According to data from the Pew Research Center, 51% of millennials have a second job to help boost their income and the average millennial carries about $36,000 in debt — so that means there's not a ton of spending cash for furniture after covering the basics. But there's a new wave of businesses revitalizing the rental furniture model, placing an emphasis not only on affordability and convenience, but also on beautiful, trendy design and environmental impact.
These new companies are targeting millennials living more transitory lifestyles, who have some disposable income but might feel anxiety shelling out large sums for furniture. Millennials shy away from permanence, especially around high-investment objects, which isn't surprising given the volatile economy they experienced as they came into adulthood.
Companies like Feather, Fernish, and The Everset are focusing on these elements to create a tailored furniture rental experience. Given that we already live in a subscription service society — whether it's movies (Netflix), cars (Zipcar), clothing (Rent the Runway), and even office space (WeWork) — it's no surprise that this model works.
Furniture rental companies aren't necessarily a new concept — Rent-A-Center, for instance, has been around for more than 30 years. But that business follows a rent-to-own model that is widely criticized for being vastly more expensive than simply buying furniture outright. According to ConsumerAffairs, you will typically end up paying at least double for a piece of furniture through Rent-A-Center. The business model preys on customers who are lured in by low monthly payments but fail to see the total price they'll end up paying. Another furniture rental service, CORT, founded over 40 years ago, doesn't follow the shady practices of the rent-to-own model, but its focus isn't necessarily on high-design furniture.
"The stigma associated with renting an item doesn't exist anymore. You rent or share your car, clothing, and apartment — furniture is no different," Gavin Steinberg, founder of The Everset, tells Hunker.
The Everset offers a subscription plan that gives customers access to a library of its own designs (at the time of writing, it doesn't partner with outside brands). Customers also get free delivery and installation, plus curated design packages. After a piece of furniture exceeds its lifespan with the company, it gets donated to Habitat for Humanity's ReStores, where it's sold at a discount, with proceeds going toward building affordable housing.
Speaking at a recent panel at Future of Home (trade publication Business of Home's design conference in NYC), Lucas Dickey, Fernish's chief product officer and co-founder, emphasized that the company currently has a very conscious consumer and they expect consumers will become increasingly conscious. So the idea of renting furniture might seem even more natural to later generations, such as Gen Z shoppers.
Established in 2017, Feather rents out furniture designed by its in-house team, as well as brand-name pieces by the likes of West Elm, Pottery Barn, and Casper. The company even serves as an interior designer, offering curated packages of everything you need to outfit an entire room. Just this year, the company acquired $12 million in funding, allowing the service to grow from its hubs in New York and San Francisco to Los Angeles and Orange County.
"In this revolving door of neighborhoods, roommates, and floor plans, furniture often becomes a burden, something that weighs us down," Jay Reno, Feather's founder, tells Hunker. "We buy furniture that inevitably doesn't end up staying in our lives long-term. And then we have limited options — either sell it for a fraction of the cost we paid, or worse, throw it out where it ultimately ends up in a landfill."
"A lot of our customers subscribe to Feather because they're in the middle of a move or a big life change — new city, new apartment, new chapter — and so it's part of our ethos to be problem-solvers, to design a furniture experience that's as streamlined as possible," Reno says.
As soon as the subscription period is up, customers can decide whether to renew the piece, try something new, or buy the furniture outright — with the cumulative fees going toward the price of the piece. If you're a nonmember, you pay a monthly fee for the furniture over a predetermined period of time and return or purchase it at the end.
There are just two potential cons with this setup. Firstly, although the direct rental fees for a piece of furniture go toward the price of the item if you decide to purchase it, the monthly membership fee does not, meaning you'd actually spend more than you would have if you had just bought the furniture outright. It's a riff on the rent-to-own model. For instance, the full retail price of West Elm's Modern 6-Drawer Dresser that's offered through Feather is $1,099. Feather allows you to rent it for $45 per month with your $19-per-month membership fee. You'd have to rent the dresser for just over 24 months to pay it off, so about $450 spent on subscription fees over that period.
That said, the monthly subscription fee allows you to rent other pieces of furniture, so unless you're buying each and every item you rent, you're still getting somewhat of a decent deal. You're ultimately paying that fee for flexibility.
If you do intend to go the rent-to-own route, you'd be better off using Feather as a nonmember. The West Elm dresser costs $155 per month under nonmembership terms, meaning you'd pay the whole thing off in about seven months without paying the additional subscription fee.
There's one other potential pitfall for customers. While you might be lucky and receive brand-new items, odds are you'll probably get pieces that have been recycled from someone else's subscription — after a deep cleaning, of course.
Big name decor brands are realizing the power of rentals, too. West Elm is collaborating with Rent the Runway to rent customers textile decor items like pillows, throws, and coverlets, since those can easily be switched out every season. And Swedish furniture giant IKEA has been quietly testing subscription services in a handful of markets, citing a desire to cater to an increasingly transient customer base, as well as prioritize ecological sustainability.
Furniture rentals have even extended to another audience — businesses. Knotel is a flexible workspace provider that essentially serves as a landlord and management company, renting offices to businesses that have outgrown a coworking space. It started its own furniture subscription plan for tenants called Geometry, with plans to expand the program to outside customers in the future.
"Companies no longer want to sign a 10-year lease. The planning cycle for businesses today are on a one-to-two-year timeline, so asking them to make a commitment to something for longer than that doesn't make sense," Mei Lin Ng, general manager of Geometry, tells Hunker. "The subscription model gives a company physical flexibility without compromising financial freedom."
Rather than partner with existing office furniture companies in a manner similar to residential furniture subscription businesses, Knotel opted to design its own line, creating products based on experiences in its own offices. The Geometry line currently features products that are 80% reusable and 20% replaceable, making the changeover between owners more cost-effective and less wasteful.
Though renters — both residential and commercial — are the ideal targets for furniture subscriptions, the next frontier to tackle is homeowners.
"Renters are more likely to require optionality and flexibility in their lives, and that is what we provide," Steinberg says. "That being said, as our business and this industry continues to grow, we absolutely see a world where homeowners also use The Everset to fill their furniture needs."
Many homeowners go for timeless, traditional looks rather than trendy ones. But for the design-minded homeowner who wants to refresh a space more often than every decade or so without spending a fortune a furniture subscription service offers another option.
"You want to change your identity ... your home is a chunk of your identity," Dickey said (speaking to a panel audience). "You can recreate your home on a three-year basis without spending $10,000."
So will furniture stores go the way of other brick-and-mortar retail establishments? Maybe not quite yet — ultimately, the majority of homeowners and renters still want to invest in key pieces of furniture. But until they're ready to pull that plug, furniture rental companies will be ready and waiting.