When Rhona Fromm planned her move from North Wales to Ambler, she couldn’t have imagined she’d be smack in the middle of a pandemic. Between downsizing and some major renovations, she needed furniture and bathroom fixtures when she moved in April, but the retail stores were all closed.
“COVID-19 threw a wrench in our plans,” said Fromm, who was forced to order everything online.
That was a predicament shared by many. After spending several weeks at home, then realizing those weeks would likely become months, people discovered the flaws in their furnishings. Maybe the dining room table and chairs were a poor substitute for a comfortable desk with an ergonomic chair. Or perhaps the couch no longer fit your college-age children, or you realized a dedicated puzzle or game table was exactly what you needed.
“People are sitting at home for a lot more time, having time with their families to do things they may not have done before, like crafts or homeschooling,” said Sharron Bradley, chief executive officer of the Home Furnishings Association, based in Roseville, Calif.
Throughout the stay-at-home order, the internet was the only way to shop. That can be a difficult task when the comfort of a sofa or the fit of a desk chair matters. Fortunately, retailers and shoppers seemed to figure it out.
“There are certain products people feel more comfortable sourcing online than others, because it’s not going to take day in and day out abuse, so quality doesn’t have to rise to the same level,” said Amy Cuker, owner of Down2earth Interior Design in Elkins Park.
For larger ticket items, or ones where comfort matters, the return policy is essential. Some manufacturers, such as Joybird, offer a 90-day window for a full refund, even for custom designs.
“It’s not ideal because you spent time and effort picking the style and waiting for them to make it, but it is a way to sit on it without having to commit all your money until you’ve tested it,” Cuker said.
When Studio 882 in Glen Mills had to shut its retail furniture store, live chat was added to its website, staffed by the interior design team. “Shopping for custom furniture is so hard because there are so many nuances,” co-owner Katie Groves said.
Designers worked virtually with clients to take measurements and make artistic renderings to show exactly what the furniture would look like in the customer’s home.
“We rebuild their room to scale with all of the furniture they are considering, including what they are keeping, and add paint colors and window treatments,” Groves said.
Now that the store has reopened, customers can quickly stop in to test out a piece without needing to spend extended time in the store.
Recognizing that people needed furniture fast and that manufacturers were also closed, “we put all of our floor models on the website, and offered them for immediate delivery and offered those at steep discounts,” Groves said.
When buying online, Cuker says, shoppers should read reviews and the fine print. She had one client choose a butcher block table that was the right size with a great look, but after reading the details, discovered the top was paper laminate that looked like butcher block. “If you’re really going to be prepping food on it, that’s not OK,” she pointed out.
It is also notoriously difficult to choose colors and fabrics online, she said, because color rendering depends on your computer settings and the lighting under which the picture was taken. Even during the pandemic shutdown, some companies sent fabric and paint color samples, which Cuker encourages.
When buying rugs online, she says, clients should order the smallest size, often a 2-by-3-foot mat. You can then see the true colors, and if you need to return it, it’s not too difficult.
If you don’t have the budget to buy new furniture now or aren’t comfortable with online shopping, you can make big changes without breaking the bank.
“Look at Pinterest or magazines to figure out what you like and try to get inspired by those pieces,” said Rebecca Celhar, blogger for Hello Central Avenue, which offers DIY suggestions.
Easy projects that can make a big difference include changing the hardware on cabinets or painting wall murals using tape and spray paint. Shop your house to find things stored in the attic or basement that you can repurpose.
“You can use some paint to spruce up an old piece of furniture because a lot of old pieces have good bones but are just outdated,” Celhar said.