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Web-only furniture company cushioned during recession

HACKENSACK, N.J. - Modern-style furniture retailer Inmod survived the recession, which closed many furniture stores, by letting the customer design pillows and bed linens and by adding lower-cost items.

HACKENSACK, N.J. - Modern-style furniture retailer Inmod survived the recession, which closed many furniture stores, by letting the customer design pillows and bed linens and by adding lower-cost items.

Another reason the Harrington Park business persevered, said cofounder and president Alan Finkelstein, is it never used a showroom to sell its ball chairs and Sputnik chandeliers.

To Finkelstein, 33, a website developer, showrooms are noticed only by those who drive by or live near them.

"I believe, fundamentally, the investment you put into marketing on the Internet is a better investment because you have far more eyes on your marketing efforts than a local brick-and-mortar store would have," Finkelstein said. "I have no limit to where I can sell."

Inmod sells its furniture and home decor online to consumers, hotel chains, clothing designers, television stations, and restaurants.

Last year, as the economic downturn claimed nearby stores such as Fortunoff and Levitz Furniture, Inmod sales rose almost 8 percent to $3.5 million. By the middle of last month, sales had increased 58 percent over a year earlier, and Finkelstein anticipates revenue could reach $5 million this year.

Finkelstein founded Inmod as an e-commerce website development business in the early 2000s with friend Casey Choron. They began by building fan websites for musicians such as Bruce Springsteen and designing promotional materials for concerts.

After developing a website for a family friend to help lift sales at his office-furniture supply company, the pair discovered that developing websites was not profitable enough to continue.

"We spent more time educating clients than anything else," Finkelstein said. "Businesses needed to be sold on the idea of having a website. It was still new, and a hard sell back then."

But their brief time with furniture design left Finkelstein and Choron intrigued with the field - specifically the midcentury modern style - and in 2003 they founded Evofurniture L.L.C., which does business as Inmod, to sell reproductions of pieces from that period.

They found a U.S. manufacturer and sold five products - including the iconic ball and egg chairs - on a website they built and designed.

"We understood the Internet and knew how to market there and knew how to drive traffic," Finkelstein said. "Anyone looking for these products found us pretty quickly."

The two found more manufacturers at trade shows, but also found challenges convincing the often 100-year-old companies that furniture could be sold online, Finkelstein said.

That same resistance meant there was little competition for Inmod and its flashy, trendy, colorful website, created by a growing team of programmers and developers with art backgrounds.

Inmod focused on the midcentury modern style before the style appeared in department stores, in designer clothing, on television stations, and in hotels. As a result, Inmod's biggest customers are Macy's Inc., Nordstrom Inc., and the Golden Nugget Hotels & Casinos in Las Vegas.

A key relationship has been with a textile designer producing handmade items in India, enabling a website feature for consumers to choose patterns, colors, and materials for pillows and bed linens, Finkelstein said.

Duvets, which can start in the low $200s for a queen-size bed, and the $40 pillows account for 10 percent of sales, he said. Rugs, drapery, kitchen cabinets, and fixtures are the next items that consumers will be able to design themselves, he said.

"Offering customizable products has been tremendous for us," Finkelstein said.

When the recession began at the end of 2007, Inmod brought in 500 new items for less than $200, including designer candles and beanbag chairs for college dorms. Inmod has since broadened its offerings to include contemporary furniture and decor at midlevel prices.

"We're definitely the middle ground right now," Finkelstein said. "It's become a strategy."