Subscription Commerce

Can There Be An Uber Of Furniture?

This a story about how a dubious, painful achievement — and we use “achievement” cautiously here — became a business plan, and one of the newer entries into the expanding world of subscription commerce. This is a story about changing notions of ownership and, indeed, changing demographics. This is a story about seeking the right type of validation at the right time, and doing do in a digital manner.

This is the story of Oliver Space. Its pitch? Provide furniture and design help to people who are moving, but don’t want to drag along old sofas or chairs, aren’t attracted to the IKEA assemble-it-yourself approach — they don’t want to spend any time with screwdrivers, hammers and other tools — or who simply want a new household look without having to spend too much time shopping for furniture.

The story starts with Chan Park, the 32-year-old co-founder of Oliver Space, and an Uber corporate veteran. As he told Karen Webster in a recent PYMNTS interview, he had moved 25 times — that’s the dubious achievement mentioned above — before getting his company off the ground. “Four years of college in New Hampshire was the longest I lived in one place ever,” he said, recounting time also spent in Singapore and San Francisco, his current location.

Furniture — And Design

The idea behind Oliver Space is pretty simple, and would seem to fit within the larger world of subscription commerce, and even the sharing economy — categories that include Uber, Rent the Runway and various other operations. The company functions as a direct-to-consumer operator, having relationships with furniture manufacturers (and a few retailers). For monthly fees, it provides furniture to users, who tend to be young urban professionals. That’s not all, though. Oliver Space also offers, via live chat — which is live some 14 hours a day, and in which Park participates — and video conferences, tips and advice about crafting a good look for one’s apartment or other dwelling.

After all, how many of us really know much about interior design?

“They really need someone there to help and validate,” Park said about the furniture selection process, which includes photos of curated selections on the company’s site. He told Webster that Oliver Space keeps all its displayed products stocked so that users don’t have to wait long for delivery and assembly.

The existence of a subscription commerce company such as Olive Space reflects a few larger trends in modern society. First, it’s about the rise of companies that offer temporary ownership of certain products. “Housing, wardrobe and transportation are three of the most essential things in life,” Park said, “and all of them have some sort of pay-as-you-go, flexible subscription model.”

Second, homeownership — along with long-term furniture ownership — is increasingly happening later in life. As Park explained, baby boomers tended to buy their first homes around age 26 or 27. Younger consumers — millennials — are waiting until their mid-30s to take that plunge. As all that happens, older folks, whether empty nesters or retired, are moving from the suburbs into the city, taking on smaller spaces that also serve as an occasion to acquire new furniture.

Certified Pre-Owned Furniture?

Customers still tend to be those urban professionals, and their apartment leases tend to last 12 months. So, what happens then? Well, they can buy the furniture outright, renew the subscription or even swap out those old pieces for new ones via the company, Park said.

That could lead to a new business line for Oliver Space down the road, one that reflects the growing commerce trend to acquire used goods via digital or mobile channels. The idea, he said, is to sell the used furniture as something akin to certified pre-owned — something with more credibility and appeal than the average used furniture listing on Craigslist.

“Every piece of furniture that comes back, we inspect,” Park said. “Some items might need a bit of a repair job, so we fix those things.”

People always need places to live, and people — despite their best wishes, desires, hopes or intentions — will also move. The coming years will show just how much mobile and digital services can make that painful, frustrating process much easier.

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