IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

You're not the only one considering a new sofa: Why Wayfair is thriving amid the pandemic

"Furniture has always been a challenge for online shopping. But Wayfair was designed for this," said one analyst.
Wayfair Opens First Brick-And-Mortar Store
While some customers admit they wouldn't normally buy furniture without trying it out in person, the pandemic has changed that approach, leading to a spike in sales for Wayfair.Suzanne Kreiter / Boston Globe via Getty Images file

When Carl Constant's company told him in mid-March that he'd be working from home indefinitely because of the pandemic, he decided to stick it out at his parents' home on Long Island, New York.

By doing so, he'd be able to take care of his parents and also get out of New York City, which was being hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 outbreak. But that also meant he'd need to make some purchases to accommodate his long-term stay, such as a new mattress and a desk.

"I turned to Wayfair to make a few quick purchases to get myself through this," Constant said. "Unlike a store like Ikea, which only sells its own stuff, Wayfair is more of a marketplace like Amazon and carries multiple different brands."

The variety was appealing, as were the speedy delivery times and the low prices. Constant needed the items quickly and didn't want to spend a lot.

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

Because of thousands of buyers like Constant, sales have boomed at the furniture and home accessories website Wayfair as people are spending more time at home — and finding that, maybe, their space needs a new look.

Falling consumer demand and stay-at-home orders mandating that certain businesses stay closed have taken a heavy toll on the retail industry. Pier 1 Imports, the home furnishing and decor store, is the latest casualty, announcing Tuesday that it will close all stores and liquidate its inventory.

While retail sales figures released last week by the Census Bureau hit record lows for April, with furniture store sales hit especially hard, Wayfair's total net revenue increased by almost 20 percent last quarter, to $2.3 billion, with deliveries up by 21 percent. The number of active customers also spiked, up by 28.6 percent year over year.

"In the short term, we have generally seen increased sales and order activity and lower advertising costs in the market since the COVID-19 outbreak," Wayfair said in a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Wayfair declined to comment for this story.

"Furniture has always been a challenge for online shopping, and there aren't too many companies out there that are really good at this. But Wayfair was designed for this," said Brendan Witcher, an analyst at Forrester Research who covers digital business strategy.

Wayfair's success comes down to its business model. It offers 18 million items — far more choice than stores like Ashley Furniture or West Elm. It also offers free shipping on orders over $35, two-day shipping in many cases and easy returns on most orders.

While Amazon might seem a natural rival, Witcher said that isn't necessarily the case.

"Amazon is very good at selling you things when you already have a good idea of what you want," Witcher said. "But furniture is a high-value, 'high-consideration' purchase. Wayfair is designed for those types of purchases. It's for people who want to spend time looking at something and browsing. Amazon has struggled with that."

That's what drew Joe Brooks, who lives in New Jersey, to Wayfair's website when he was looking to buy a chair for his home office.

"I normally wouldn't go and buy a chair without trying it out in person," he said.

However, that wasn't an option during the pandemic. With Wayfair, Brooks was able to find a chair that had good reviews — and for a lower price than at other furniture stores.

While retailers like Best Buy and Target are open for curbside pickup, traditional furniture stores are at a disadvantage because, unlike electronics, furniture inventory isn't stored behind the counter. That means the showroom generally has only one of each sofa, lamp or bed frame.

What the online experience can provide is the breadth of a site's product offering. Wayfair has a family of online brands, including Joss & Main, AllModern, Birch Lane and Perigold.

Jacoba Talbot, a customer in Canada, said she initially considered picking up a new bed frame from a local furniture store. However, "Wayfair has much better prices and better sales than anywhere else right now and offered free shipping to our home," she said.

Download the NBC News app for full coverage and alerts about the coronavirus outbreak

A 30-year-old Wayfair customer in Wisconsin, who asked to be unnamed, used the site to buy furniture for a new home he moved into during the pandemic. He bought an eight-piece outdoor patio set, which was marked down from over $1,000 to $790, and an armchair.

"We're very conscious of the pandemic and didn't want to expose ourselves," he said. "With Wayfair, we can have it delivered and assemble it ourselves."

But he said he'd probably turn to local shops once it was safe, because small businesses have "been hammered" by the pandemic.

Ultimately, it's unclear whether Wayfair's success will continue once people are allowed to shop in person. For now, it's among the short list of businesses doing well during a pandemic that has otherwise prompted widespread layoffs, bankruptcies and store closures in a retail sector already under pressure from e-commerce sites.