Knowledge is ammunition when spending your money smarter, but many furniture shoppers are unarmed on the showroom floor.
Today, furniture can carry misleading labels, suggesting, for example, that a piece is made of solid cherry wood when it's really particleboard with a cherry wood veneer. The Federal Trade Commission in 2002 rescinded consumer-friendly guidelines for accurately labeling and advertising home furniture, claiming guides were unnecessary.
"That's an important point to note because they can sell any kind of furniture they want and label it any way they want," said Jennifer Litwin, author of "Best Furniture Buying Tips Ever."
Just as bad, many furniture salespeople are underinformed about the products they sell, which further leaves consumers clueless, she said.
Litwin should know. She rates furniture for Consumers Digest and went undercover to visit more than 500 furniture showrooms around the country as research for her ratings book, "Furniture Hot Spots: The Best Furniture Stores and Web sites Coast to Coast."
Besides being skeptical about labels and salespeople, consumers should buy furniture they like and not necessarily go with the costliest pieces, Litwin said.
"You absolutely do not have to spend thousands on furniture. That's what my research showed me," she said. "At the low end, you find a lot better value than at the high end."
Furniture is a big expenditure for U.S. consumers, who spent about $55 billion on furniture in 2005, according to the federal Consumer Expenditure Survey. Sales this year in the wider home-furnishings industry are estimated to top $80 billion.
Now is a good time of the year to shop for furniture, Litwin said. Stores will be using promotions to lure customers, who tend to be cash-strapped after the holidays. Here are a few furniture-buying tips:
Start on the Internet
"The first thing is to look online," Litwin said. Sixty percent of home-furnishings shoppers use the Internet for researching and purchasing items, she said, adding, "It's a pretty staggering number, considering you can't even see or check out the product in person."
Not only can you survey the landscape of furniture offerings and prices, but many stores get rid of inventory by offering discounts online before they offer them in the store, she said.
But beware of restrictions for buying online. For example, you might not be able to return the piece to the store or you might get a lesser warranty than the store offers.
Dress just right
If you enter the furniture showroom wearing a ratty T-shirt and ripped jeans, you might not get the attention you need from salespeople because they'll think you can't afford to buy furniture. But dress to the nines and a salesperson will never give you a discount, figuring you can afford to pay full price. So you want to strike a wardrobe look in the middle, Litwin said.
Furniture prices can be very flexible. Start by asking for a 20 percent discount, hoping to end up at 15 percent off. You'll have better luck negotiating at mid- to upper-level locally owned retailers, Litwin said. Chain stores won't budge on price but may offer better financing if you're not paying cash. The more you buy, the more leverage you have to negotiate.
Haggle for the extras
"What a lot of stores are doing, especially after the holiday season when they want to push people to shop at their store, is to offer things like free assembly and free delivery," she said, adding that those costs can add up to 10 percent to 15 percent of the furniture cost.-- Remember, cushions count.
Litwin has the surprising opinion that cushions of a couch or chair are more important than the frame. "I think they are, and I review furniture for a living," Litwin said. "I don't care what these salespeople tell me about the frame and the eight-way, hand-tied springs and all of that. You really want to make sure it's properly upholstered and comfortable."
A tip Litwin often doles out is a scenario when you see an attractive $500 sofa at a discounter. But when you sit on it, the sofa feels lumpy. "You think, `My gosh, this is so uncomfortable, but it looks cute,' " she said.
The solution is to buy the sofa and unzip the cushion cover to remove the cushion. Then, go to a professional upholsterer to have luxurious cushions made. "And it's only a few hundred dollars," she said.
"That's the difference between a $600 or $700 couch and a couch that might cost $5,000 or $10,000."
It's unnecessary to have all top-quality furniture, Litwin said. It makes sense to mix quality pieces with others from Ikea, Target or Costco, she said.
"They can think of those pieces as disposable and mix them with their better pieces, and it's fine. There's more open-mindedness today in the way people design their homes."
"You want to make sure the store is willing to stand behind its product," Litwin said. "Most of the furniture you buy has already been discontinued. That's the sad news."
That makes it difficult to buy a complementary piece of furniture or replace its parts if something breaks. So ask if the line has already been discontinued or will be soon. You also want to ask about return policies, including restocking fees, and a written warranty. Warranty periods vary widely, from Ethan Allen offering five to seven years, to Pottery Barn offering one year and Crate and Barrel offering no written warranty at all, Litwin said.
Skip fabric protection
A common effort during the sales process is to sell fabric protection, often offered by the brand name Scotchgard. The protection is not very effective, Litwin said, and you could always apply fabric protection yourself for a lot less money.
Additional tips are available online at the Web site of the American Home Furnishings Alliance (www.findyourfurniture.com).
Gregory Karp is a personal finance writer for The Morning Call, Allentown, Pa., a Tribune Co. newspaper. E-mail him at email@example.com. For additional discussion on spending wisely, see the Spending Smart blog at http://blogs.mcall.com/spendingsmart/.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times