10 Tips for Buying Furniture Online

The last year has shown many of us that if we want new stuff we have to buy it online. With all but non-essential shops shut it has become the only way to get hold of anything whether it’s kitchen supplies, new shoes or even sofas.

Now many of us were already shopping online and feeling fairly comfortable with that and many shops know that and maintain that by buying direct from them online you cut out the middleman (added costs for shop rental and staff salaries) and so it becomes cheaper. But what if you are looking to invest a significant amount of money on a new sofa or a bed, or even a mattress?

boucle sofa from rockett st george
boucle sofa from rockett st george

It’s true that there is no substitute for sitting, lying, touching and feeling. Not to mention seeing colours and sizes in real life. But that hasn’t been possible for many months and it’s not certain that it will be possible again in the same way as it used to be. The British High Street has been decimated by months of closure and every week I get emails from companies want to sell me sofas and mattresses in boxes.

So if you want to, or have to, buy online what are the best tips for getting it right? And while some of these might sound obvious, many of us (including me) have fallen at the first hurdle so I make no apologies for including the basics

noah chair from love your home
noah chair from love your home

1 Check your measurements. I can’t tell you how many times I have bought tiny vases or mini candlesticks. Even when I read the measurements I can sometimes fail to understand what they actually mean in the space I am planning to put them in. So check all the measurements: height, width and depth. And check them in relation to the shelf, corner, room they are for.

2 If you are buying a sofa then check to see if the arms and legs will come off when it is delivered. If it needs to go upstairs check the turning points on stairs – measure the narrowest point and if it needs to be flipped over a bannister then measure the distance between that and the ceiling. Don’t forget to allow for radiators and door frames. Even the door itself takes up a precious few centimetres when it’s open and that can be make or break. If so can you remove the door? Or even the architrave? Some companies, who make to order, will customise a sofa for you and make it slightly shorter or shallower.

fabric by sanderson
fabric by sanderson

3 When you have established the measurements, it’s worth marking them out on the floor in masking tape. This gives you a real 3D sense of the space it will take up. You need to remember the thoroughfares – allow at least 90cm between a sofa and coffee table if that is the passage to the window. A dining chair needs 1m to be pushed back and allow someone to stand up (and if they are sitting down this might still be tight for someone to walk behind). Don’t forget the height though – a bed takes up a lot of floor space but it’s low so it won’t dominate the space. As long as you can walk past the end comfortably you can probably get away with a large low bed. Adding a tall footboard will dominate the room so if space is tight find a design without one. And it’s fine if you have room for a king size mattress but don’t forget the frame it sits on will be several centimetres wider and longer than that.

shot for Floor Story at Kent and London by Simon Bevan, styled by Hannah Franklin
shot for Floor Story at Kent and London by Simon Bevan, styled by Hannah Franklin

4 So far so obvious. But what if you haven’t bought from a company before? How do you know if it’s any good? Read the reviews – and yes you might well end up with 50 per cent saying it was the best thing they’ve ever seen while the others hate it with a fiery passion (more likely a 52/48 split!) but you can decide which complaints seem valid to you and which you want to ignore. I have had bad book reviews on Amazon for the cover being damaged on arrival which is not something I can do anything about and nor is it, I feel, relevant to the contents.

image via clarke and clarke
image via clarke and clarke

5 Take a good look at the site itself. Is it well designed? Is the photography good? A company which has invested in good imagery is more likely to be selling higher quality furniture. If it’s a new site, which perhaps doesn’t have much money for fancy graphics and videos, check the “about” page. Do they have a mission statement, who are they? Get a feel for them that way. If it’s a small business with basic photography then pay special attention to their “about” page and the product specifications.

6 Drill into the details. Are there lots of pictures – even functional non fancy ones. Can you see the piece from all angles? Up close? You need to be able to see the material in detail. Another tip is to always look at the palest version as you will the detail better than on the dark one. I have almost bought cheap Persian rugs thinking I am getting a bargain and on closer inspection realised the pattern is printed not woven. Not a problem in itself but make sure you know what you are getting. A zoomed in shot will also show you the pile on a rug – flat weave for under tables is better, shag pile good for beside the bed.

annie sloan paint styled by marianne cotterill
annie sloan paint styled by marianne cotterill

7 Read the product specifications. It’s not just about measurements, what is it made from? Where was it made? Is the wood FSC? Is it plastic or wood or metal? Don’t rely on what it looks like – check. If it’s laminate you need to know that – don’t be caught out. Because once again – if it seems too good to be true it probably is.

8 Call in all the samples you can. You need to paint the tester pots, feel the velvet, touch the fabric. I had my heart set on a design for my office blind and when the sample turned up I hated it. If I had done my usual trick of rushing in headlong that would have been a very expensive mistake. Even if you have to spend a few pounds checking samples that’s a fraction of the cost of getting it wrong.

linen bedding and antique door via loom_and_last
linen bedding and antique door via loom and last

9 Now you’ve measured up,  read the reviews, looked at the samples, made a decision. Check the delivery terms. Is it kerbside? This literally means they will bring it to the front gate (sometimes – not always – the front door) and leave it there. And I write as someone whose back is aching from carrying half a ton of tiles from the pavement to the front door, through the house and into the garden yesterday. Can you get it inside? Will you have to build it? Will they take the boxes upstairs if need be? A white glove service means they will bring it in, assemble it and often take the packaging away. And it’s always worth asking if they will also remove the old sofa/bed/washing machine. Sometimes they will do it for a small extra fee. Otherwise you’ve got to work out how to do that yourself. Your local council might take it for a fee and some local charities will too.

10 Finally before you place that order check the returns policy. Because if you’ve come unstuck on steps 1-9 there is always step 10.

printed cheetah tiles from otto tiles
printed cheetah tiles from otto tiles

If this was helpful you might also find the following useful: how to buy vintage and how to get rid/where to donate old furniture.

And if you’re free at 6pm on Wednesday for 45 minutes, I will be taking part in (with Andi Peters) a live-streamed Easter Event with Andi Peters where we will be discussing home styling tips, Easter table laying and hot cross bun hacks. There’s also the chance to win one of 10 signed copies of my book with a matching pencil! I know! It’s completely free but you will need to register. Here are the details.


Tags : buying furniture onlinefurniture onlineinteriors buying advice
Kate Watson-Smyth

The author Kate Watson-Smyth

I’m a journalist who writes about interiors mainly for The Financial Times but I have also written regularly for The Independent and The Daily Mail. My house has been in Living Etc, HeartHome and featured in The Wall Street Journal & Corriere della Sera. I also run an interior styling consultancy Mad About Your House. Welcome to my Mad House.


  1. Would certainly agree with the need to request samples. This has always helped me prevent errors in the past.

    I recently requested 6 material samples from a widely known UK made to measure curtain company – received 3 samples, none of which were the ones I ordered. I have emailed them asking them to rectify the error, will see what they come back with – not a good start and doesn’t instil confidence, especially as I may be spending a few hundred pounds with them!

  2. Colour samples are vital. Always get them before buying. The computer screen and the actual colour can be so very different and disappoint.

  3. We’ve been really good about doing everything you suggested except #8, and it came back to bite us…well, me, because I’m the one who got impatient. We had ordered a leather sofa online through Wayfair after looking for something that ticked all of our boxes for over a year, but a few weeks later, they told us it was out of stock and wouldn’t be back for 6 months. We were at the tail end of a 5-year SLOW renovation of our basement (we’re in Canada), and I just couldn’t wait to put in all the “pretty parts”! Alas, when our perfect leather sofa went out of stock, I lost my mind and, at the very next sale, panic-ordered what I thought would be a safe greige velvet sofa that was a decent price. Alas, I ended up in a bit of a Callum situation, bless his heart… What looked in the Wayfair pictures like a beautiful, soft greige/dark oatmeal turned out to be a very green-grey that doesn’t really go with the rug we purchased for the space at all. The rug was also from Wayfair, and while the colours were different than what appeared online when delivered, we still really liked it. The grey-green sofa, not so much (although it fits in the space beautifully as a result of dutiful measuring…). Given that the piece was expensive, returns on items that big are a pain, and there was no way we were going to wrangle it back up the stairs (even though we had measured carefully, there wasn’t a lot of extra room to go around the corner at the bottom of the stairs), it is ours to keep. I have tried to blend it with the rug using cushions to moderate success (depending on my mood of the day) and try to consider it a learning moment! Thank you SO much for all of this advice. It is so practical, and may we all heed EVERY one of the steps in our design adventures!

  4. I bought a sofa at sofa while Switzerland was in the 2nd lockdown and all shops were closed. When it arrived, I realised at once the awful chemical smell that evaporated from the sofa. I guessed: cheap wooden frame and/or upholstering. After two days I gave up and gave it back. It turned out, that their advertised high quality „Danish design“ was produced in Vietnam, shipped in containers to Germany and sold from there to Austria and Switzerland. Never again!

  5. To add to points 4 and 5, check the trading address, is there a bricks and mortar location (preferably in the UK)? If something is coming from abroad you’ll have VAT and customs tax to pay on both the price of the item and on the shipment costs. We bought a mirror last year from Peru. By the time we paid for shipment and taxes the mirror was twice the price. Our seller made us aware of the additional costs before we confirmed the order and it was still worthwhile for us for that item but wouldn’t always be.

    1. That is a really good point. Particularly the contact number – I like a phone number and a company that is willing to talk to you. We came unstuck once with that – about 15 years ago and I must have blocked it from my memory – anyway – substandard purchase, contact number went to an unmanned call centre in Texas. We should have investigated further.

  6. Thank you for this illuminating post. I thought I was the only one with several of these searching questions-to-be-answered- before-buying. Some answered after much research, some taking a leap of faith.
    Buying on the internet is a minefield at the worst of times, and at the best of times a surprising (often it seems :D) delight.
    Erin’s afore mentioned cushion is a good case in point. I bought a wonderful plump Syrian cushion as pictured, but didn’t understand that the price was for the beautiful cushion cover only. I’ve had to make a filler out of bits and pieces because the size of the tapestry cover is unlike any filler pad that I could access online. I don’t resent paying £114 for the item because I appreciate and believe in the reasons for my purchase. But with great respect, I wonder that after middlemen, carriage, and the rest, the £114 price might have included the cushion pad. Or maybe a mention on the site, explaining that the purchase would be for the wonderful cover only, not the ‘plump’ version as in the lovely photograph. I love my cushion, and delight in its complex and brave beauty every single day.

  7. I agree with Sandra about checking stock. We’ve ordered and paid for flooring only to be contacted a few days later telling us it’s out of stock and they’ve no idea when it would arrive. Same has happened with garden furniture, a rug and other items I’m pleased to have forgotten about (they were probably impulse buys on my part anyway).

    We bought a sofa last year; we’re happy with the style, size and colour but, despite reading the reviews, we find it so uncomfortable! So that was an expensive mistake which brings me back to the flooring that did eventually arrive months after ordering it…

    We took our time choosing it.. We had zillions of (fairly large) samples placed around the room and thought we’d chosen the best finish for our barn conversion. Laid it throughout the whole of the ground floor last year, only to admit to each other recently that the distressed look just looks horribly scruffy. There’s no way my partner will be replacing it in a hurry 🙁 I think, once we’d narrowed it down, we should have ordered lots more of the SAME sample so that we could gain a better idea of how it would look.

    1. I colour photocopied my sample tiles for my bathroom so that I had 8 of each design to put together to get more of an idea of what they would turn out like, so that’s an idea.

  8. I would also check the actual stock availability to delivery – during the last year so many co’s listed items as in stock or available to be delivered within x weeks. After placing the order and paying – a few days later an out of stock or delayed notice for many weeks more. It may be unpredictable stocking levels during challenging times but when I then started to call before placing/paying for an order, I then got confirmation of the real delivery times which in many cases was much longer than the times quoted on co websites. Note I ordered bedside tables in Nov, due in Jan and still awaiting delivery ….. these items are still being advertised as available in 6 weeks.

  9. ‘If it’s too good to be true, it probably is’ – always wise advice. I have a rug I bought at Wayfair that looked to be an amazingly-priced kilim. When it turned up it was a cheap rug with a PHOTOGRAPH of a woven rug printed on it. It looks great on Zoom calls, but not so much in real life (‘reminds me of a game of Tetris’ was my husband’s verdict). Oh, and measuring things, to which I would add ‘remember to think about 3D dimensions’. I recently bought a cushion online that I thought would be a perfect size for a compact chair, forgetting that the dimensions provided were for an UNSTUFFED cushion. It’s absolutely tiny – like a doll’s cushion.

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