Not so long ago, the concept of furniture rental served as more necessity than choice. Companies like Rent-a-Center and AFR helped consumers who couldn’t afford to buy furniture outright rent or rent-to-own pieces for their homes.
But nowadays, furniture rental has become a popular way for young consumers—particularly those living in urban areas—to outfit their homes with high-end pieces, adjust their decor more frequently, and reduce their environmental impact. Companies like Feather, Inhabitr, and Conjure offer both short-term and rent-to-own options that provide an alternative to purchasing inexpensive, poor-quality furniture.
“Furniture rental has skyrocketed in popularity because it solves two key problems for consumers: a lack of freedom, flexibility and convenience in furniture choices, and furniture waste,” said Ilyse Kaplan, Feather’s president and COO.
One driver of that surge in rentals comes from millennials, who are still primarily renters. According to 2020 U.S. Census data, less than half of millennials—47.9 percent—are homeowners. But while they may not own homes, they’re willing to spend money to feather their nest—according to Statista, millennials account for 42 percent of all furniture and bedding purchases in the U.S.
Add to that the tendency for both millennials and Gen Z to move frequently as they build their careers—a recent CareerBuilder survey found that millennials on average spend two years and nine months at a job, and Gen Z spends two years, three months. For those who rent and move often, making a large investment in furniture isn’t a priority.
“People are moving more than ever, and they don’t want to own much—it’s move with furniture or move with just a suitcase,” said Ankur Agrawal, founder and CEO of Inhabitr. “I’ve moved over 30 times in my life, and it seemed like furniture was the most painful and ineffective part of my moves.”
So in 2016, Agrawal founded Inhabitr, which allows consumers and businesses to rent, buy, or rent to own quality furniture and decor for every room of the home, as well as offices. The company offers free delivery and assembly in 11 U.S. metro areas, including Austin, Chicago, Portland and Philadelphia.
In recent years, the business has grown significantly, servicing not only residential customers, but also business and hospitality clients.
“We work extensively with real estate property owners and property managers and enable them to offer furnishing on-demand in a seamless fashion,” Agrawal said. “For their long-term and short-term tenants, this creates differentiation, as well as ancillary income for them, resulting in a higher net operating income for their owners.”
Feather also has expanded its reach beyond residential customers, partnering with co-working space provider WeWork to offer furnishings for the company’s flexible workspaces.
“For WeWork members utilizing WeWork x Feather, renting allows companies to easily furnish their office spaces with the furniture they need today, maintaining the ability to change the setup over time as their employees’ needs change, and without the commitment and investment that comes with traditional office build-outs,” Kaplan said.
And while convenience and flexibility are important, they’re not the only drivers of growth for furniture rental companies. As sustainability becomes more important to consumers—particularly younger generations—the idea of renting and reusing furniture becomes more attractive.
Particularly as the trend of “fast furniture”—cheaply-made pieces designed to only last a few years—has contributed to a significant amount of waste ending up in landfills. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the fast furniture industry contributes to 12.2 million tons of furniture and 3.4 million tons of rugs and carpets in landfills each year.
“As there are few thoughtful, sustainable options for flexible furniture, most people and companies resort to ‘fast furniture’ that’s cheap and disposable after a year or two,” said Kaplan. “We’re able to significantly combat furniture waste that comes with moving, and have helped keep 1 billion pounds of furniture out of landfills since launch.”
Inhabitr uses artificial intelligence (AI) technology to access furniture from multiple companies to create curated looks for their clients. And Agrawal said the company is working on a plan to leverage that technology to improve circularity, as well.
“With our technology, we will eventually create a way where every consumer who wants to use a couch for a year, and wants to trade it in for a different couch, will be able to place their furniture into our cloud,” he said. “And our cloud will then put it back into someone else’s home while allowing people to achieve the design aesthetic that they’re looking for, and be able to create a fair value for the couch.”
As furniture rental companies like Feather and Inhabitr continue to evolve, some of them see the effect of the pandemic on how and where Americans work creating greater opportunity for growth beyond their residential business.
“While Feather has helped furnish office spaces on a rental basis over the past few years, our partnership with WeWork is a larger step towards an evolution in our business,” Kaplan said. “Given COVID-19 and the emergence of the hybrid work era nationwide, employees and employers are seeking flexible office options that foster collaboration and comfort.”
And as they work to meet a growing demand for flexibility in furnishing homes, offices and hospitality spaces, furniture rental companies see their business model enduring for years to come.
“We started thinking that we would be a consumer, direct-to-consumer company,” Agrawal said. “And slowly we have turned into adding a tremendous amount of value to the consumer and to the real estate partners, and we are getting to see that value as a B2B2C company.”