This story is featured in the January issue of Seattle magazine. Subscribe here to access the print edition.
Are you ready for furniture with benefits?
It makes sense that a generation that is swiping left on everything from marriage to car ownership would be even more reluctant to swipe right on a 400-pound sectional sofa.
Enter Fernish, a California-based furniture rental company serving Los Angeles and Seattle. It is among a growing niche of startups pioneering the concept of “furniture as a service.” Fernish seeks to disrupt the furniture business like others have reconfigured the clothing, taxi, cultural assets and hospitality industries.
“Furniture is a very antiquated industry. It hasn’t changed to meet the way con-sumers are living today, especially when you think about service economy trends, whether it be rideshare or delivery services,” says Fernish Co-founder and CEO Michael Barlow. “There was no comparable service experience for furniture.”
Founded in 2017, Fernish has amassed $45 million in seed and Series A funding during the past two years, attracting investors such as Intuit founder Scott Cook and Zillow cofounder Jared Simon. Fernish’s impressive executive team has deep roots in Seattle and is positioning itself to expand to the top 20 United States markets in 2021 and beyond.
“People want to invest in a team that can build the next Zillow or the next Airbnb,” Barlow says.
Furniture rental firms have been around for more than 60 years. Modern renditions have survived by targeting consumers with damaged, limited or no credit. The trade-off is that the consumer often ends up paying a high interest rate, greatly compounding the purchase price of the product over time.
Typical Fernish clients are more affluent, ranging in age from 24 to 34. They may be juggling student loans and other debt, but they can afford to buy stuff with cash or their good credit. They are less interested in accumulating assets than their parents, and prefer a flexible, affordable alternative to furniture ownership, making monthly payments with the option to buy once the lease is up.
“They like the idea of setting up one’s home as being an enjoyable experience, as opposed to one that’s costly and full of hassles,” Barlow says. “They’re saying, ‘I deserve to feel like an adult.’ They just got their first job after college, or their second job, or just got a raise, or just moved in with a friend and they are no longer living with their parents.”
About 95 percent of its customers are renters, half of whom live with roommates. It’s hard to split the mattress after roommates have split the sheets. Fernish solves that problem. It will pick up the furniture after renters have gone their separate ways.
As it turns out, young nomads prefer a stylish spot to park their loincloths, so Fernish offers a wide array of options. A Brenna sofa rents for $32 a month, while a Reverie sofa goes for $92. A Harlow leather sectional rents for $138 per month. A Pugo round metal chair can be had for $25 a month, while a Petrie armchair rents for $46.
There are plenty of small-ticket items. A Tate side table can be had for $5 a month and a Braxton accent table goes for $10.
Many customers time their furniture rental lease with their apartment lease, with a 12-month term being far and away the most popular option.
The furniture-as-a-service model may also appeal to fashion magazine editors, organized crime executives, descendants of Egyptian royalty, British baking show judges and anyone else predisposed to issuing curt dismissals.
you fell in love with six months ago? Fernish will swap it out posthaste. Ghosting your ottoman has never been easier. One phone call and it swims with the fishes.
The modern furniture-as-a-service concept may have originated in New York City, where renters grew tired of toting davenports up and down multistory walkups.
Seattle has a different kind of verticality that is driving furniture rental volume: 14% annual growth of the young professional population. In any given year, 27% of the U.S. population will move, Barlow notes.
Covid-19 has put greater wind in the sails of the furniture rental business, as Americans are simultaneously more on-the-move and more homebound. Spending more time at home has caused many to focus on their living experience, while others are looking to sass up the joint for Zoom meetings by upgrading lighting, rugs, wall art, mirrors, sideboards, pillows and throws.
Fernish features mid-century modern and other tony lines. It’s not the place to rent a vibrating recliner for your pop. What appeals to the younger generation?
“There’s an interesting balance between form and function. There is definitely a style bar. There’s less of an emphasis on owning assets early. They’re gravitating to a lifestyle that promotes flexibility,” Barlow says
Prior to the pandemic, Fernish’s most popular offerings were the largest furniture items found in most homes: beds and bed frames, dining tables and chairs, dressers, sofas and other big and bulky items.
Those things are still popular, but the company has recorded a more than 300% increase in home office workstations, desks, bookshelves, table lamps and office chairs. Fernish recently added plant rentals. One of its most popular items has been its Asterisk desk, which features ladder shelving.
Barlow has learned a lot about the furniture rental business during the past four years. Items that can be easily repaired or refurbished make the best rentals. It’s much less expensive to repair a sectional cushion than to fix a rip in a continuous fabric couch, for example. The company has also learned to focus on manufacturers willing to provide legs, tabletops and other refurbishing materials. Modular items work best when you’re in the business of moving and storing furniture, Barlow adds.
The most common mistake young renters make in outfitting their apartments is buying large permanent furniture for a temporary space, Barlow says. They find that their sectional sofa won’t fit when they move to a new space, or feel stuck with a queen bed when they want to upgrade to a king.
Barlow says the best way to maximize a furniture rental experience is to measure everything carefully — including the elevator — and check with Fernish’s website to make sure a desired item will fit properly.
Fernish is busy taking its own measure as it girds for what looks to be a block-buster new year.
“We have really big goals for growth. It’s something that we’re really excited about,” Barlow says.