By Susan J. Marks
On the face of it, the headline seemed impossible: Online furniture site raises venture capital in 2001. Wasn't furniture supposed to be the Web's uber-flop, the ultimate example of the hubris that made people spend tens of millions of dollars on companies that ignored basics such as people like to sit on couches before buying them? So we were intrigued when Sudbury (Mass.)-based FurnitureFan.com in March raised $4 million from investors led by Zero Stage Capital of Cambridge, Mass.
Something about this site had to be very different if someone was actually putting cash into it in the midst of a dead IPO market and a shaky economy. FurnitureFan, which acts as a directory of catalogs for non-Internet furniture stores and generates leads for their sales staffs, does work much differently than direct furniture-sales sites like Living.com and Furniture.com. It just doesn't work very well.
NEW MODEL, OLD PROBLEMS.
FurnitureFan is not another place to buy furniture online. Billing itself as a Web-based marketing-services company for the furniture industry, it hosts Web pages for 18 furniture manufacturers and 1,400 furniture stores. That's a very different revenue stream than the online sales model of its failed dot-com predecessors.
But don't expect miracles: A search for stores within 30 miles of a densely populated Zip code near New York turned up only 10 stores (and three of them were 1-800-Mattress outlets). A search for a store selling Herman Miller chairs near the same Zip code turned up one -- in Delaware, two hours away. And the directory isn't refined enough to match site users to stores by their interests: There's no way, for example, to quickly find just Italian-style couches or Mission chairs.
In addition to catalogs that let you shop by store, the site is a search tool that locates local stores selling broadly defined classes of products. Ask for desks and it'll show you desks, followed by the nearby stores that sell the ones you most like.
Here's the best part: If you can't find an item on the site, FurnitureFan will try to find it for you free. Register on the site, then e-mail a description of what you're looking for to Finder@furniturefan.com. The site's staff does the legwork, then e-mails a list of local stores that carry the product. The idea is to help consumers preshop their neighborhood stores online before they trek out to buy.
When my editor suggested I look at FurnitureFan, I had high hopes. For weeks, I had been searching, unsuccessfully, for just the right daybed/trundle for my toddler, who has a penchant for rolling out of bed. Pulling out the lower bed offers a softer landing than the floor. Rather than dig through online catalogs of Denver stores, I used the search tool to seek exactly what I was after. But finding it took a lot more work than the site's promotional material had led me to expect.
Upon entering FurnitureFan, the site appears clean and easy to navigate -- but delve deeper, and it's not as simple as it appears. The front page has a drawing of a row of storefronts, each with a tab into one of six categories -- living rooms, dining rooms, home offices, bedrooms, kitchens, and kids' rooms. A click on kids' rooms brings up a search tool with 17 different options, including daybeds. There's also a broader listing of categories down the left side of the page.
The daybed category has 29 different models, and it's a tedious process to scroll through and enlarge each one. For each model, there's a link to check pricing and availability, and another to find a store. The latter wasn't much help. With more than half the models, a message appeared: "We're sorry. We currently have no local stores in your area." For the rest there were only store names, their cities, and the miles from my Zip code.
"YOU CALL THAT CLOSE?"
My editor, who lives in New Jersey, went to the site to look for a desk for his wife's home office. Why, he asked, was FurnitureFan's idea of a nearby store he should visit to see the best-looking desk a retailer in Thompson, Conn.?
And if FurnitureFan has so many stores to draw on, shouldn't it have more desks than Staples.com? When a Denver-based friend and I each e-mailed Finder@FurnitureFan.com for customized help, we were disappointed. My friend didn't get any answer. I got a list of stores that didn't include any contact information. I ended up using the Yellow Pages.
Figuring out how the site works is click and miss. There's no good explanation of what to do or how to get the most benefit from using it. A click on "What is FurnitureFan" turns up a fuzzy story about how a fictitious couple, Sue and Ron, log onto FurnitureFan for "a virtual tour of the showrooms at their favorite local stores."
FurnitureFan also was supposed to have a nifty 3-D option offering 360-degree views of pieces of furniture, but I couldn't figure out where or even if it was available. A friend eventually found it, tucked at the bottom of the front page, but wasn't impressed. The limitations of even expensive computer monitors keep you from being able to make any meaningful judgments about important details like the grain or even the color of a wooden highboy, for example.
Another area of FurnitureFan with lots of promise but mixed execution is its Resource Guide, an information bank featuring content provided by various site partners. Details on how to use Pledge furniture polish are expendable, and I don't get the connection between furniture and SalonsNearYou.com -- as in beauty salons. But the chart from Rugs USA on how to get stains out is helpful. Similarly, FurnitureFan's partnership with iFloor.com yields tips such as how to keep floors in good repair even if they have to bear up under stiletto heels.
It's a great idea to create a free service that locates a specific piece of furniture at a store near you so you can actually see it, sit on it, and test it out without driving all over town first. Unfortunately, this site is so cumbersome to use and the results so uneven, at best, that it's little more than another online catalog from a dot-com peddling furniture.
FurnitureFan needs better navigation tools, clearer explanations and user guides, and it must learn that Delaware is nowhere near Northern New Jersey. Right now, it misses by a mile.
Marks is a freelancer in Denver