Photo: James Bombales, design by Lisa Canning Interiors
These days, most people will do anything to avoid crowded shopping centers and aggressive parking lot driving. We’re comfortable ordering many big-ticket items online, including king-size mattresses and brand name refrigerators, but some consumers simply can’t imagine purchasing a sofa without assuming the binge-watching position IRL (cradling a throw pillow, remote in hand, bowl of popcorn within reach).
But there are plenty of deals to be found online. Without the added cost of physical storefronts and salespeople, online furniture retailers are able to keep prices low and offer flexible return policies to put customers at ease.
If you’re wary of splurging on an area rug you’ve never dug your toes into or have made regrettable online purchases in the past, follow these best practices from experts Jaclyn Harper, Owner and Principal Stylist for Harper Designs, and Maureen Welton, VP of Design at Article, an online-only furniture startup with a mid-century and Scandinavian aesthetic.
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1. Consider your lifestyle when choosing fabric
Photo: James Bombales
“Generally, I recommend a leather sofa for dogs and kids because leather is tough, easy to clean and puncture resistant,” says Welton. “But leather isn’t indestructible. The good news for your sofa and dog dilemma is that leather wears in, whereas fabrics wears out.”
If you can’t imagine taking an afternoon nap on a leather sofa (too sticky), but your three-year-old is prone to spilling apple juice (also sticky), opt for a synthetic or poly blend. “I personally find these fabrics to be more forgiving when it comes to stains and wrinkles,” notes Harper.
“If you are set on a fabric sofa, look for something with a high Martindale rating. This means it will stand up to wear and tear and look pristine for many playdates to come,” explains Welton. “High quality fabric sofas won’t pill and wear thin as quickly as lower quality sofas.”
2. Don’t be swayed by trends when it comes to investment pieces
“If you’re looking for investment pieces like a dining table or sofa, choose a neutral palette,” recommends Welton. “It will allow you the freedom to change styles without having to swap out all of your furniture to match.” If you can’t possibly live without green velvet or leopard print in your life, Welton has a solution. “Incorporate the trend of the moment into your design with accent pieces like a lounge chair, a coffee table or pillows that are less of an investment.”
3. Measure twice, order once
Photo: James Bombales, design by Harper Designs
Make friends with your measuring tape because you’re going to need it. “You should always measure your door frame, hallways and elevator — anywhere the piece has to travel to ensure it will fit. The last thing you want is to have your new piece arrive and not be able to fit through the front door,” says Welton, who knows this from experience.
While your dream sofa might look picture-perfect on Instagram, it can be difficult to determine whether or not it will work in your oddly-shaped living room. “Green painter’s tape can be really helpful for visualizing how furniture will fit into a space,” suggests Harper. “You can also cut butcher paper to size and move it around the room to figure out your layout.”
4. Get smart about space planning
“When it comes to spacing, you want to make sure that you measure to allow for at least 18 inches from the edge of your sofa to the edge of your coffee table, and also that you leave at least three feet for entryways into the space,” recommends Harper.
“If you’re shopping online for an area rug, try to leave at least 12 inches from the wall to the edge of your rug on all sides.” Another design mistake you’ll want to avoid is the floating, too-small-for-the-space area rug. “Either the front legs of your furniture should sit on the rug, or all of the legs should sit on the rug,” says Harper.
5. Hone in on keywords in product descriptions
Photo: James Bombales
Unless you’re a brilliant wordsmith, you may need access to a dictionary when reading product descriptions. “Look for keywords that show signs of quality like ‘full-aniline leather’ or ‘Pirelli webbing,’ which is a rubber support suspension used in sofas,” explains Welton. “Martindale rub-test results are also a good indicator of product quality. The rub test simulates the natural wear of the sofa so you’ll want to choose something that can withstand 25,000 rubs or more.”
Other terms to keep an eye out for? “Whenever possible, choose solid wood pieces and look for corner blocking, which is a piece of wood at a sofa’s joints to help improve structural stability,” adds Welton.
6. Scour reviews on multiple platforms
While product reviews on a retailer’s website may be helpful, you should take them with a grain of salt. “You should always do your own research before buying,” advises Welton. For a well-rounded perspective, search brand hashtags on Instagram, watch unsponsored product reviews on YouTube, or read press articles comparing brands and styles.
“When you see an unstaged photo of a piece of furniture, it gives you a more realistic expectation,” says Harper. Without professional lighting and a stylist, that headboard you were about to add to cart may look completely different.
7. Budget for shipping and potential returns
Photo: James Bombales, design by Harper Designs
“Furniture can be a big investment, so you need to factor in the shipping costs and return policy into your decision,” says Welton. “Ask yourself, ‘Is the size right for the space? Do I find it comfortable?’ but most importantly, make sure you keep the return time period top of mind so you don’t decide you no longer love it after the return policy has worn off.”
“This applies to online as well as in-person purchases,” adds Harper. “If you’re customizing a piece of furniture, quite often you’ll either have to pay a large restocking fee, which can be 20 to even 40 percent of the original price, or you’ll be unable to return it and have to sell or donate the item.”
Many online retailers have competitive return policies and low-cost shipping. “At Article, we offer a 30-day satisfaction guarantee so you can try out your new furniture in your home. If you’re not completely happy, we’ll exchange it for free. Or if you choose to return, we’ll refund you the product purchase price minus the $49 return shipping fee,” says Welton.
8. When in doubt, contact the customer care team
“Don’t be shy about getting in touch with the retailer’s customer care team!” insists Welton. “Ask for their opinion about the sofas. Good customer care teams should be able to share thoughtful, detailed feedback on the sofa you have in mind.” As a designer, Harper says she purchases about half of the furniture pieces for her clients online. “I find you develop a relationship with the supplier over time, and then you feel more comfortable buying online.”