Price comparisons are extraordinarily difficult for furniture. Many products are sold exclusively by a single chain or by only one or a few stores per region. Ethan Allen and IKEA, for example, which are affiliated with a specific manufacturer or set of manufacturers, don’t carry lines from other makers 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 those given by manufacturers.

At first glance, store advertisements and price tags might seem like good comparison tools. Tags often list a “regular” price or “ticket” price and then a “sale” or “discounted” amount. 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. An investigation by Checkbook’s undercover shoppers found that many stores use deceptive practices, especially selling furniture. Even if the sign says “Save 60 percent,” it’s probably meaningless.

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

Getting Competitive Bids

The best way to compare prices among independent stores is by collecting competitive bids. 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 it for you. Take the following steps:

First, get the make, model/style number, and fabric grade or number (for upholstery) from a store that displays the item. Some stores try to mask the needed information; price tags just contain a hodgepodge of numbers. Still, you can usually ID manufacturers by looking for tags under cushions or in 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. This is usually also on manufacturers’ websites.

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

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 only work on moderate- to high-priced items. In our experience, stores that sell budget- or low-priced items generally won’t bid.

When comparing prices at local stores, consider 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.

Making Subjective Judgments

A less precise way to choose a store is to make subjective judgments about whether its prices correspond to the quality of its products.

The customer survey ratings for “prices,” shown on our Ratings Tables, compile subjective consumer judgments. Many of our customer survey raters presumably have little or no expertise regarding product quality and prices, but some know the difference between a chaise lounge and a Chesterfield sofa.

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 whether the prices were justified by the quality of the products.

Become a Smarter Consumer Get free, expert advice delivered to your inbox every Wednesday when you sign up for the Weekly Checklist newsletter.

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 or floor-sample sales. 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 at chains, but independent furniture stores are often responsive, especially if you agree to buy several 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. Click here for advice on working with a designer.