Americans spend more than $100 billion a year on furniture, and often we're not getting what we thought we paid for. Furniture labels are confusing — frequently downright misleading — and the government no longer specifically oversees their content. Furniture makers and sellers are still supposed to adhere to the Federal Trade Commission Act, which bars "unfair or deceptive acts," but that's it. In 2002, the FTC rescinded its specific guidelines for the household furniture industry.
Today the exact practices those guidelines used to prohibit are rampant. "In my 20 years working in the furniture industry, I have seen standards relaxed as a result of the FTC changes," said Jennifer Litwin, author of "Best Furniture Buying Tips Ever." "This has hurt consumers shopping in both the low-end and high-end markets."
John Smith, designer and manufacturer at Willem Smith FurnitureWorks in Fairfax, Va., says deceptive marketing is frustrating for "the good guys" in the industry. "Although the adage 'you get what you pay for' frequently holds true, it would be helpful if you 'knew what you paid for' as well," Smith said. Most don't, and because of the infrequency of furniture purchases, if the buyer has been deceived, it's not their fault.
Here are several common furniture labeling problems, along with advice for how to forge your own solutions.
The old FTC guideline said manufacturers should not use wood names on their labels unless the piece was made of "solid wood of the type named." In other words, calling a piece of furniture "oak" because it was coated in oak-colored stain or clad in oak veneer was against the rules. I once purchased a table labeled "dark cherry," a desk labeled "brown cherry" and a nightstand labeled "horizon maple" and had a craftsman slice them in half with a chain saw so that we could see what they were really made of. None of them contained the type of tree listed on the label. Instead, they were just particle board and plywood.
What to do: Furniture sellers used to have to put all the details of a piece's construction on the sales tag. Today it's important to check any additional information on brochures or websites to get the full story. Furniture made of solid wood stained to look like another wood is not a bad thing, as long as it's disclosed. Veneers are not inherently bad, either, as long as you're aware and don't count on refinishing them someday. To spot particle board, look at the back, peer inside drawers and turn the piece over to see the bottom. Finally, feel the surface of the furniture. If you can't feel the grain at all, it could be laminate. Laminate is basically plastic with a wood pattern laser-printed onto it. All of these alternatives have their place, but you should know what you're getting and pay accordingly.
"Bonded leather" is the scourge of the upholstered furniture industry. I foolishly purchased a bonded leather office chair for my own home several years ago. A few months later, the "leather" surface started peeling off because it wasn't leather at all. Bonded leather actually consists of a thin plastic front, a fabric middle and ground up leather particles on the back. It's been the subject of consumer lawsuits and industry hand-wringing, but it's still out there. The FTC does maintain a leather labeling guideline, which says manufacturers should disclose the amount of ground leather in bonded leather, but it doesn't specifically apply to furniture.
What to do: If you want real leather furniture, avoid the labels "genuine leather," "bonded leather," "bicast leather" and "PU leather" — which stands for polyurethane leather. Instead, Smith, who runs a leather accreditation course for the design industry, says to look for leather labeled "full grain" or "top grain." But even those labels are sometimes manipulated. I bought a chair described as "rich 100 percent split grain cow hide" and sent it to a lab for testing. It turned out to be plastic. To guard against that, consider the price. If it's too cheap to be true, it isn't true.
Real linen is made from fibers found in the flax plant. It's prized because it's natural, durable and breathable, so it stays cool in the summer. Unfortunately, Litwin — who has gone undercover to more than 500 furniture stores across the country — says she increasingly sees other fabrics passed off as linen. "A lot of stores are selling fabric marked 'linen' in neutral colors, when really it's just a cheaper polyester blend," Litwin said.
What to do: Again, go beyond the sale tag. Ask the seller for paperwork documenting the actual fiber content of the upholstery or look online. Last resort, request the material safety data sheet for the fabric. Furniture fabrics are required to be fire resistant, so they are tested at labs, and this document should also state the fiber content of the fabric.
There's been a backlash against polyurethane foam because it's a petroleum product. Enter "soy foam." It's a feel-good label that eco-conscious consumers seem to like. Unfortunately, according to Smith, cushions labeled "soy foam" are actually hybrids and are almost certainly made from far less soy foam than they are polyurethane foam. "Soy may be great and green, but the percentage is minimal," Smith said. "Don't be misled by a marketeer's purposely obtuse description into believing that your sofa is a reconstituted field of organic soybeans. It's not."
What to do: Ask for documentation of what percentage of the foam is actually derived from soy. Then decide whether you are willing to pay a premium for it. For this and any furniture advertised as "green," look for outside certifications by groups such as Greenguard rather than taking the store's word for it.
"AHFA is committed to educating its members about the importance of truth in marketing and advertising," said Patricia Bowling of the American Home Furnishings Alliance. However, she pointed out that most of AHFA's members are manufacturers and importers, not retailers. And, of course, consumers interact with the retailer. Because of that, a few more tips:
• Get it in writing. See whether the store manager will give you written documentation of what materials the piece is made of.
• Ask about a warranty. Many furniture stores and manufacturers don't offer them, but if you are making a large purchase, perhaps they will create one just for you.
• Know the return policy. That includes who has to get the furniture back to the warehouse and whether there is a restocking fee.
• Pay with a credit card. Some cards automatically extend your warranty. Plus, if you have a dispute, you can withhold payment while the card company helps you work it out.