retail news in context, analysis with attitude

Interesting piece in the New York Times the other day about so-called "fast furniture" - bought during the pandemic lockdowns, and now about to be tossed into the trash.

Here's how the Times frames the story:

"Americans bought piles of furniture during the pandemic, with sales on desks, chairs and patio equipment jumping by more than $4 billion from 2019 to 2021, according to a market data company. And a lot of it won’t survive the decade.

"Fast furniture, which is mass-produced and relatively inexpensive, is easy to obtain and then abandon. Like fast fashion, in which retailers like Shein and Zara produce loads of cheap, trendy clothing that’s made to be discarded after only a few wears, fast furniture is for those looking to hook up but not settle down. It’s the one-season fling of furnishings.

"Many of the Ikea beds and Wayfair desks bought during the Covid-19 lockdown were designed to last about five years, said Deana McDonagh, a professor of industrial design at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. 'I relate to fast furniture like I do to fast food,' Ms. McDonagh said. 'It’s empty of culture, and it’s not carrying any history with it'."

The Times suggests that there are different motivations at play in how people choose their furniture.  Sometimes, especially during the pandemic, people just needed stuff fast in order to adapt to changed life and work circumstances.  Sometimes fast furniture "offers millions of homeowners the opportunity to live in a stylish home at an affordable price point. As young people contend with skyrocketing housing prices and economic anxiety, even those who would prefer to browse antique markets or shop for custom pieces simply don’t have the resources to do so."

Still, the Times notes, there is an environmental cost:  "Each year, Americans throw out more than 12 million tons of furniture, creating mountains of solid waste that have grown 450 percent since 1960, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Bits of tossed furniture can be recycled, but the vast majority ends up in landfills."

KC's View:

To me, it is an interesting parallel … because food retailers are sort of facing the same positioning issues.  Food can be non-differentiated, non-nutritious, non-sustaining … or it can be aspirational, inspirational, and fulfilling in all sorts of different ways.  Food retailers can, of course, split the difference and offer food that fits in both camps.

But I think it is important for retailers to think about not just the disposable nature of the products they sell, but also whether the relationships they are creating with their shoppers are being treated as disposable.  There is something to be said for creating sustainable connections, in the same way that a good chair and a well-made desk (not necessarily wildly expensive chairs and desks) is a greater pleasure to work at than a folding chair and card table.  (Trust me on this - I've worked at the latter far more than the former.)