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If you’re considering investing in new furniture, you’re far from alone. A third of Consumer Reports members have purchased new furniture in the past two years, according to a new CR survey about the nation’s best furniture retailers.

But the survey, which collected responses in April 2020, doesn’t fully reflect how the coronavirus crisis has affected the furniture industry and furniture shoppers. Today, in addition to considering whether shopping online or in a store will be more effective, health concerns come into play. Being in a closed environment with shared air, settling into a sofa dozens of others have sat on, or touching the finish on a table that many other fingers have trailed across could come with a risk of virus exposure. 

If you decide to shop in person, call ahead to find out when the store is least likely to be crowded, or try to make an appointment. Ask about the store’s mask policy. Head out armed with your own mask and a bottle of hand sanitizer and—whether you opt for a walk-in store or a website—maximize your chances of a positive shopping experience by picking one of the retailers that earned top scores in CR’s new ratings. 

And to find the furniture that meets your needs and your budget, use these shopping tips from furniture shopping experts.

Deciding to Buy Online or in a Store

If you’re limiting your exposure to other people right now or you just prefer to shop from home, you may be more inclined to buy furniture online, but an online retailer isn’t right for every shopper or every product.

“If you have a trusted brick-and-mortar store brand that you know and like, shopping online from that store doesn’t really pose much of a risk,” says Sara Chwatt, an interior designer in Short Hills, N.J. “But if you’re unsure of a brand’s quality, you need to be careful. There’s a lot of junk out there.”

Choosing whether to shop for furniture online or at a walk-in store should also depend on what you’re buying, Alcorn says. “If you’re shopping for something that needs to be comfortable, like a sofa, there’s no way you can tell if it’s comfortable online,” she says.

Chwatt agrees. “I once had a client who insisted on buying a sofa online,” she says, “and it ended up being as hard as a rock.” You may be better off sticking with furniture such as shelving or dressers when shopping online.

Another potential risk of shopping for furniture online: “Sometimes product images are digital renderings from the manufacturer and not actual photos of the furniture, so you don’t always have a clear picture of what you’re buying,” Alcorn says. 

The positives? Online furniture retailers may offer lower prices than walk-in stores. For example, walk-in shoppers in CR’s survey paid on average $2,281 for a dining room table, while online shoppers paid just $961. Note, however, that this is not an apples-to-apples comparison: Those are not prices paid for the same table but averages for the same type of item from different types of retailers.

Online shops may often offer a wider selection of products than walk-in stores can. Amazon is a case in point—the e-commerce juggernaut sells furniture from hundreds of brands. (A recent search on the site for a “pink sofa”—probably not the most popular color choice—delivered more than 8,000 results.)

Avoiding Potential Pitfalls

Although 70 percent of CR’s survey participants reported no problems when they purchased furniture—whether in store or online—issues can arise when making either type of purchase.

When buying furniture from an online retailer, you’re more likely to have to assemble items yourself. In CR’s survey, 8 out of 10 furniture purchases made at walk-in stores came either fully assembled or were assembled by the delivery team, compared with only a quarter from online retailers. Also, returning large items to an online retailer can be a hassle. (Good luck repacking a dining room table.)

Shopping at a walk-in furniture store presents its own potential challenges. In CR’s survey, some in-store shoppers said they were frustrated by the limited selection and display, or didn’t receive enough help from salespeople.

There are some relatively simple solutions to these problems. If you don’t want to assemble furniture yourself, you can pay extra for white-glove delivery service, where furniture is delivered to your home, unpacked, and set up, and all packing materials are removed.

Shopping for large furniture? Purchasing it from a walk-in store may be a smart move. “Walk-in stores often have better return policies,” says Rachel Alcorn, an interior designer in Chicago. “A lot of them will come back out and pick up furniture that you want to return.”

Determining Quality

Assessing furniture quality through your computer or smartphone can be difficult. “The gold standard is to shop in person,” Alcorn says. “When you’re in the store, you can see and feel products firsthand.” That kind of experience can be especially beneficial if you’re looking to compare types of fabric or cushion materials.

Still, there are steps you can take to identify well-made furniture online. Pro tips: Request a fabric swatch or wood sample before purchasing an item, pay attention to the finish (powder-coated metal is more durable than painted metal, Alcorn says), and check where products are made. “Generally you pay more for furniture made in America,” but it’s often higher-quality, says Kerrie Kelly, an interior designer and owner of Kerrie Kelly Design Lab in Northern California and chair of the American Society of Interior Designers board of directors.

Taking Safety Precautions

An essential factor to consider when shopping for furniture is how it can be anchored to prevent tip-overs, because about 20,500 people are injured each year in the U.S. when furniture tips and falls on them, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Watch this video to make sure the furniture you buy comes with anchoring hardware and instructions, and take the time to secure it safely. 

Finding the Best Deal

Take these steps to get the most for your money when shopping for furniture.

Ask about sales. Alcorn recommends that in-store shoppers ask a sales floor associate or manager about any upcoming sales or promotions. “Then you can decide whether it’s worth it for you to wait for the sale,” she says.

Request a promo code. Similarly, when shopping online you can use the website’s “chat” feature to ask an online customer service representative for a promotional code. (You can keep your eye on flash sales by signing up for email alerts from the retailer.)

Try to negotiate. Building a relationship with a salesperson at your favorite walk-in store can help you when it comes time to ask for a lower price, Kelly says. But it’s worth trying to haggle even if you don’t have a personal connection: Seventy-two percent of in-store furniture purchases for which the shopper told us in our survey they tried to negotiate resulted in a better deal. And don’t think you’re stuck with the list price just because you’re shopping online—in CR’s survey, 80 percent of online hagglers negotiated successfully. You can use email or the site’s chat feature to request a discount.

Compare prices. Shopping around is always a good idea. “If you can find the same couch at a competitor, you can ask the manager [at your preferred retailer] if they can beat that price,” Alcorn says.

Read the return policy. Always find out what a furniture retailer’s return policy is before making a purchase. Some online retailers require customers to pay for return shipping. “When buying products on Wayfair, you’re often on the hook for return shipping costs, which can make it cost-prohibitive for people to return big furniture,” Alcorn says. 

Know when to splurge. Some furniture, though, is worth spending more for. For instance, if you’re now working remotely full-time, you don’t want to skimp on your desk chair. “High-end [desk] chairs with lumbar support are the best for your back,” Alcorn says. A chair with good ergonomics can also help prevent back and neck pain—and that’s a worthy investment.

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