This article is part of our latest Design special report, which is about crossing the borders of space, time and media.
Despite all the advances in electronic commerce, many furniture sales remain an old-fashioned affair, completed in person.
Because sofas and lounge chairs tend to be expensive, unwieldy and difficult to return, it has always been reassuring to flop down in a potential purchase for a comfort check — and to ask a sales associate for advice — before unsheathing the credit card.
The arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, however, changed everything. Within days of closing their stores, many furniture companies took a big digital step by putting robust virtual interior design services front and center.
Arhaus, BoConcept, Design Within Reach, Ethan Allen, Frette, Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams, Parachute, Restoration Hardware, and West Elm, among many others, began promoting personalized, one-on-one interior design sessions delivered via videoconference and online chat, for free.
And many consumers, suddenly living life through Zoom, took them up on it, inviting the retailers into their homes through a smartphone lens.
David Cherry, a business technology analyst at Google in Boulder, Colo., who recently moved from a one-bedroom apartment into a three-bedroom house, needed help furnishing his new space.
“There was a certain section of my living room that was just a weird space I didn’t know what to do with,” said Mr. Cherry, 36. He thought about hiring an interior designer, but figured no one would be willing to visit his house with the coronavirus circulating in Colorado.
“So I decided to just guess, and pick something,” he said.
When he visited West Elm’s website, however, he noticed the availability of an online design chat. Skeptical, but with nothing to lose, he asked for help designing his living room.
“I went into it thinking, ‘If I get involved in this chat, they’re probably just going to try to sell me all this furniture,’” he said.
But he found the designer he was connected with to be genuinely helpful and willing to work around his existing furniture.
“It was really cool because they ask you questions around what your current lifestyle is like,” he said. “They actually really cared about the space.”
A few chat messages led to numerous sessions in which Mr. Cherry shared videos and photos of his home, and West Elm’s designers suggested floor plans with central products, which they later discussed by phone.
In the end, Mr. Cherry ordered a dining table with a bench, a coffee table, a console table, bookcase and a leather swivel chair.
Laura Wilson, the manager of design services at West Elm, said the size of the resulting order was of little concern. The company’s designers are happy to troubleshoot a single rug, “or it can be soup-to-nuts, top-to-bottom everything in that room,” she said. “We just want to make it accessible, convenient and easy for every customer to get that expert advice.”
There is a very good chance that Mr. Cherry’s experience is about to become the new normal in full-service furniture sales, even as stay-home orders are eased and lifted.
“The furniture market was already moving online,” said Emily Miller, a partner at the management consulting firm Bain & Company. “Furniture market sales online have been growing almost 20 percent a year for the last couple of years, and that’s within a broader furniture market that’s only been growing about 2 to 3 percent.”
The challenge, however, is that “furniture is a big purchase that feels relatively risky,” Ms. Miller said. “For a lot of people, it’s something they do relatively infrequently and that makes the barrier to entry relatively high. It’s typically a slightly more consultative purchase.”
She pointed to the growth of affordable online interior design services such as Havenly, Modsy and Decorist as proof. “Those services have demonstrated that there is a real demand from consumers for help with interior design, and that they’re actually really happy to get that help digitally,” she said.
Furniture retailers were already experimenting with tools for virtual design consultations. The pandemic just created an increased sense of urgency.
Design Within Reach, for instance, began a pilot project for virtual design services provided by a few employees in February. But in March, when the spread of the coronavirus was declared a pandemic, the company pushed ahead with a full-scale rollout.
Before, dwr.com had a limited chat function focused on providing basic answers to simple questions, such as queries about product dimensions and materials.
The new chat is an immersive, personalized experience in which customers and employees share photos and engage in videoconferences to design whole rooms, which sometimes leads to presentations of three-dimensional renderings.
“We’re using video to see customer spaces and resolve their problems,” said Debbie Propst, the president of retail at Herman Miller, which owns Design Within Reach. “This is something we were planning on doing regardless of the current situation. But I will say that the current situation is driving new customer behavior. People are being forced to make furnishings decisions they may not otherwise have done without physically seeing the product.”
The Design Within Reach service pairs customers with a local sales associate, based on their internet connection. The idea is that online introductions may eventually become long-term relationships. Once stores reopen, sales associates can host video-based store tours for customers, or schedule in-person meetings.
Customers who use the chat function are 10 times more likely to make an online purchase than those who don’t, “and our average order value is about 25 percent higher,” Ms. Propst said. She added, “We’re seeing the highest success when the photo-sharing and video-chat functionalities are used.”
At most retailers, regular return policies still apply if some items do not work out. Returned items are cleaned and in some cases isolated for a period.
Companies focused on bedding and bath accessories, including Parachute and Frette, have started similar services.
Through a videoconference or phone call after customers answer preliminary questions online and share photos of their rooms, “we answer questions and talk through what types of products might work for whatever they’re looking for,” said Ariel Kaye, the founder and chief executive of Parachute. “And then we follow up with a curated mood board.”
The mood boards have inspirational images as well as specific product images that offer a color palette and guidance on how pieces can be mixed and matched within a room.
“Once our team is back in the office, we’re going to create an environment where they have all the products, so on these video calls, we can actually be showing products, like a mini store experience,” Ms. Kaye said.
Of course, some homeowners may feel that inviting a sales professional into their home through a video stream is just as intrusive as doing so through the front door.
When the ultimate goal is to make a sale, how can you trust a designer’s advice?
Mr. Cherry, at least, was surprised at how little pressure he felt from West Elm’s designers. They even told him not to buy certain things — like when he asked if he needed an ottoman to go with his swivel chair, or if he should add a few decorative accessories.
“That got me to trust them a little more,” he said.
Stacey DonFrancesco, a physician specializing in plastic and reconstructive surgery, had a similarly relaxed experience when she asked for virtual design help from Arhaus to design a new office at her home in Malvern, Pa.
Before the pandemic, Ms. DonFrancesco had invited Patricia DiLullo, an interior designer from her local Arhaus store, into her house to design the living room and master bedroom.
“I told her I wanted furniture, décor, everything,” said Ms. DonFrancesco, 35. “What was so fabulous about her was that she actually incorporated some of the pieces we already had.”
Ms. DonFrancesco said that Ms. DiLullo also seemed to put as much care into selecting paint colors, which Arhaus does not sell, as she did the furniture.
So when Ms. DonFrancesco needed to design a home office for videoconferences with patients in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, she turned to Ms. DiLullo for help once again — but this time through text message.
Ms. DiLullo created a mood board, Ms. DonFrancesco deleted some suggested artwork to replace with her framed professional certificates, and they explored color options for the walls before placing the order for furniture and accessories.
That high level of service, delivered almost instantaneously, is unlikely to disappear when the coronavirus is eventually brought under control, said Ms. Miller at Bain & Company.
“This experience, right now,” she said, “is going to permanently shift the way consumers buy online.”