Sixty years ago, my grandparents walked into their local furniture store and bought a complete living room set, right off the showroom floor. My parents inherited that set for their first home. For many years, these were the two options for buying furniture: shopping at a physical store or getting a hand-me-down.
Today, advances in technology have helped replicate the in-person experience online, paving the way for even more furniture businesses—and more choice.
Need a coffee table in 2021? You can just as easily find an affordable and ubiquitous IKEA LACK table or an original midcentury vintage version refinished by a local curator—and everything in between—without leaving your own living room. In recent years, more companies have sprung selling furniture online, directly to consumers, without the showroom.
The pandemic wreaked havoc on businesses of all sizes, but with people spending more time at home or working remotely, furniture and home decor products were on an upward trend through 2020. If you’ve ever considered starting a furniture or home decor business, now is the time.
Here, we interview experts to find out their best advice for aspiring furniture makers, designers, curators, and sellers alike. Learn about sourcing or making furniture and home decor products. Get advice about inventory, shipping, and marketing. And, transform your idea into reality as we walk you through the steps of starting your own furniture business and selling online.
Meet the experts
We chatted with successful business owners on both sides of the equation: furniture curators and furniture builders. Throughout this guide, we’ll lean on their experiences to offer advice for whatever type of furniture business you plan to launch.
Byron and Dexter Peart, Co-founders, GOODEE
When fashion industry veterans and brothers Byron and Dexter Peart were considering their next venture, they reflected on their upbringing in a house filled with pieces from their parents’ home country. What they remember is that each item told a story. Their brand, GOODEE, is a furniture and home decor business aiming to elevate the stories of the makers behind each product they sell.
Chris Hughes, Founder, Timberware
“I’ve worked with my hands for as long as I can remember,” says Chris. Chris worked as a welder’s apprentice and a general contractor before launching Timberware, his second business. Building homes developed in him a love for woodworking. His business allows him to focus on that craft, making custom wood furniture and home decor pieces for his clients.
How to sell furniture online: getting started
Before you get started selling furniture and home decor, there are a few questions to ask yourself: How much money do you need to get started? What are your space requirements? What niche will you be serving? Will you design and manufacture, build by hand, resell, or dropship?
There’s plenty of competition in furniture, especially if you factor in the giant market share of affordable global chains. That’s why it’s important to differentiate your brand from mass-market options by, say, offering a product that is unique, custom, one of a kind, or high end.
Design, build, manufacture, or resell?
There are multiple ways to get into the furniture selling business. The avenue you choose will depend on a number of factors, like your skill level, startup budget, and storage availability.
Here, we’ll review the different business models:
- Furniture maker. This type of business involves designing and building furniture by hand in your own workshop. You may choose to build and sell a limited number of styles by keeping inventory on hand or adopting a made-to-order model. Or you may offer a custom service that allows your customers to request specific dimensions and features. A furniture maker business requires that you have technical skills, specialized tools, and a dedicated workshop space.
- Furniture designer (working with a manufacturer). Rather than actually building the furniture on your own, you can choose to design it and work with a builder or manufacturer to create the products for you. You may require some specialized drafting skills and an understanding of materials and construction so you can communicate effectively with factories.
- Curator and reseller. In this model, you would sell a number of items from different brands or makers, curating collections that are unique to your brand. While you aren’t designing and making the items on your own, there is a need for creativity in building a cohesive brand and using storytelling, photography, and customer experience to sell products. In this case, you would purchase items wholesale from other brands and ship them directly to customers.
- Dropshipper. This method is the same as the one above but is a hands-off option if you aren’t able to store or ship the items yourself. Look to work with makers and brands that are willing to ship directly to your customers, cutting yourself out of the supply chain. You can find dropshipping partners in dropshipping directories (e.g., Aliexpress).
- Vintage reseller. This is another curator/reseller model that focuses on one-of-a-kind vintage or antique pieces. We’ve listed this as a separate category because the sourcing methods are quite different. You will need a knowledge of vintage furniture to identify what pieces have resale value and what’s in demand. It’s also helpful to have skills in furniture repair and refinishing to be able to restore vintage finds. Generally, you will require a significant amount of space for inventory, unless you opt for a consignment model.
Financing your furniture business
How much upfront investment do you need to make to start your own furniture business online? Well, that answer depends on what business model you choose.
It’s possible to get started with a few hundred dollars if you plan to dropship, as there is no need to hold inventory. A custom/made-to-order furniture business will allow you to buy materials as you go, so there’s no need to invest much up front—that’s if you already have a hobby workshop. If you don’t already own the necessary tools and equipment, expect to spend tens of thousands of dollars to set a workshop up. Consider the cost of space rental (if applicable), utilities, and safety equipment (like proper ventilation).
My best advice would be to start with what you can afford and slowly grow your tool arsenal. Be patient, and don’t overextend yourself.
Chris Hughes, founder, Timberware
“My best advice would be to start with what you can afford and slowly grow your tool arsenal,” says Chris. He started his business with savings and bootstrapped, upgrading as he grew by reinvesting profits back into his workshop. “Be patient and don’t overextend yourself.”
In most other cases, you’ll need to invest in inventory and space to store that inventory—these are big-ticket items with big space needs. It’s possible to start a furniture business from home if you have a suitable space (basement or climate-controlled garage) for storage, but forecast out what the costs might be to scale to a dedicated space or work with a warehouse partner.
Many vintage resellers get their start by finding a few pieces at a time and reselling used furniture through marketplaces like eBay and Chairish or even local buy-and-sell sites like Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace. This is a great way to try your hand at selling vintage furniture online before you expand to a dedicated site—and a quick way to start a business with little upfront investment.
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Building your online furniture brand
It’s important that you define your brand at this early stage. Answering a few questions will help you tell your brand story, carve out your visual aesthetic, capture your mission, and more clearly envision your ideal customer.
Now that you’ve decided whether you will make or resell furniture, pick a lane for your furniture business. Will you only sell sofas and go deep on one product? Are you interested in jumping on a hot trend? Do you plan to focus on well-built minimalist pieces for small spaces? What about tapping into the growing number of people working at home and selling unique office furniture?
Consider the following when picking a niche (with examples):
- Category/use: office furniture, outdoor living, home accents
- Product: sofa beds, dining tables, nursery
- Style: midcentury modern, minimal, rustic
- Customer: students, apartment dwellers, cottage owners
- Niche: “smart” furniture, modular pieces, furniture made from recycled materials
- Cause: fair trade, handmade locally, sustainable
When Chris launched Timberware, the possibilities in woodworking were infinite. “We hadn’t found our niche yet, so we just built a bit of everything,” he says. Chris found that trade shows really helped him to hone his offering. Trucking heavy furniture back and forth from these shows wasn’t easy, but the exercise helped him understand the market and find his focus.
For GOODEE, establishing brand values was something that evolved out of Byron and Dexter’s previous business, fashion brand WANT Les Essentiels. “It was really about this balance between things that mattered and what people really wanted,” says Byron. Through experience, the brothers found that people felt torn between two choices: luxury or sustainability. “We wanted to build GOODEE as a response to that,” says Byron. Their brand takes a clear stance: the two are not mutually exclusive. Dexter and Byron leveraged their business and design experience to curate a collection that delivers on their solid brand values.
Once you’ve conducted market research and honed in on a niche, put it to paper. Make a clear statement about what you have to offer then layer on your mission, values, and brand story. Now that you have clear brand guidelines, you will continue to reference them as you design your site and curate your collection. As you scale and even hire staff, these guidelines will help keep your messaging consistent, too.
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Sourcing furniture: for designers and resellers
How you source suppliers or manufacturers depends on your business model and niche.
For furniture designers who do not plan to make the furniture themselves, look for a trusted manufacturer. “The closer you are to your production and your supply chain, especially in the beginning,” says Dexter, “the easier it will be to build and forge partnerships with whoever’s making your products.” When you’re getting started and you don’t have familiarity with manufacturing, it’s recommended that you find a manufacturer that will allow you a lot of oversight and who will work with you as a partner in your business. Directories like Maker’s Row in the US give you access to local manufacturers.
The closer you are to your production and your supply chain, especially in the beginning, the easier it will be to build and forge partnerships with whoever’s making your products.
Dexter Peart, co-founder, GOODEE
If you’re looking to resell products by others, you can hit the pavement and approach makers and brands to ask about wholesale pricing and terms. There are also marketplaces like Handshake that allow you to browse vendors who are actively looking for retail partners.
Vintage resellers source furniture in a number of ways. Due to the nature of the business, you’ll need to be consistently on the hunt to ensure you have inventory. Here are a number of sources to get you started:
- Auctions. Sign up to receive notifications for auctions in your area. Some of these take place in person, but there are several online auction sites like eBay and MaxSold that allow you to browse and bid on your own time from home.
- Estate sales. These can be a goldmine for a lot of vintage items in one place. Stay on top of upcoming sales by getting on the email list of local estate sale management companies.
- Online marketplaces and classifieds. Sites like Craigslist might turn up some treasures, as well as listings for garage sales, moving sales, or estate sales.
- Flea or outdoor markets. Showing up early means first dibs, but you’ll get the best deals at the end of the day and the end of flea market season, when dealers are looking to unload stock.
- Collectors. Private collectors may be interested in working with you to unload some of their stock. These are people you may meet as you start building contacts in the vintage community.
There are several directories and marketplaces available for furniture dropshippers. You can use a tool like Oberlo to connect your Shopify store to a number of furniture dealers, or browse sites like AliExpress. It’s also possible to set up dropshipping terms on an individual basis with select furniture brands. GFURN has a dedicated page highlighting its dropshipping program.
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Setting up shop: for furniture makers
For furniture makers, getting started can be costly if you don’t already own tools or have a dedicated workshop. Like Chris, you can start with the basics and expand your toolbox as your business grows.
Chris’s advice for setting up your own furniture workshop:
- Keep your workshop tidy. “A clean and organized shop is a safe and productive shop.”
- Consider workflow. “What tools do you need to have in order to accomplish what you want to do? What order will they be used in? This will help you figure out the layout for each main piece of machinery. From there you just find the best place for the smaller stuff.”
- The table saw is the heart of your workshop. “Make sure you have enough space around it to make the cuts you need.”
- Manage dust. “Where should your ducts be run for maximum efficiency?”
- Light it up. “For lighting, go bigger than you think you need. You can never have too much light in the shop! I recommend going with LEDs everywhere.”
Furniture inventory and storage
If you have decided to make or resell furniture (new or vintage) and are not dropshipping or making to order, be sure to consider your space needs. As we mentioned in the financing section, this could account for a considerable chunk of your startup costs.
In the earliest stages, warehousing is in your garage. It’s in your bedroom. That’s the natural way for a business to start.
Byron Peart, co-founder, GOODEE
“In the earliest stages, warehousing is in your garage. It’s in your bedroom,” says Byron. “That’s the natural way for a business to start.” He says it’s important for new business owners to be close to the full supply chain in the beginning. Handling the storage, fulfilment, and shipping in the early stages is great for quality control. Only after managing this aspect yourself can you understand what you’re looking for in a warehouse partner. One who, as Byron says, “will share your values with the same rigor and discipline as you would yourself.”
When deciding how and where to warehouse or store your products, consider the condition of the space. Many materials like wood and natural fabrics are susceptible to extreme temperatures, pests, and fluctuations in humidity. If you live in Canada, for example, your home’s unheated garage might not be the best long term solution for inventory storage.
Warehousing and storage solutions for furniture:
- Dedicating a room inside your home for this purpose
- Renting a climate-controlled storage space (best for overflow inventory that you don’t need to access regularly)
- Working with a warehouse partner who also handles shipping and order fulfillment
- Renting/buying your own dedicated office/warehouse space
Photography for furniture and home decor products
As with clothing, furniture is very personal. Without a fitting room or showroom, it’s up to online businesses to replicate as much of the in-person buying process as possible. Scale and size, texture, and detail are all important aspects to capture when photographing furniture and home accents.
Photography is key for a curated brand like GOODEE. “There’s something very democratic about us curating and finding these beautiful objects,” says Dexter. “And then showcasing them in the same way.” Photography, owned by GOODEE, creates consistency across the brand’s website.
When you’re starting out, you can shoot your own photos using a DSLR and simple lighting kit, or work with a professional photographer.
💡 Tips for DIY furniture photography:
- Scale is incredibly important. Aside from providing detailed measurements in the description, be sure to capture the piece within a space, next to other familiar and commonly sized decor items.
- Zoom in. Detailed closeups will help your customers “feel” the product without touching it. Try to capture texture in fabric and the detail of wood grain.
- Go 3D. Shopify now allows all store owners to upload 3D models or video of products, enabling your customers to view your furniture from every angle.
- Tell a story. Beyond the product description, your visuals should also tell a story: who is this for? How should it be styled? What are some other products that complement it? Do this by including lifestyle photos along with those against a plain background. Stage it in a room and provide style ideas that inspire customers to envision it in their own space.
In the following photos of velvet couches, the first image includes a person for scale, and it’s staged in a living space to offer suggestions for how it might be styled. In the second, the close crop allows customers to see the fabric’s detail.
For vintage furniture resellers, shooting product photos is an ongoing task. Refer to our guide for selling vintage clothing for tips on how to set up an easy batch system for DIY photography.
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Sell furniture online: how to set up your online store
Now let’s pull all of that hard work together. If you’ve taken the time to develop solid brand guidelines, this part should be a natural extension of that work. Before you actually launch to the world, take time to play around with different configurations and designs. Launching a simple landing page at this stage, along with your social accounts, can help you build an email list so that you can make a big splash at your official site unveiling.
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Design and themes for online furniture stores
As with any store you launch on Shopify, you can do it with little to no design skill. Free tools like our logo maker and multiple options for themes let you plug in your images, text, and customizations to create your own branded site.
A few of our theme picks for selling furniture online:
- Minimal Theme: Modern (free) offers a simple, clean layout for first-time furniture sellers.
- Editions Theme: Light ($) places focus on featured products—great for handmade and vintage brands with many one-of-a-kind products and constantly evolving catalogs.
- Startup Theme: Home ($$) is great for single-product brands—for example, if you sell only mattresses.
- Empire Theme: Graphic ($$) prioritizes large photos and collections. This one is great for brands taking a strong stance on an aesthetic or lifestyle.
- Story Theme: Chronicle ($$) is a storytelling theme that works for designers, makers, or ethical brands.
If you have the budget but not the visual skills, consider hiring a designer or agency to help you put together a branding package. Shopify Experts are vetted professionals that have experience working with brands of all sizes.
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Product pages for furniture
GOODEE’s product page design is a winning example to aspire to as you set up your store. We’ve dissected one of its pages to explain why it works and how to implement some of its brilliance in your own product pages:
1. The primary image is a clear product photo with a solid background, showing the entire chair, uncropped and without distractions.
2. Additional views of the chair including alternate angles and the product placed in a scene.
3. Prominent “Add to bag” button with an option to “Add to favorites”—this is a helpful feature that allows customers to think and come back later (furniture is a big-ticket item) or compare multiple products side by side (“Which is best for my space?”). Read on for suggestions on how to achieve this with an app.
4. A single paragraph sums up everything you need to know about this chair: where it’s made, how it’s made, notes about its durability, suggestions for where and how it can be used (patio, indoor or outdoor), and how to style it (colorful pillows). Storytelling language can transport your customer into the feeling you’d like them to have about a piece of furniture—set the scene.
If you can’t explain to your customer why that product needs to exist in the first place and why they should bring that into their home or give it as a gift, then I think you failed that customer experience.
Byron Peart, co-founder, GOODEE
5. Secondary photos include lifestyle images that show the chair in a setting with other furniture and accents—ideally other items that can be purchased in your store (link these as suggestions/related items right on the page). These images provide inspiration and show scale.
6. Detailed specs of the chair help customers understand if it will fit in their space. In this section you could include details like: weight, dimensions, care notes (how to clean), material composition, origin, assembly requirements, etc.
7. If, like GOODEE, your brand is built around a cause such as sustainability or fair trade practices, here is another opportunity to be transparent about your commitment.
8. GOODEE’s founders believe in the strength of story, and it’s woven into their site in multiple places. On each product page, the maker of the product is featured in a dedicated section with a short description and link to view other products. This can also help with cross-selling (featuring pieces within the same collection, for example).
9. At the bottom of the page, customers are invited to review the product. Completed reviews would appear in this section offering future customers additional peace of mind from real customer testimonials.
10. A related products section can help your customers compare similar options or view complementary products.
As you build your product pages, think about what you want it to achieve. “If you can’t explain to your customer why that product needs to exist in the first place and why they should bring that into their home or give it as a gift,” says Byron, “then I think you failed that customer experience.”
About, Contact, and FAQ pages for furniture brands
Byron and Dexter made the choice to put their faces—as well as the faces and stories of their artisan partners—at the front of their brand. Human stories resonate with buyers, especially in the wake of a pandemic when the importance of supporting small businesses and shopping sustainably has become all too apparent.
“We found ourselves unwillingly all at home over the past 15 months,” says Byron. The investment in GOODEE’s story that finds balance between design and positive impact resonated with shifting customer perspective during the lockdown.
Your story can set you apart from massive competitors. In this arena, small and human-backed businesses always win. Your About page can tell your origin story, highlight your brand values, share some of the faces of those on your team, and find common ground with your customers.
For furniture designers and builders, this is also the place where you can invite your customers behind the scenes to take a peek at your process and inspiration.
Your contact information and FAQs are also important pages. FAQ pages are useful for furniture businesses, especially for shipping and returns information. Due to the large size and weight of many furniture pieces, shipping may be more complicated and returns may not be possible. Clearly communicate your shipping and return policies here. And allow customers to easily contact you with follow-up questions. Bigger purchases often require additional support.
When building all pages and navigations on your site, consider search engine optimization—or SEO—which helps search engines like Google rank your site. Learning SEO will require an upfront time investment but, if done right, will pay off in the end in the form of organic (free) traffic to your website.
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Customer experience: AR, 3D, and apps for furniture stores
The gradual shift to online shopping was accelerated in 2020 when many businesses were forced to move online and consumer habits trended toward shopping safely from home. We believe these trends are here to stay. And technology is making it easier for furniture stores to offer the showroom experience online.
In 2020, Shopify announced that we’d enabled 3D and video file types for all stores. That means you can give your customers a 360-degree view of your product or show the product in motion or in context. For example, a video of a person sitting down on a sofa would demonstrate the level of cushion firmness—something that can’t be captured in a photo.
Getting your products shot in 3D may be a big upfront cost, but these are versatile image types that can be used over and over in animations and demos. And, 3D models in AR have been shown to increase conversion rates by up to 250% when they appear on product pages.
To meet the specific needs of your business, here are a few select apps from the Shopify App Store to help you sell furniture online:
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Diversifying your sales channels
Consider other ways to get your products in front of customers in a crowded market. If you’re a maker or designer, can you reach other geographical markets by wholesaling your products? If you’re an online-only furniture brand, this may be an easy way to dabble in retail.
Pop-up retail is also a great option for vintage furniture resellers, designers, or makers. Think local outdoor markets or trade shows. Often larger retailers will open in-store pop-up spaces for emerging brands that complement their offerings.
Also consider if any social sales channels or marketplaces are right for your audience. As a furniture maker or vintage reseller, you can integrate your Etsy or eBay sales with Shopify to get the best of both worlds: your own dedicated site and access to potential buyers on marketplaces.
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Marketing for your furniture and home decor business
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to marketing for furniture businesses. A good rule of thumb is having the right message in the right place at the right time. Those factors will depend on who your customer is and where they hang out. Is it more worth your time and money to invest in email marketing or in Facebook ads? Should you try content marketing or Google Ads? Testing is your friend at this stage.
As a brand selling a product that is highly subject to taste and may require guidance for those less design-savvy, content can be very powerful. Build an audience on Instagram, YouTube, or TikTok by offering home design advice and tips. These can be tools to drive traffic to your store and establish yourself and your brand as a credible expert in this space.
In the end, your marketing content will come across most authentically when you work within mediums and platforms that come natural to you. “We’re a little old school, in that we still get most of our clients by word of mouth,” says Chris. “With that being said, Instagram is a great tool for us. I love posting stories so that our followers get that behind-the-scenes look into our shop.”
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Shipping, returns, and customer service
“Shipping is a massive challenge,” says Chris, who admits he hasn’t quite perfected it. “We have shipped 800-pound dining tables across the country. It’s nerve-wracking!” For GOODEE, inventory management, fulfilment, and shipping are handled by the brand’s warehouse partner.
When you’re just starting out, you may be managing order fulfilment and shipping yourself. For you, Chris has advice from his own experience:
- “Find a shipping company that has good reviews and build a relationship with them. Make sure you can get quick quotes based on weight and dimensions ahead of time so you can factor that into your price. You don’t want to swallow an unexpected $500 shipping charge—and neither does your customer.”
- “Package or crate your product really well. This way you have the peace of mind that your beautiful dining table looks as it should when it reaches your customer.”
Returns can be very tricky when you’re dealing with oversized items. Be sure that your return policy is very clear. If you do not accept returns, this information should be clearly presented to the customer at the checkout stage and even on the product page. If you are willing to accept returns, establish the terms with your shipping partner up front and let the customer know who will be responsible for the return shipping charges—which may be substantial.
GOODEE’s founders share that the brand’s return rate is under 5%. They achieve this through detailed product pages and stellar customer support but also by making the decision to (almost) never run sales. “By having a site that’s not on sale,” says Byron, “you’re not really trying to use all of these other techniques to get someone just to buy.”
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The fine print
Before you start selling furniture online, check in with legal and insurance professionals to see if your business requires any additional protection due to the size and price of the items you’re delivering. You’ll want to protect yourself from loss as with items damaged in transit. But you’ll also want to protect your customers. Will you offer a standard warranty against defects? Will you sell extended warranties? Do you need commercial insurance? Do your homework to ensure you’ve put the right protections in place before you start selling.
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Get a seat at the table
Whether you’re planning to build or curate furniture to sell online, it can be a rewarding and creative business.
Dexter and Byron made the move from fashion to furniture because they found beauty in the way that home unites people. “There’s no gender, there are no sizes,” says Byron. “We all have a connection to these emotional moments that we share together in the comfort of home.” And GOODEE has spun those good feelings into a community of artisans and conscious consumers with a shared love for beautiful things made ethically.
If you are passionate about what you’re building, that will come through in your work.
Chris Hughes, founder, Timberware
For Chris, the reward comes from working with his hands, doing projects that excite him. He says that identifying those are the key to a successful business. “It could be birdhouses, it can be cheeseboards, it can be ornate beds, it doesn’t matter,” he says. “If you are passionate about what you’re building, that will come through in your work.”
What are you passionate about? What gap exists in the furniture and home decor market? At the intersection of these answers is a business opportunity waiting for your unique idea.
Feature illustration by Pete Ryan