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Tech Industry

Net, furniture sellers not such strange bedfellows

Living.com plans to launch July 1 to compete with Furniture.com. Will people buy couches online? You bet, say retailers.

With the imminent entry of a second major online furniture store, this once-unlikely category for Internet retailing is heating up.

Living.com, a start-up funded by Benchmark Capital, plans to open its virtual doors July 1, setting up an online battle for bedroom-set buyers with Furniture.com.

Furniture.com, a converted bricks-and-mortar retailer now operating solely online, just kicked off a $5 million national ad campaign to raise its visibility in the nascent market.

Furniture.com's ad campaign, aired on the radio in San Francisco and other markets, follows last week's announcement from the nation's largest furniture manufacturer, Furniture Brands International, that it won't it sell to Internet furniture stores or itself sell on the Net.

"There is enough concern among bricks-and-mortar furniture retailers about online sales that a major manufacturer would attempt to assuage their fears," said Donald Bellomy, an analyst at Aberdeen Group who has followed the online furniture market. Furniture Brands has under 10 percent of a very fragmented market, Bellomy noted, and it also left the door open to changing that policy.

In the fight over furniture, Furniture.com can match Living.com's Benchmark backing with deep pockets of its own--Bessemer Venture Partners, Brand Equity Ventures, and @Ventures, the venture arm of Internet holding company CMGI.

"As many analysts say, the game is over in eyes of many people. We already own and this category," said Andrew Brooks, Furniture.com's chief executive. Furniture.com is successor to the Empire Furniture Showroom in Worcester, Massachusetts, which about 18 months ago opened an online store called FurnitureSite.com. In January, the company acquired the Furniture.com URL, relaunched, and closed the showroom.

Why would anyone buy furniture online?

For one thing, it's inconvenient and time-consuming to drive from store to store in order to comparison-shop. "The shopping experience sucks in the real world," said Andrew Busey, Living.com's chief executive and a veteran of two other successful Internet start-ups. "There's a real need to make that shopping experience better and more convenient."

Busey's co-founder is his father, John Busey, a 35-year veteran of the furniture industry who is based in North Carolina, site of the the largest concentration of furniture manufacturing in the country. Busey will run distribution operations there while son Andrew oversees the technology activities in Austin, Texas.

In the fragmented industry, delivering heavy, bulky furniture to buyers is a key factor but not necessarily one that hurts Internet retailers.

"Very few furniture stores keep a lot of things in inventory for themselves," notes analyst Bellomy. "For the most part, what people buy is special-ordered. Stores wind up ordering it from North Carolina." In addition, stores usually go directly to manufacturers, since distributors that exist in other industries are scarce in furniture.

Furniture.com had its own distribution operation from its physical storefront, and Living.com bought a catalog furniture company to jumpstart its online store.

"We are already shipping a substantial amount of products from our existing mail order operations," said Busey, who earlier worked at Internet software firm Spyglass and founded iChat, an Internet chat software firm now called Acuity.

Based on focus group research, Busey said most customers don't mind not seeing or touching merchandise before they buy it.

"A lot of people just want to see what it looks like and are willing to trust a brand," Busey said.

But Furniture.com's Brooks says most buyers don't even know the brand of the furniture they own. In fact, 35 percent of his sales in March were on private label brands. Instead, his firm is inserting humans into the selling process.

"Two-thirds of our sales involve some design consulting via email, real-time chat, or over toll-free phone lines," Brooks said. On tap for the future: "Design your dream house" capabilities using visualization technologies.

Brooks argues that offline furniture stores are too distracted by showroom operations issues to succeed online, and analyst Bellomy notes that furniture retailing is as fragmented as manufacturing. Most furniture chains are regional, not national. Chains like Sears are exited the furniture business, so they're not online competitors.

Look for a major marketing blitz in the weeks ahead. Brooks said Furniture.com has bought up most of the furniture-related search terms on Internet search engines, and offline it's buying both print and radio ads in 10 markets, including New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

Living.com remains in stealth mode, and Busey won't say much about his firm's planned marketing expenditures, but it's conducting a national search for an ad agency.

"We will launch a branding campaign too," Busey promised, adding a thought that Furniture.com will certainly agree with.

"Building a brand is important."