How to Get the Best Deal on Furniture

Price comparisons are extraordinarily difficult for furniture. Many products are sold exclusively by a single chain or by only one or a few stores in any market region. Ethan Allen and IKEA, for example, which are affiliated with a specific manufacturer or set of manufacturers, don’t carry lines from other manufacturers and don’t let other stores carry their lines. Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn, and some other national chains and independent stores make price comparisons impossible by altering brand names and styles from the names given by manufacturers.

At first glance, store advertisements and price tags may appear to provide a basis for price comparison. Tags often list a “regular” price or “ticket” price or some similarly denoted price, and then a “sale” or “discounted” price. But comparing stores’ regular and discount prices is meaningless because the concept of “full” or “regular” price means different things in different stores. And at many stores, the sales never end. A 10-month-long investigation by Checkbook’s undercover shoppers found that many stores use deceptive practices, especially when selling furniture. Even if the sign says “Save 60%,” it’s probably meaningless.

Another problem is that many stores don’t list prices on their websites, forcing customers to either visit the stores or call for prices, which makes price comparisons time-consuming. On our Ratings Tables, we report which companies’ websites have catalogs that show prices.

Getting Competitive Bids

The best way to compare prices among independent stores is through a competitive bidding process. Although it might be difficult to find several local stores that stock the exact item you want, stores that at least carry the same furniture make may be able to order the item for you. Take the following steps:

First, get the make, model/style number, and fabric grade or number (for upholstered pieces) from a store which displays the item. Some stores try to mask the needed information; price tags contain a hodgepodge of numbers and include only code numbers to identify manufacturers. Although these stores make comparison shopping difficult, you can usually identify manufacturers. On upholstered pieces, look for tags under seat cushions; on desks, dressers, and other non-upholstered items, manufacturers’ names often appear inside drawers.

Then check with the manufacturer that it still produces the model/style you want. If so, get a list of retailers selling its products within 50 or 100 miles of your home. Most manufacturers’ websites have this information.

Third, call each retailer and explain that you are conducting a competitive bidding process to get the best possible price on the item. Invite each retailer to quote you a price—including delivery costs.

If the prices quoted by other retailers are higher than the price at the store where you started, you know the initial price was a good one. If not, either buy from one of the other retailers or use their prices to negotiate with the first store.

Unfortunately, this competitive bidding process may work only on moderate- to high-priced items. In our experience, stores that sell budget or low-priced items generally decline to bid.

When comparing prices at local stores, take into account their delivery charges. Different stores have different ways of calculating delivery charges. Some charge a flat fee regardless of the number or size of the items delivered; others charge per piece, per pound, or per hour; and some waive delivery charges on large orders.

Our undercover shoppers called furniture stores, including some outside the area, to obtain competitive bids for several items (including delivery). As the table below reveals, we found big price variation for the items we shopped.

Our Shoppers Found Big Price Differences
When They Asked Local and Online
Furniture Stores to Bid on Six Items*

Item Low local price Average local price High local price Low price at online stores
Hooker Sorella credenza 5107-85001 $1,545 $2,151 $2,823 $2,169
Riverside Windward Bay writing desk 42830 $558 $808 $1,158 $855
Bernhardt Jet Set drawer chest 356-118 $1,074 $1,555 $2,538 $1,431
Kincaid Bedford console 74-035 $1,068 $1,374 $1,896 $1,258
Flexsteel Venture loveseat 5654-20 with 010-11 fabric $929 $1,275 $1,925 $1,260
Lane Benson loveseat #630-20 $569 $816 $1,188 $669
*Prices include delivery and setup.

 

Making Subjective Judgments

A less precise way to choose a store that offers good value is to make subjective judgments as to whether a store’s prices correspond to the quality of its products. Click here for tips on how to assess product quality.

The customer survey ratings for “prices,” shown on our Ratings Tables, are a compilation of subjective consumer judgments. Many of our customer survey raters presumably have little or no expertise regarding product quality and prices. But some do have a degree of expertise and considerable experience in the market.

Some stores were rated “superior” for their prices by 50 percent or more of their surveyed customers. Even for the stores that sell mostly moderate- to high-priced furniture, our raters may have considered the prices justified by the quality of the products sold.

Other Strategies

Although the easiest way to get good prices is to shop at competitively priced stores, other strategies can help.

  • Ask about sales. Because many furniture stores hold permanent sales, don’t assume a sale price is a good price. But if you find something you like at a store that holds legitimate sales, ask a salesperson to hold it for you—then close the deal during the next sale.
  • Look for items on clearance. The prices may be terrific, but be aware that clearance items are often sold “as is.” Inspect them closely for defects.
  • Negotiate lower prices. This may be difficult (though sometimes possible) at department stores or chains, but independent furniture stores are often responsive, especially if you agree to buy a number of items.
  • Consider buying through an interior designer. Although this doesn’t usually get you low prices, you might find a designer who (for a very modest charge) will order for you and pass along their discount.