This article is part of our latest Design special report, which is about crossing the borders of space, time and media.
Despite all the advances in electronic commerce, many furniture sales remain an old-fashioned affair, completed in person.
Because sofas and lounge chairs tend to be expensive, unwieldy and difficult to return, it has always been reassuring to flop down in a potential purchase for a comfort check — and to ask a sales associate for advice — before unsheathing the credit card.
The arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, however, changed everything. Within days of closing their stores, many furniture companies took a big digital step by putting robust virtual interior design services front and center.
Arhaus, BoConcept, Design Within Reach, Ethan Allen, Frette, Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams, Parachute, Restoration Hardware, and West Elm, among many others, began promoting personalized, one-on-one interior design sessions delivered via videoconference and online chat, for free.
And many consumers, suddenly living life through Zoom, took them up on it, inviting the retailers into their homes through a smartphone lens.
David Cherry, a business technology analyst at Google in Boulder, Colo., who recently moved from a one-bedroom apartment into a three-bedroom house, needed help furnishing his new space.
“There was a certain section of my living room that was just a weird space I didn’t know what to do with,” said Mr. Cherry, 36. He thought about hiring an interior designer, but figured no one would be willing to visit his house with the coronavirus circulating in Colorado.
“So I decided to just guess, and pick something,” he said.
When he visited West Elm’s website, however, he noticed the availability of an online design chat. Skeptical, but with nothing to lose, he asked for help designing his living room.
“I went into it thinking, ‘If I get involved in this chat, they’re probably just going to try to sell me all this furniture,’” he said.
But he found the designer he was connected with to be genuinely helpful and willing to work around his existing furniture.
“It was really cool because they ask you questions around what your current lifestyle is like,” he said. “They actually really cared about the space.”
A few chat messages led to numerous sessions in which Mr. Cherry shared videos and photos of his home, and West Elm’s designers suggested floor plans with central products, which they later discussed by phone.
In the end, Mr. Cherry ordered a dining table with a bench, a coffee table, a console table, bookcase and a leather swivel chair.
Laura Wilson, the manager of design services at West Elm, said the size of the resulting order was of little concern. The company’s designers are happy to troubleshoot a single rug, “or it can be soup-to-nuts, top-to-bottom everything in that room,” she said. “We just…
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