put on display in the shop, while others will wait in warehouse storage until it is sold. Every step of the process costs money, which adds to the price of the furniture.
So, by cutting out the middlemen and passing the savings on to the customer, Made claims it can sell furniture for between 50pc and 70pc less than it would cost to buy a comparative piece from one of their competitors.
The equivalent of the Ritchie armchair (€329), for example would cost €699 on the high street. But, because the designs are lovely and the prices are good, and you might just decide to risk it. Another way that Made cuts costs is by using new designers. Chloe Macintosh (right), originally from Paris, is creative director and co-founder of Made.
"When I moved to London four years ago to start the company we couldn't afford big name designers.
"I realised that there was a huge pool of talent in young designers and that there were very few opportunities for them when they graduate because most furniture companies can't afford to take a risk on an emerging designer."
Made launch designs on a weekly basis but, instead of ordering a batch of furniture, they make a single working prototype of each new piece.
"We don't know whether they will sell or not, so we test them. That means that we can use new designers. We don't pay an advance and they understand that they are sharing the risk as well as the success," Macintosh explains.
Because of the testing process, lead times for new designs can take up to 12 weeks, but items from their established ranges should arrive in about a week. "People understand that they're getting a good price and we tend to attract a clientele that buys into the model."
Recently, Made has launched Unboxed (www.made.com/unboxed), a section of its website that showcases photographs that customers have taken of Made furniture in situ.
Click on the map of Ireland and you can see Jason's new dining table in Aherla, Co Cork, or Marc's coffee table and lamp in Dublin. It's strangely reassuring to see the furniture in Irish homes.
"People relate to homes that are geographically close to them," says Macintosh. "It's much more relevant than an expensive photo shoot in a house that nobody can afford to buy. The other thing is the people are super-keen to send in photos. They want to showcase their home. If this works out we won't need to have showrooms across the country to display our furniture."
The only thing that can't be achieved online is touch. "Yes," Macintosh admits, "that we will never replace."
But Harvey Norman says ebuying on its own is not the way to go.
"It's a matter of bricks or clicks," says Richard Moyles, head of e-commerce at HN (www.harveynorman.ie). "Furniture is the fastest growing section of our website but it doesn't replace coming into the store.
"People tend to do their research online, come in to look at it, and then go home and think about it. Then they might make the actual purchase online but ultimately, getting people into the store is the biggest factor in making a sale."
But then again online furniture from Harvey Norman costs the same as it does in the shop, so there's no huge incentive for customers to change their habits.
Another, more radical, model that links the buyer directly to the maker is on-demand digital fabrication of the sort on offer from OpenDesk (www.opendesk.cc).
The model's success suggests that online ordering might actually save handmade furniture and smaller makers rather than diminish them.
A range of desk designs are published online and the site links you up with a local manufacturer that has the appropriate technology to make up the design.
The nearest maker to me is Michael Devoy in Crumlin (www.devoy.ie). For example, if I bought a desk that cost €1,000 to make, I might pay €100 platform fee and €100 design royalty. Some of the designers publish their design as open platform, which means that anyone is free to use them without charge. Super cool.
It's like the sci-fi writer William Gibson said: "The future is already here - it's just not evenly distributed yet."