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Robyn van Krek is not a fan of malls, so she and her husband, Andrew, bought their new truck online. (J.P. MOCZULSKI FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Robyn van Krek is not a fan of malls, so she and her husband, Andrew, bought their new truck online. (J.P. MOCZULSKI FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Online shopping's new frontier: big-ticket furniture Add to ...

Robyn van Krek needed some shade, but she wasn’t going to the mall to get it. Instead, she turned to her computer.

“I hate shopping, but I love shopping, so pretty much I only shop online,” says the computer systems analyst who lives in Mississauga. So when she found shade sails for a discount on Wayfair.com, a site that sells furniture and decor items at rates that are often significantly cheaper than those offered at brick-and-mortar stores, she snapped them up.

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“I hate going to malls. I hate looking for things,” says van Krek, who even bought a pickup truck online with her husband.

Sites such as Wayfair that partner with vendors to offer a massive selection of furniture and home-decor items, at as much as 70 per cent off the retail price, are multiplying. The Wayfair network includes AllModern.com, Joss and Main, and DwellStudio. There are other players such as Overstock.com and several Canadian sites like Shop.ca and HomeSav.

And though online sales of furniture and home decor only make up 8 per cent of overall sales in the category, that equals $30-billion in North America, and that chunk of the overall market is growing by 17 per cent annually, according to market estimates. The Wayfair network of websites did $600-million in sales last year. This year, that figure is expected to jump to $900-million, says CEO Niraj Shah. Meanwhile, Overstock.com does $1.3-billion in annual sales.

These sites offer thousands of items that can be searched from home (or at work, if the boss isn’t looking), saving people the hassle of schlepping to the mall. Their allure can be irresistible to time-poor, style-rich home-owners. As Shah says, these sites have a key advantage over brick-and-mortar stores. “Frankly, a store is going to have 30 bedroom sets. We have 1,500,” he says.

It pays, however, to read the fine print: Some shoppers caution that when you factor in shipping costs and the occasional kinks of online shopping, the great prices sometimes aren’t all that great.

For instance, Deborah Moskovitch was hunting for a decorative ladder for her kitchen last year. She found a Lucite ladder at a store for $500. She found a similar one on Wayfair.com for nearly $200 less. “But at the end of the day there wasn’t such a great savings because of the shipping,” says the Toronto-based divorce consultant. “I think I saved maybe $50.”

Moskovitch also ran into a problem with a rug she ordered from Restoration Hardware’s website. The rug looked brown and white online. “When I got it, it was black and white, and it didn’t fit with my decor,” she says.

In many cases, mistakes like this one are due to the colour displays on a computer’s monitor.

And that wait for goods to arrive can also diminish the overall experience, particularly with goods coming from the United States.

“Do I really want to wait the three weeks that it can take to clear customs when it works out to be about the same cost if I was to go buy it in person or from another Canadian online retailer?” asks Caitlin McCormack-Wilson, who bought a crib for her son online last year.

HomeSav currently has partnerships with more than 800 vendors, says co-founder Alexander Norman. It also boasts more than 280,000 members, though Norman says it’s still struggling to build awareness among its target market of women ages 30 to 45.

Many people will always want that “tactile” experience, Norman says, whether it’s bouncing on a bed or feeling a chair’s fabric.

But these sites have great ambitions to make the proposal more enticing. Norman says that eventually, if all goes well, HomeSav will be able to determine your tastes based on your shopping history and curate items to your style.

As well, they are squeezing the supply chain to reduce costs. This month, U.S.-based Overstock.com will began beta testing a distribution system in Canada, thus saving the cost of shipping goods from its hundreds of Canadian suppliers south of the border only to send them back across the 49th parallel to shoppers here. The set-up is expected to drop overall costs by 30 per cent, says CEO Patrick Byrne.

Sites in Canada may not boast such figures, but they are still growing. HomeSav has seen an average monthly increase of 15 per cent since it launched in 2011.

“You compensate for the loss of margin on your end with some great intangible benefits,” says Alex Goldman, head of business development at iCanvas Art, a Chicago company that has partnered with HomeSav. “You broaden the exposure, you get your product in front of eyes that you might not have normally been able to capture.”

Van Krek has no plans to stop shopping online, although she knows that depending on the size and weight of an item, you need to do your research about shipping.

“If you’re buying something like a rug, there’s no point, because it’s huge and heavy,” she says.

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