There's no doubt that going in to an actual brick and mortar store to touch and feel furniture is crucial before handing away our hard-earned cash. Unfortunately the locations may be far and few, and they don't always carry everything at each store. Most major furniture stores have fairly in-depth websites that will provide you with photos, dimensions, and other great information for you to browse online before you buy. Today we take an in-depth look at a few websites and mobile options for big furniture stores such Crate & Barrel and Ikea to see how good the tools and experience are, as well as highlight additional resources for online shopping!
Since Crate & Barrel sells so many things other than furniture, the initial homepage is a hodgepodge of sales and featured items. The menu breakdown is clear although the submenu that appears on mouseover is a bit bunched together and hard to read. There's a good breakdown of categories and subcategories to help filter your search and get you to what you're looking for.
Ikea is a multinational brand and has stores all over the country so when you go to the website you're presented with a screen that asks you to select your location. It's really quite nice that Ikea presents their site in so many different languages, but bear in mind that each section shows products available in that given country, not just as a multi-language option for the United States (gasp, how dare they!). Once in the U.S. site, you're given the standard horizontal navigation across the top, a big feature image, and little modules showcasing different products and highlights.
Crate & Barrel presents a thumbnail view of items in each category, with a filter on the left that helps you drill down even further. Each item has a quick view which lets you see details without jumping to a new page. Clicking through does give you several detailed pictures, including a photo or two of the item in a room setting which is nice to get ideas from.
Ikea is so large that it can be immensely overwhelming if you're looking for something specific. The search engine always throws back way too many results and their product names are difficult to spell. The main navigation shows only a few of the major categories such as living room, bedroom, and kitchen, then dumps the rest into a grouping called "all departments." It can take quite a bit of work to find what you're looking for on the Ikea website. Once you do find it though you are presented with nice detailed information such as dimensions, care instructions, and "good to know" facts. There are plenty of pictures but mostly of the different finishes instead of angles and room views.
Ideas and Inspiration
Crate & Barrel has a section called Rooms & Ideas as a creative source of inspiration. What You Need gives you options for different occasions, such as for throwing a festive fiesta or designing a container garden. Create the Look shows you what pieces work well together for different rooms. Experts Recommend has professionals giving their tips and suggestions for items and how to incorporate them into your home. Our Favorites A-Z is a fun little feature that presents items for each letter of the alphabet.
If you're idle on the Crate & Barrel website for a little while, an overlay appears asking if we needed help and wanted to chat with an associate. It was quite nice to have the option to ask questions to a live person, and we've always encountered friendly representatives. There sometimes was a delay while waiting for someone to answer, but it was far easier to just keep the chat window open and do something else over waiting on the telephone or going to the store with questions. It was close to impossible to find this chat window though unless it was appearing magically on its own.
The Ikea Help Center has an interesting feature called "Ask Anna" that's fun to play with. It's important to note that Anna is not a real person but a computer, so it can be enormously frustrating trying to get real results (just as with any computerized chatting program or search engine), but it does get you the answers you need once in a while.
You can also sign up to create a gift / wedding registry as well as look up lists from others. The site marks items as having been already purchased so the recipients don't receive doubles. Wedding gift buying has never been easier, although it does feel quite a bit impersonal to just click and send a preselected present.
Crate & Barrel has a Special Offers section listing items that throw in free gifts or have mail in rebates as well as a Marimekko Shop which showcases a half-century relationship between the two companies. The Outlet lists heavily discounted items which are discontinued or nearly there, netting some great bargain buys.
Ikea sadly doesn't offer anything on their website. No coupons. No deals. Nada.
A nice bonus from Crate & Barrel is a mobile website that is actually quite usable and useful! The extremely well presented user interface is a streamlined version of the main website, keeping the continuity between the two. There's a search by keyword/SKU option as well which lets you pull up items directly (which I found helpful to use while actually walking around the store in order to get more details).
Ikea has a mobile website too, but it's little more than a way to look up store locations. There is an online poll which is odd/interesting since it's only updated on a monthly basis, as well as listings for a few discounted items and a way to sign up for the catalog. Ikea does actually has an iPhone app but it's reviews are mixed as its mostly a flippable PDF of their regular catalog. Fun to play with in the same way that it's fun to flip through the Ikea catalog, but nothing fun or special there.
A Quick Note About CB2
CB2 is Crate & Barrel's hipper sister store, with slightly cheaper pricing and trendier furniture and items. It feels very familiar in usage to the main Crate & Barrel store, but provides a few new fun features such as a flipbook for the store's latest catalogs. The same chat system available on the Crate & Barrel site is available here and is extremely helpful, as is the online gift/wedding registry. Overall the CB2 site has the same nice presentation and user experience as the main Crate & Barrel site.
Find out more!
Check out some nice resources from Unplggd and Apartment Therapy on online shopping.
- The Do and Don'ts of Online Furniture Shopping
- Online Shopping: Is it Better Than the Real Thing
- How Online Shopping Killed the Shopping Mall
- Survey: How Much Do You Shop On-line?
- 5 Best Online Store iPhone Apps
- Our Favorite Google Shopping Features
- Purchasing Things Online or in Store: Our Thoughts