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Unbelievably low price furniture, a fantastic deal?

I’m tempted to say, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is” but, in relation to furniture, that is not always the case. I will help you to find that good deal and avoid disappointment.

Oak coffee tableAs an example, take the large wood furniture shops, especially those with an on line presence. It is rare to find one without a discount offer; 50% to 70% is common. How do they do it? And is it a good buy? Given that, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” (last cliché I promise), how can they sell an oak coffee table for less that I can buy the materials?

Firstly they buy in huge quantities. Wood suppliers and furniture manufacturers can make a living on large numbers of very small margins.

Secondly, they don’t have to pay craftsmen. Mass production machine operators are usually on fairly low wages.

Thirdly, they can shop globally for the best deal. Even furniture “made in Britain” is often made abroad and assembled in Britain.

Lastly, they cut corners; in design, materials, construction and structure.

  • Design features cost money. Even routing a rounded edge to a table top is a process which could save costs if omitted.
  • Wood is not just wood. The quality, and therefore the price, is based on colour, character, knots and other defects. Cost is also affected by where it has been transported from.
  • What may appear to be a solid top is often constructed from several boards or even smaller off-cuts, known as staves, glued together to reduce costs. Fixings are rarely seen and therefore the lowest possible quality required for the job, such as wire staples or nails in place of dowels or screws. Joints may be stapled, pinned or poor glued. Most factory finishes are of very good quality but may hide poor construction.
  • The less timber used in a piece of furniture, the lower the cost. Rails, styles, panels, legs, shelves and tops are all subject to calculations to determine the least timber required to take a load or fulfil a function.

So is any of this bad? Is there any such thing as a good deal?

On a piece of furniture where every cost-cutting measure, outlined above, has been taken, it is unlikely that a low price represents a good deal. You get what you pay for. Sometimes prices are low, on reasonable quality furniture, for other business reasons such as ‘end of line’ or ‘special purchase’ and this is where the real deals are to be found. I am not saying don’t buy cheap furniture. I am saying, once you have decided you like it and you like the price, before you buy, ask these questions.

  • Are you a full member of The Furniture Ombudsman? (If they are you will have recourse to support in the event of any dispute. See http://www.thefurnitureombudsman.org/)
  • Is the furniture “end-of-line” or a “special purchase”?
  • What is the wood? (Will your fingernail leave an indentation?)
  • Where did it come from?
  • How is it constructed?
    • Dovetail Joint 02Wood:
      • great: solid wood
      • good: good quality (9+ layer) plywood
      • bad: thin plywood, chipboard, fiberboard
      • bad: knots, cracks, twists, bows.
      • bad: soft, easily scratched surfaces
    • Joints:
      • M and T Jointgreat: dovetail, mortise & tenon
      • good: reinforcing corner blocks
      • good: dowels, screws
      • bad: staples, nails, visible glue
    • Frame
      • good: robust, even, level with floor
      • bad: twists, creaks, wobbles
  • Where was it manufactured?
  • Where was it assembled?
  • What is the finish?
  • Can you come down on price?

Wherever possible, examine the piece of furniture. Exercise caution but take note of other customer reviews. Then by all means go ahead and buy it. But buy it from an informed position. Buy it knowing that it may not be unique or bespoke but it may be exactly what you’re looking for and… you never know; it may just be a fantastic deal.