Couch surfing - the benefits of buying online
Buying furniture online is potentially a gamble but benefits can often outweigh the risks
'Don't buy anything that you haven't sat on," said the man in the furniture shop. At the time, I saw his point. How else would I know if the chair he was trying to sell me was comfortable or not? Now, I'm not so sure. Some of those new online-only furniture boutiques are very tempting…
Some people love shopping. I don't, and that's part of the appeal of the online-only package. You don't have to hoof it around the shops. Online shopping can be done while playing video games and drinking tea. For city dwellers, this is a luxury. For those living in remote parts of the country, shopping online can represent a big saving in time and money.
Online furniture outlets have vastly expanded the range of what people living in Ireland can buy.
If you love contemporary Dutch design, for example, you are more likely to find it online than any other way. And Dutch design is super-cool. Some of it is upmarket, but brands like Zuiver offer furniture that's stylish, relaxed, and not too pricey.
The Albert Kuip dining chair from Zuiver has a moulded seat on solid ash wood legs. If the photos are anything to go by, it's a sturdy, versatile piece of furniture that comes in classy colours.
It looks comfortable too, although I haven't actually sat on it. In Ireland, it's available from Woo Design for €159, with a minimum order of two chairs. That's a biggish purchase. So would you wait until you can buy a chair that you've actually seen, or would you risk it for a biscuit?
"Sometimes we have people calling up and asking if they can see the product," says Magda Wach, who established Woo Design in Dublin last year. "A few of them decide that they don't want to buy something that they haven't seen, but most of them will go ahead."
At the moment, Woo Design is online-only. Any furniture ordered from them travels directly from the supplier to the customer.
This is a cost-effective way of buying furniture. By eliminating the need for warehouses, stores, and middlemen, it potentially brings down the cost. The business model was pioneered by Made, an online-only furniture retailer based in Britain.
Its furniture is nicely designed and seems like good value. The flirty little Bouji chair in orange velvet costs €129 while the stately Doris accent chair costs €324. You'd easily mistake either of these for pieces that cost twice that amount. The catch is that you can't bounce on them before you buy. At least if you live in Ireland.
Made prides itself on its lack of shops but has recently opened showrooms in London, Leeds and Liverpool where you can see the furniture. You can place your order through the showrooms but they don't carry stock.
One of the selling points of Made is that its furniture is made on demand, so you have to be prepared to wait a few weeks for it to be delivered.
Ordering furniture from British companies has one big pitfall. Not all of them are upfront about delivery charges. You can spend quite a bit of time selecting a piece of furniture only to find that the cost of delivery from Britain is prohibitive.
Made is one of the decent ones and delivery to Ireland costs the same as British addresses. The Bouji chair, for example, would cost a very reasonable €16 for delivery.
Not all British online retailers can offer that sort of value. The designers at Dutchbone - that's another of those cool companies from the Netherlands - have come up with a lovely wine cabinet, known as the Vino (pictured inset). I first saw it on Cuckooland, an online retailer based in Britain, where it costs £595 (€645). Delivery to British addresses is free but it would cost another £195 (€211) to deliver the cabinet to the Republic of Ireland. For many people, that would be a deal breaker.
The joy of online shopping is that it's relatively easy to compare prices, so long as you know to ask the right questions. The Dutchbone Vino cabinet is also available from the Dublin-based Woo Design where it costs €649 and qualifies for free delivery within Ireland. That works out more than €200 cheaper than buying it from Cuckooland.
As well as delivery charges, it's also wise to find out about the returns policy. Woo Design will offer an exchange or refund within seven days, but you are responsible for the cost of getting the rejected piece of furniture back to them in its original packaging. Easy, if you live in Dublin - less so, if you live in Donegal. If the piece is faulty or damaged when you receive it, Woo Design will cover the cost of returning it.
But, although the online-only model has some real advantages, there's no sign that it's taking over from physical shopping. Research published by Mintel earlier this year indicates that people like to gather ideas online, but prefer to see the furniture that they plan to buy.
In the survey, 60pc of respondents said they preferred to judge the comfort of a piece by browsing in store - only 10pc felt that they could do this online.
That survey was conducted in Britain, but there's no reason to believe that Irish shopping habits are different. Furniture retail is a touchy-feely business. Magda Wach agrees. "Woo Design is planning to open a physical shop in Dublin," she says. "I think that it's a good time to open a shop now - people have a bit more money to spend - so I want to try it and see how it goes."
Shoppers, when it comes to asking advice or getting quotes, would rather do it face-to-face, says the survey. I'm not so certain that's right. Researching this article I chatted online with Lee from Made. I got all the information that I needed and he (or she) made it an enjoyable experience. I also liked it that I didn't have to pick up the phone. Until now, I wouldn't have been a fan, but I've changed my mind. Like any other type of sales, it depends on who you're dealing with.
See woodesign.ie. made.com, cuckooland.com.