How to Start and Grow an Online Furniture Business: An Ultimate Guide
According to recent research by eMarketer, the furniture and home furnishing categories were one of the fastest-growing areas within all retail in the U.S. In 2021, furniture and home furnishing sales increased by about 11%, moving the category into 2nd place just behind apparel & accessories. If there is a negative to this massive growth it is that everyone in the market wants a piece of these profits. If you are considering getting into furniture and home furnishings, don’t worry about those followers because we can help you get the biggest piece. We’ve put our years of experience, the world’s best practices, and some cheat codes into this Ultimate Guide. With the guide, you will have all the necessary tools and learnings on how to start an online furniture business Let’s go!
The State of Furniture Industry in 2022
What could be more essential than furniture? No matter the situation, people want to sit on something, sleep on something, and store things somewhere. Furniture and home furnishings in the U.S is a 120$ billion industry that makes up around 20% of all eCommerce sales.
The category growth has been mostly through online sales. Within the online furniture business, the top 3 players are Amazon, Home Depot, and Walmart.
The COVID 19 pandemic only increased demand for furnishing. With the flexibility of working remotely, people started to relocate around the U.S, and this trend isn’t expected to stop in 2022. In 2021, over 20% more Americans chose to relocate across the country than in 2020. With so much more time spent at home, people purchased 10% more on average on home improvement projects.
The pandemic took a terrible toll on lives and disruptions. The disruptions caused by the pandemic created higher prices for consumer items. In April of 2021, furniture and bedding prices reached a record since 2013. Furniture prices were up nearly 8% year over year. In addition, customer discounts were down, with an average discount of 19.8% in 2020 versus 18.6% in 2021.
Differentiate furniture retail from other categories
How to start an online furniture business? First, get familiar with the category. In the furniture business, 90% of products are made-to-order. This means that, unless they are a large player like Ikea or Walmart, most retailers generally do not have a warehouse that stores 30 SKUs of each sofa. While there may be a few popular items in stock in-store or within a showroom, in most cases when an order is placed, there is a wait for the item to be manufactured.
This difference affects all aspects of a business. It dictates the business model, eCommerce platform, marketing, and growth strategy.
Choose the business model
In terms of the business model, you have the option of 2 completely different approaches. First, you can be a manufacturer that sells its products, or second, you can become a reseller or retailer who sells products from suppliers.
In the first option, you can concentrate on customizations and product uniqueness. It means that all the efforts, assets, and investments go toward selling a maximum number of options of one SKU. In the second option, you focus on selling a few custom options but more products. You concentrate resources around the most popular options and sell those options only.
The business model dictates the way the functionality and business processes work. It also affects the role of the content team, whether they will manage 100 SKUs with 10 options each from a single supplier of 1000 SKUs from 100 suppliers.
Start with an MVP
Any software product or business should start with a Minimal Viable Product or MVP. MVP is a product with just enough functionality to be usable by early customers. These early adopters give you feedback that is used to further improve and develop the product.
In the case of an online furniture business, the MVP should include.
- An eCommerce website with a catalog that contains minimum custom options. The design, as well as overall functionality, could be in an in-process phase, but the customer should be able to fully navigate and use the online store.
- Product pages with a button to place an order. Don’t hesitate to manage orders manually at the very beginning. It’s totally fine!
Register Domain Name
Every online business presence begins with a domain name, and furniture retail is no different. A good domain name supports credibility, advertising, positioning, and self-identification. When we say “begins” we mean that the first thing that you should do when you come up with a brand name or business idea is to visit a domain name checker and verify if the name is available or not.
With more than 13.5 million domains registered, it can be complicated to buy or find an available one. Remember, it is worth the upfront effort as it might be very painful to replace the domain later!
Choose an eCommerce Platform
If choosing the domain name is pretty much straightforward, deciding upon an eCommerce platform is a lot more complex. There are several important factors to consider to make the best decision for the business.
There are 3 types of eCommerce platforms available on the market. First are closed-source and easy to start with solutions, like Shopify, Wix Store, or Squarespace. They are good for self-starters, easy to manage, and have everything you initially need out-of-the-box. The second platform includes add-ons for an existing website, like WooCommerce. These platforms are also typically easy to get started with, but have limited functionality and may not support the evolving needs of the business. The third group is made up of open-source, multifunctional platforms like Magento 2. This is a multitool in the world of marketplaces that gives you broad flexibility to do whatever you may want or need.
As we previously mentioned, different business models will require different functionality and a different overall approach. Let’s review which eCommerce platform best fits with each model:
- Furniture manufacturers that need to be able to work with customizations and advanced visual content. In this case, Magento 2 is the only option. This is the only platform that allows you to build, integrate and implement any customization you can envision. Highly customizable products require unique order management and processing, and none of the other platform options can deliver it.
Example from the Maven’s portfolio:
Printkick is a family-owned business based in the UK selling print and promotional products to businesses around the UK and Europe. The merchandise product category is all about customization. Each order is different from another, and the number of options is also infinite. Maven has helped the company to improve efficiency and unlock growth by implementing a custom CRM and order management system. The integration of these systems was only possible because Printkick was using Magento 2 as an eCommerce platform. For more details, read the full case study.
- For furniture resellers and retailers, both the closed-source SaaS solutions and open-source platforms like Magento 2 are acceptable. The limitation of the closed-source platform is in its scalability and advanced functionality. If your strategy includes growing into a furniture marketplace or implementing an omnichannel approach by opening brick-and-mortars, SaaS solutions won’t fit. At the same time, Magento 2 has no limits in terms of adding marketplace features, B2B functionality, or other advanced capabilities. With the help of an experienced Service Provider, it’s just a matter of time.
Before making any decision, consider the ROI (Return of Investment) and TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) of the platform. Each has a different monetization model and may require a different level of manual coding from the service provider. Even though many SaaS eCommerce platforms seem inexpensive, they monetize on transactions, plugins, and advanced functionality. In the long-term, it drives up costs and could negatively impact your profitability.
Create a website design
A website design is another crucial part of success. It’s important to find the right balance between style and functionality. Based on our experience, below are a few suggestions:
- For MVP purposes, don’t overcomplicate the design. Keep it simple to achieve a fast and reliable launch.
- No matter how you approach the design (with an in-house team or with the help of an agency), consider the implementation first. Overly complicated designs tend to create visuals that will be expensive to build. To avoid it, leverage an experienced eCommerce consultant, who has built online stores before and understands how to prioritize what is important.
- Furniture requires a significant amount of visual content. Consider how and where this content will reside. It’s also a great idea to include educational content, and a blog is a perfect place for that. Focus on perfecting the UX and UI, so your future customers won’t leave your online store fast.
Automate Content Management
Furniture is a complex product. It can have a lot of attributes and custom options. If you are working as a retailer, every supplier will send data on products in different formats, using different tools and even sources. Add photographers, designers, and content managers to this process and you end up with chaos that could cause major losses for an organization.
To manage all these assets and attributes properly, an online furniture business must integrate the Product Information Management System or simply PIM. The PIM becomes a single utilized source of all product-related information for both the content team and suppliers. Within a simple interface, PIM creates the opportunity to easily manage product data, store a massive amount of attributes, include different language versions, keep numerous assets for the same product, and automate the product enrichment process.
Set up Shipment & Inventory
One area of an online furniture business that is a bit easier is inventory management. If you are a retailer, it’s easy to track stock levels because there is almost nothing to track. There is no need to integrate special solutions for it. Your goods are always in stock. However, if you’re a manufacturer, inventory management could be quite a challenge. An external IMS or Inventory Management System could help automate this process.
The shipping process can be more complicated and sensitive. Delivering bulky goods like furniture comes at a high cost. It can also be very difficult to calculate the exact cost beforehand. This is because most of the furniture comes in boxes, and many suppliers do not provide the dimensions. The shipping provider cannot calculate it without this information, so you are unable to show the final cost to the customer. The solution is about your strategy and business approach.
To avoid these issues, take some extra time to manually measure the box sizes, calculate the actual shipping cost, and present It to the customer. When considering this strategy, think of the customer’s reaction and how you will respond.
Deal with returns
A final consideration is product returns. This presents a unique challenge for furniture retailers because furniture is not a pair of shoes, for example. It will likely be costly and complicated to execute a customer return.
It’s common among furniture retailers that customized products are not returnable, but not every retailer says it openly. Communicate this policy clearly to avoid customer confusion. For other products consider the policy on returns and refunds. Keep it simple, easy to follow, and repeatable.
Read more: Return & refund policies: underwater rocks
For purposes of dealing with shipment and returns, consider adding additional resources to your customer support. Furniture is generally more expensive than other products, and you need quality staff who can communicate with customers and resolve situations positively.
Great! You have made it through the challenging process of building the pieces of your online furniture business. Now, it’s time to drive profits and convert traffic into sales. Let’s review some of the main challenges and how to overcome them.
Precise Lead Time
Because most orders are custom-made, it’s always a challenge to communicate an accurate lead time. Lead time is the delay between when an order is placed and when it should be delivered.
Here’s how you should address this challenge:
- Consider establishing a unique lead time for each category. More importantly, be honest with your customers. It’s better to communicate an actual delivery time, even if it’s longer, than to present “pie-in-the-sky” delivery times that are unrealistic. It’s about building trusted relationships.
- It’s impossible to make each lead time perfectly accurate, so there will be cases where deadlines are missed. To avoid this, focus time on tracking shipping progress in complicated cases and adjust the system over time. By doing so regularly, you’ll get closer to an accurate time.
- Spend time manually managing edge cases. You want to communicate with your customers the process, steps, and your progress in problem-solving any issues.
Work on Content
Experienced furniture retailers know that content is king. The right content educates the customers, advocates and differentiates the retailer, promotes and advertises the products. To be a leader in content, consider the following list of best practices:
- The product page begins with large, appealing photos. These images should not simply be pretty. They also should be informative. For example, show through the picture the real size of the furniture. For example, one of Maven’s clients, Australian retailer Sarantino puts dimension right in the photo.
- Second, have photos of the furniture from all possible angles. Having only the top or side view is no longer enough.
- Next, consider making video content such as a quick review or a 360° shot of the chosen product. It brings a lot of value and helps customers to visualize what this piece of furniture looks like.
- The last piece is educational content. Do you think your customer knows how to differentiate sofas mechanisms? No, they are likely very uneducated in the complexities. So, educate them! Add a blog section to your site and create unique, educational content. That written content also helps with SEO ranking, another important aspect of the marketing strategy.
Upsell and cross-sell
With the basics done, it’s time to work on some advanced functionality. The most important are configuration upsell and cross-sell features. There are 2 main methods furniture retailers can implement these techniques:
- Integrate interior functionality. Usually, this can be achieved by adding a section to your furniture website with interior ideas. You show photos of your products within a room. It helps customers to understand how furniture looks in a room and helps their buying decision. Most suppliers can share interior photos with you.
- Sell collections. Suppliers generally produce goods by collections, where products have the same style, color, or design. That’s how you can sell additional items and offer recommendations. Add items from the same collection to the bottom of the product page. If your store is built with Magento 2, you can set up bundle products and sell the whole collection at once.
Create Advanced Content
The next step is to add some additional content. As mentioned earlier, furniture requires a lot of visual content. Try to add 3D models of certain products. Some suppliers might have them already. If not, engage the help of an external agency or consider adding a 3D artist to your content team.
As a final and the most advanced step in content creation, consider adding AR (augmented reality) functionality to your website. Implementation will require the help of an external Service Provider, but the results could be worth it.
Become a Marketplace
For furniture retailers and resellers, the final point of growth is transformation into the marketplace. While this transformation is relatively easier to achieve in the furniture business, consider the following steps and investments while considering becoming a marketplace:
- Decide on the overall strategy and approach. Choose between open and closed marketplace models. Open means that merchants pay you to sell goods on your platform and do everything by themselves (catalog filling, shipping, fulfillment, stock). The marketplace is not responsible for returns and refunds. By contrast, a closed marketplace is where you sell other merchants’ products through your platform. You manage orders, choose what to sell, and ensure shipping and support.
- Depending on the chosen approach, you may require different functionality to implement. For example, an open marketplace will require split orders functionality for multi-vendor orders, so each vendor processes their order their way.
As you have learned, starting an online furniture business is more complicated than it seems. The main rule and cheat code is to do a proper planning and discovery phase. Carefully review this guide and consider additional scenarios or edge cases. The more time spent on analysis and planning, the better and less difficult the journey and the product will be.
Maven is always ready to support your planning, development, or growth. Our combination of business and technical expertise will help you to avoid unseen issues and obvious missteps. Trust your business to Maven and get superior results from day one.