Sofa surfing

Retailers who are exploring the opportunities to sell their furniture over the Internet may well attract a new generation of design-aware buyers, discovers Sara Manuelli

Purchasing furniture on the Web sounds like a consumer contradiction in terms. After all, is there a more sensuous shopping experience? A glimpse of a sofa from a shop window, a stroke of the fabric, even trying it for size… Surely these moments have no virtual translation?

Yet furniture design on-line is flourishing and more and more retailers are displaying their products on the Web. Some go on-line to create showcase support for their retail outlets, while others use the Web to sell direct. Many companies are choosing CD-ROMs as an initial form of contact, and then encouraging telephone or e-mail orders, while others see websites as complementary to their mail order catalogues. However it’s done, the e-word is on every furniture retailers’ lips.

Following the launch of its website in September, Habitat (www.habitat.net) is investigating the potential of e-commerce. The website, designed by Pixelpark, received 53 000 visits in October; the interest is definitely there to exploit. Meanwhile, the UK site of Herman Miller (www.millereurope.co.uk), the US producer of furniture classics by Charles and Ray Eames and George Nelson, at present only sells the popular Aeron chair on-line. But the site is soon to be revamped and expanded.

And the virtual design centre.com, a database-driven library developed by design consultancy Paper White, has been rolling out some of the best UK contemporary furniture design over the past months. The centre is intended as a working tool website for architects and specifiers. The site features The Trade Centre, containing works by Azumi, Michael Sodeau and SCP, The Retail Centre, which allows consumers direct access to design retailers, and The Press Centre, where the latest updates in design are e-mailed to subscribers. At the end of November it will launch The Gallery, a permanent exhibition of design classics.

Modern furniture on-line falls into two categories: the sale of contemporary design and that of modern period furniture, in particular collectibles manufactured after World War II.

Contemporary design can need a process of introduction as the designers may not be familiar names or pieces. Period furniture, conversely, comprises already established icons. “Any client interested in [period] design will browse the Internet for information,” says Tony Cunningham. He co-owns Twentytwentyone, the London retailer which began selling vintage and re-issued furniture and now incorporates contemporary designers. Twentytwentyone’s website, www.twentytwentyone.com, was designed by digital media consultancy Edwards Churcher, and launched in April.

“They wanted a dynamic approach to the site,” says consultancy director Neil Churcher. “There is the usual showcase element to the site, but it’s also very direct, with real prices and constant updates – a real shopping experience.”

The increasing popularity of Twentieth Century furniture on the Web is the strongest argument in favour of selling on-line. On-line auction houses like e-bay, and sites like retromodern.com and deco-echoes.com offer a wide selection of mid-century collectibles. Particularly in the US, the market is thriving and the prices are soaring. “The Web accommodates a second generation of collectors,” says Michael Krzyzanowski, design consultant at auction house Bonhams, “those people who collect things for their value more than anything else.”

But while the Web may have developed a new generation of furniture buyers, there are still hands-on collectors, or as Krzyzanowski puts it: “The old [collectors] who want a little Bernard Leach bowl, are still using their hands and that tactile experience to buy.”

This physical sensation seems particularly to affect contemporary furniture retailers. For them, websites are more of an opportunity to introduce the shop, its spirit and look. James Mair, owner of London shop Viaduct, caters mostly for architects and designers, so his newly live site, viaduct.co.uk “was originally conceived as a business-to-business service for the specifier”. As a showcase, the site, designed by Deepend, is a way of speeding up the initial information required by clients. Simple line drawings morph into sleek photographs of works by Philippe Starck, Ron Arad and Konstantin Grcic, among others. However, Mair is keen to retain the human interaction element of furniture selling, and although he doesn’t dismiss the possibility of selling on-line in the near future, he is adamant that it “should never be anonymous trading”.

For Knoll International, launching a European website was initially a way of differentiating itself from the UK sister company’s site, which caters for a different market. The site, www.knollint.com, created by NB: Studio, and about to go live, is a sharper take on Knoll’s design reputation, with less text and brighter colours. However, selling on the site has been postponed. The main reason is that 95 per cent of Knoll’s sales are in systems furniture, a complex system of retail which does not easily translate on to the Web. However, the remaining 5 per cent comprises the Studio Collection, an assortment of classic pieces by luminaries such as Mies van der Rohe, Harry Bertoia and Frank Gehry. Considering their success in auctions and on specialised retro websites, these pieces should sell quickly. “I think this 5 per cent isn’t yet exploited and I’m determined to give it a try,” says David Brooke, UK marketing manager for Knoll International.

One retailer which does not meet on-line expectations is the central London contemporary furniture shop Aero. Following the launch of its website, aero-furniture.com, last December, it has been selling on-line since April. Aero has a mail order catalogue intended for clients nationwide, and the site has been conceived as part of a larger retail operation encompassing many mediums. The site, designed by IQ in Hove, Sussex, boasts 3000 visits a month, 300 catalogue requests and about 30 orders on-line. “Obviously, branded items and familiar objects are easy to sell, both in mail and on-line,” says Aero managing director Paul Newman. “But we also include sofas and large glass tables, because we aim to present a whole lifestyle rather than just giftware.” Newman admits that on-line sofa sales are much less successful. “If you are going to buy a sofa for £1600, you are not just talking about branding and visibility, but also about cost.”

Cunningham echoes Newman’s point: “Because of its collectible status, much of the period stock can be expensive,” he says. He believes a furniture website should reassure e-shoppers that what you see is just what you are going to get, and by providing a good service, confidence in purchasing on-line will increase. Confident in the potential of the medium, Cunningham is now adding product design and a new range of functional design objects to his site: metal work by Verner Panton and Arne Jacobsen, lighting by Artemide and Oluce, glass by Anthony Stern and Per Lutken.

Time gained and distance crossed are two things that validate on-line furniture sales. Hausfurniture.com was a Twentieth Century furniture shop in west London, but has now decided to focus on just selling on-line.

At the moment, it offers a demo CD-ROM entitled Haus Voyage with separate pricing and ordering via e-mail. Haus plans to launch on the Internet proper in December with an offering designed by Sam Smom, creative director of design consultancy Progress. The site will feature 4000 pieces of furniture and a price matrix in four languages. Haus is aiming at the US market and caters for those collectors who “are very busy and know pretty much in their minds what they want”, according to founder of hausfurniture.com Jonathan Sherwood. He has no doubts about selling design on the Web and says: “People will buy anything on-line, from an Eames chair to something like a little coffee table, because they can see the picture and they know the dimensions and the quality they expect to receive.”

“There is a lot of naivety in the furniture industry regarding on-line sale,” says Andy Harrold, managing director of Glasgow furniture retailer Nice House. “Retailers believe that people won’t do the same with furniture as they did with books or other products that had traditional forms of distribution.” As an independent retailer in Scotland, it is essential for him to contact clients globally, so he has bypassed mail order in favour of the Web. A month ago, he started e-mailing his customers around the world with pictures of recent designs, such as the critically acclaimed Chasm chair by One Foot Taller. The next step is a CD-ROM.

As with all new enterprises, everyone’s looking over their shoulders, waiting for pioneers to test the waters and return with the goods. The issues that surround creating a furniture site are many. E-commerce is not yet fully secure for making transactions, with much campaigning to be done to reassure Web shoppers. Many retailers are also concerned about manufacturing for big numbers and delivering throughout Europe. Last but not least, is the question of how to evoke the visceral moment of furniture buying off a screen. How you design furniture on-line is ultimately what’s going to sell it.

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