Most furniture sold these days doesn’t last long. Everybody knows this YET billions of this “junk” furniture sells every year. It seems as if we like it. And as nuts as it might seem, there are some attractive aspects to the crazy disposable furniture economy.
It boils down to this: we like changing our interiors. They’re temporary. Interior design is becoming like clothing… something we change on a regular basis.
The clothing analogy is spot-on. Most of what’s sold is cheap. People prefer having new styles and new clothes over fewer, higher-quality garments.
Forever 21, Zara and Le Chateau are the IKEAs of clothing.
This “disposable” model works because while the furniture (and clothing) aren’t high quality, they look good; it’s stylish. And since nobody buys this stuff with an intention to keep for years and years, it doesn’t matter that it’s not the best quality. Cheap and stylish are the priorities.
Back when furniture lasted for decades or even generations, it was an investment. You bought a piece that would survive your lifetime and then be handed down. Most people purchased locally. Each item is carefully chosen. A house full of furniture was acquired over years and years.
Then along came furniture you could buy for 1/10 the cost thanks to cheaper materials, cheaper manufacturing overseas and cheaper shipping thanks to flat-packing. In fact, arguably flat-packing started it all. A great article on how furniture got so cheap is the Washington Post article “Why furniture got so bad” by Rachel Kurzius.
Flat-packing dramatically reduces shipping costs. It also saves on manufacturing costs since customers do most of the assembly. As prices dropped, people noticed. It created what I call the “Walmart” effect in the furniture industry. The Walmart effect is when people spend more money because they perceive they’re saving. Stuff is so cheap that they buy and buy and buy and end up spending more than they had budgeted.
That started happening in the furniture industry.
I’m guilty of it big time.
I’ve spent more on junk furniture than I would have had I invested in quality. However, I’m not kicking myself for it because there’s a very good reason why I did what I did.
Why don’t people care if furniture won’t last?
The reason for many is they don’t know where they’ll be. Many people live in temporary digs for far longer than three decades ago. With outrageous student loans and skyrocketing housing costs, people aren’t buying their “forever” home until well into their thirties or even later.
Which means, living in a series of rentals and if lucky, a purchased condo for ten to twenty years or longer. Because these places are not typically anyone’s forever home, they don’t want to invest in high-quality “forever” furniture. I know I didn’t. Instead, I bought piles and piles of cheap “disposable” furniture waiting until I was comfortably ensconced in my forever home. Only then would I know what style and kind of forever furniture I would want.
We’ve been in our forever home for a little over one year now and we are about to pull the trigger on outfitting our home with forever furniture. It won’t be cheap but that’s okay. We’ve saved for it and now it’s time. Moreover, we’re getting rid of the cheap stuff. It served us well but now it’s time to dispose of it. Fortunately, it’s easy to give away and donate. We won’t bother attempting to sell it. It was worth little when we bought it. It’s almost worthless now (although it’s fine for free).
Interior design micro trends fuel the disposable furniture economy
Disposable furniture can also be equated to costume jewelry. It looks nice but designed to be worn a few times for a short period of time. More and more homeowners like changing up their interiors following interior design micro trends. It’s exciting. As more people pursue the latest in design trends popularized on HGTV, magazines, YouTube, TikTok, etc., the more design styles evolve.
For example, 20 years ago there was no such thing as organic modern interior design style. There is now. In fact, there are a myriad of various styles that evolve from other styles. Many are a merging of multiple styles. While these typically fall under the transitional umbrella style, the fact is there are dozens, perhaps even over a hundred of recognized sub-styles.
As someone who owns an interior design firm, it’s good for business and it’s fun.
With inexpensive furniture that looks good so widely available, room makeovers are a piece of cake. Add to all the DIY tutorials out there and you end up with homeowners who never stop making changes to their home. They no sooner “finish” and are back to the drawing board. It’s a lifestyle made possible in part to extremely inexpensive furniture.
Is IKEA to blame?
Blame is such an ugly word. While IKEA certainly brought flat-packed furniture to the masses, had it not been for them, it would have been another company. Flat-pack furniture resonates with the masses for a reason which is it serves an economic shift. That shift is the gulf from initial independence to buying forever homes. Part of me wants to call that gulf a transitory time but it’s not really transitory. It’s not like everyone are nomad. Most live for several years in the same area, have the same job. The difference is they can’t afford their forever home as quickly as people could three decades ago.
People need furniture no matter where they live but don’t want to spend a pile of money on it. So much so they’re willing to assemble it themself. I suspect assembling furniture yourself was unheard of 100 years ago unless you made it yourself from scratch.
Did cheap furniture hurt the quality furniture industry?
No, not at all. You can still buy quality furniture. You can easily buy handmade furniture from talented craftspeoplethanks to outfits like Etsy. There are companies that handcraft amazing furniture using only the best materials. You’ll pay dearly for it, but it’s out there and it’s selling.
As a society, we are not relegated to only cheap versus quality. There are options in between. Our forever home furniture budget is in between; we can’t afford a house full of handcrafted, highest-quality furniture. That would cost more than six figures. Instead, we’re going mid-grade which will, I’m afraid, will require some assembly. At least some of what we’re buying offers “white glove” delivery, including assembly. I’ll appreciate that.
While it may seem that the IKEAs of the furniture world take revenue away from higher-quality furniture makers, it’s not entirely true. What’s true is the Walmart effect where people spend more on furnitureover a lifetime. From a industry-health perspective, no harm, no foul.
Not everyone is happy about the disposable furniture economy… for good reason
It’s all well and good to talk about buying new furniture every five or ten years because we can but there’s one glaring issue with this and that’s the issue of where does it all go?
Yes, there’s a thriving second-hand furniture economy. The Internet with sites like Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist make it so easy to sell or give away. Heck, stick a “Free” sign and put it out on the driveway. If your neighborhood is anything like ours and as long as it’s not broken or destroyed, it’ll get picked up within 48 hours.
Another lesser-known tip is that IKEA has a used-furniture buy-back program where they’ll give in-store credit. It’s a start. It’s not perfect but it’s something. I’d sooner give it away on the curb or via Craigslist but for anyone who wants to squeeze out a few more bucks, IKEA’s buy-back program is something.