For What It’s Worth

Emphasis remains on value and quality in furniture purchases


New furniture can be a lot of fun, but it’s hardly frivolous. Unlike washers and dryers or furnaces, new furniture can give your home a whole new look. Yet like appliances and mechanicals, furniture can carry big price tags.

The economy has many consumers proceeding a bit more cautiously, yet shoppers are still in the market to update their homes. Most remain very value conscious as they make big-ticket decisions. So instead of searching for the lowest prices, most buyers are shopping for the best values—and of course they want things to look good, too.

So it’s all about shopping smart so you find the best quality, the best construction, the best style, the best look—really, the best value—for your money. “People will still spend money on something if they know it’s a quality item that’s going to last,” says Kris Wilke, manager of The Stool Store.

That is why many furniture retailers, including Woodworks manager Kelly Hofmeister, consider furniture an investment. Purchasing decisions should be made carefully and thoughtfully, and shoppers should strive to buy the best quality they can. You certainly don’t have to buy the most expensive thing out there, but if you buy the cheapest you’ll probably end up replacing it in a few years.

“You really do get what you pay for,” Hofmeister says. “There is a lot of really stylish, beautiful furniture out there that, upon closer inspection, is substandard in construction, materials and finish.”

Price offers some indication of quality, but it’s not safe to assume that the most expensive piece of furniture is the best. And if you’re prepared to pay top dollar for furniture that will last a lifetime, you want to make sure that you’re really going to get it.

Brad Stevens, owner of Stevens Design, which deals in Stickley and other North American lines, such as Hickory White, Zimmerman Chair and Virginia Sterling, advises shoppers to do their homework and to spend a lot of time with salespeople before making a purchase. “You need to know your retailer. You need to ask questions,” he says. “You need to make sure your designer or salesperson understands the product they’re selling. They need to explain construction to customers.”

Construction, Hofmeister agrees, is key to quality. She advises shoppers to look at the fit of drawers and open them to ensure that they move smoothly. Upholstered furniture is a little trickier since customers usually can’t see what’s behind the fabric. “Consumers need to look for solid hardwood framing, coil-spring suspension, fully padded outside arms and backs, and good tailoring,” Hofmeister notes.

Some retailers will have frames available for inspection or catalogs with images of frames and their own construction processes. And if your salesperson doesn’t offer those kinds of shopping tools to you, be sure to ask for them regardless of how taken you are with the look of a piece. After all, Hofmeister cautions, “the most beautiful fabric in the world won’t make up for substandard construction.”

Indeed, form is little without function. Jacob Harlow, manager of The Century House, the near west side retailer of mostly Scandinavian and contemporary furnishings, says comfort is as critical to many shoppers as quality and often more important than style. “[Comfort] drives a lot of purchasing decisions,” he says.

After all, no one wants to buy a couch for a family room only to discover that the seat is too low and deep or that the cushions are too firm. That is why Stevens urges customers to test run showroom pieces the same way they would use them at home. He advises shoppers to not only sit on sofas but to also take their shoes off and even lie down. “They’re buying it once,” he explains. “They’re buying it for life.”

The Stool Store’s Wilke agrees that customers should use all tools at their disposal to make the best purchases. She notes that many Stool Store customers are coming in with digital images and even videos of their spaces. “That really allows designers to get a feel for the space and work with them,” Wilke says. “It’s almost like we’re there.”

Harlow says The Century House is also embracing new media to help customers get to know the store and its products so they can shop smarter. Facebook and a company blog, for example, have opened up communication lines with customers.

Yet more than anything, Wilke advises shoppers to take their time. Most people aren’t going to find exactly what they want on their first trip out, even if they are simply looking for stools. “We show 600 stools in our store. To be a smart shopper, you’ve got to come in a few times. You’ve got to narrow your choices down to your top ten and go from there,” Wilke says. “It can be overwhelming. A really smart shopper will spend some time.”

If you’ve spent the time, shopped around and you still can’t find the style and quality you want on any showroom floor, consider custom furniture. Jeff Hensen, president of Hensen Fine Cabinetry, says his company builds high-end wood furniture at competitive prices. He acknowledges that custom pieces cost more than something from a big box store, but says it’s not as much as people expect since there are no middlemen (such as a distributor or separate retailer) involved. You also have more control over the style, materials and construction.

Hensen says he works with clients to make sure they get both the pieces that they want and the function that they need. For bedroom suites he has visited homes to measure rooms, he has built mock-up headboards to showcase sample wood choices and he has shown clients three-dimensional drawings of their furniture in their homes prior to construction. Hensen and the employees who build the furniture even make some of the deliveries. “Everything we do here is try to match up our work with what our customers’ desires are,” Hensen says.

That kind of service, though, isn’t exclusive to furniture makers. For examples, Stevens Design employs its own delivery people instead of using a different service or company. That way Stevens Design employees accompany furniture to customers’ homes. For many issues, his employees can perform in the field, Stevens says. As a result, customers don’t have to call with requests for service or—worst-case scenario—complaints.

After all, things do go wrong and sometimes even high-quality items break. It’s a good reminder to consider warranties and available service prior to purchase so that you know what kind of business you’ll be dealing with after the sale.

Hensen Fine Cabinetry, for example, offers a five-year standard warranty on all products and a lifetime warranty on hardware. Yet Hensen encourages customers to call if they have problems even after the warranty period has expired. “We’re a family-owned business,” Hensen explains, noting that the company tries to work with all customers to resolve problems. “Our name is our label. We have to stand behind it.”

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