In January, I received an email from a frustrated furniture shopper.
“Months ago, my new wife and I ordered a bed frame and headboard for our new top-of-the-line Tempurpedic mattress,” J.B. Harris, a shopper and reader in Florida, lamented. Though they received their mattress within a reasonable time frame, the bed frame and headboard were missing in action. “It’s been an existential nightmare, as confounding as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.”
When I reconnected with Harris in April, he had finally received his shipment after many months of waiting. “West Elm has the worst supply chain issues of any retailer I have ever experienced,” he told me. “My advice to West Elm shoppers: If you cannot buy an item from a showroom floor, expect to wait weeks if not months to receive it.” He and his wife slept on a mattress on the floor for the duration of their ordeal.
Three years after I wrote my original West Elm story, in which I revealed the company was enraging countless young shoppers by seemingly refusing to deliver anything in a timely manner, the situation does not seem to be much better. The pandemic has worsened this issue, not only for West Elm but for a legion of furniture retailers. The issue is complex, fueled by a sudden and unexpected influx of home goods orders as people were confined to their homes with nothing to do but sit for hours on uncomfortable sofas and stare at blank walls in desperate need of adornment. Supply chains have stalled as factories enforce social distancing and struggle with sick workers. Shipping companies and ports grapple with similar obstacles, and prices of pallets and shipping containers are through the roof.
These problems have left shoppers frustrated and, in some cases, bereft. While facing the uncertainty and fear of a pandemic alongside other significant life transitions and even traumas, many people I spoke to merely wanted the comfort of a fresh sofa, a new mattress, or a much-needed refrigerator. But supply chain issues and poor communication from retailers only compounded shoppers’ stress as they were now forced to agonize over a ninth-month delay of a necessary order that cost them thousands of dollars.
And no retailer was worse at this than West Elm.
“West Elm should really go under, to be honest, because it’s a really shitty business,” says Ali, whose last name is being withheld to protect his privacy because he has a public-facing job. He bought a new home for himself and his family last fall, and spent more than $10,000 on several West Elm sectionals, a dining room table, and a bed for his daughter. He wants to welcome people into his new home, but because it’s been half-empty, he hasn’t felt comfortable showing it to friends and family. “I spent the last five months, six months thinking about my furniture,” on top of worrying about his busy job, his kid, and everything else going on, he says. “The customer is not happy.” He knows at least three other people who’ve similarly struggled with their West Elm orders, including one who received a couch “with holes in it.”
The industry-wide slowdown began following the institution of pandemic lockdowns in March 2020, as retailers curbed orders, worried that consumers would stop shopping altogether. But consumers did not stop shopping — at least not for home decor. What was once for many people little more than a launching pad for the world outside their front doors soon became their only world, and the faults in our homes, which we were once able to more or less ignore, became painful to look at.
“People now have more savings because they travel less, shop less for clothes, and eat less outside [the home], so they have been spending more on their house’s furniture or are remodeling their houses,” says Robert Aboolian, a professor of operations management at California State University San Marcos. But reduced manufacturing, and the complex nature of making furniture, has created a backlog of orders. “The more components, the more the chances of missed components,” as each individual part of a large, complicated piece of furniture faces its own manufacturing issues and delays.
Supply chains aren’t designed to be flexible and resilient; they’re designed to be cost-efficient. This means that when there’s a huge and sudden change in people’s shopping habits, retailers and suppliers can’t react quickly and appropriately. Couches and other furniture take many months of planning before they even appear on a retailer’s website, says Santiago Gallino, an assistant professor of operations, information, and decisions at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Say you place an order for a couch today. What’s going to happen is that you are basically going to buy a couch that the company has already ordered and has sitting in a warehouse waiting for you to buy — but that order was placed by the company six, seven, eight, 10 months in advance,” he says, noting that any orders a retailer would ordinarily place in the spring would be in preparation for holiday shoppers. “If you have a mismatch of these two, then when you get to Christmastime and you are short, now you need to wait another eight months to get the couches to your distribution center. This is not something you’re going to be able to solve in the short run.”
This may seem like a frivolous concern, but the effects of poorly communicated delays can be genuinely debilitating. Ashley, whose last name is being withheld to protect her privacy after a traumatic event she experienced recently, placed her West Elm order for a sofa in a custom color and a bed in a color that was, supposedly, in stock and ready to ship. The traumatic event had led to a breakup, and Ashley and her dog were forced to move into a new home that needed new furniture.
“I work full time — 10-plus-hour days — in a medical practice, and was coming home to sleep on a mattress on the floor,” she says. “It was honestly a devastating experience for me. I would bundle up old comforters, pillows, and a heating pad and lie on my floor to watch TV. … I couldn’t make my house a home for six-plus months. I couldn’t get settled.” Ashley connected with other people in her new building and via Instagram who commiserated with her, as many of them had also had lackluster West Elm shopping experiences.
Across the web, people come together to complain about their nightmarish West Elm encounters. “Why is West Elm the worst?” a Reddit user wrote on r/interiordesign, which received a deluge of responses complaining about the brand. On the website PissedConsumer.com — obviously a place where people gather to lament their shopping ordeals — West Elm has hundreds more reviews than other similar brands, like Restoration Hardware, Crate & Barrel, and CB2. There’s even a Twitter account, @westelmscam, dedicated to retweeting angry West Elm customers, an honor not bestowed upon other furniture companies of the same size and popularity.
It’s easy enough to understand what’s going on with companies other than West Elm: They didn’t anticipate a pandemic, or that consumers would respond by spending billions on home decor. But West Elm is more of a mystery. For my original 2018 story on West Elm, a customer support employee told me that the company’s poor customer experience “is something that they are aware of and want to improve.” If the recent deluge of complaints I received from angry West Elm customers is any indication, it doesn’t look as if West Elm or its parent company, Williams-Sonoma, was able to figure it out.
(A note: When I sent out a call for sources, I asked for people who had experienced furniture shipping delays in the past year. I didn’t specify West Elm. Still, almost every source who came to me complained about that company and not others.)
West Elm did not respond to a request for comment in 2018 and did not respond to my most recent request for comment, either.
Part of what makes the West Elm shopping experience so much worse isn’t just that its products are delayed, but that the company withholds communication from customers about when they’ll receive it. The company “held the order hostage until I continually escalated it to a manager via email,” says Dana J., a San Francisco-based West Elm shopper who placed an order for a new chair in August, after moving into a new apartment with her girlfriend (her full last name is being withheld to protect her privacy because she works in public relations). The company would repeatedly make new promises — it was rush-ordering the item, the item was ready to ship, it would ship by a specific date — but she canceled the order, and it wasn’t until after 22 emails and “countless” phone calls that Dana received a refund.
She bought an AllModern chair instead, which she says does the job fine. “West Elm appeared to be aspirational — investing in a semi-expensive piece that I’d have with my partner for a long time. But clearly, it’s just a scam,” she says. “In the future, I’d like to buy from smaller boutiques if I’m spending a lot of money.”
Ian Leslie is the chief marketing officer at the furniture company Industry West. The company, like most, experienced manufacturing delays, holdups, additional expenses at ports, and other issues that slowed down its ability to get products to customers as quickly as it used to. But, he says, the company was honest with customers about these delays, which helped keep their frustration to a minimum. “As much as you’re able to be proactive with the customer, as opposed to them coming to you to find out the bad news, the better off you’ll be as a brand,” he says.
“We have data to show that uncertainty about receipt is much worse than knowing when it’s going to come. So companies that add uncertainty on top of the delay are absolutely doing the wrong thing,” says Gal Zauberman, a professor of marketing at Yale School of Management. Uncertain customers are unhappy customers, who are not only less likely to shop with the offending brand in the future but also more likely to tell family and friends about their negative experiences. “I think they are being highly myopic, even when they’re not interested in repeat sale,” he says of companies that don’t aim for transparency.
Leslie says he anticipates the manufacturing and shipping delays will continue through the end of the year. “I don’t think we’ve hit the bottom side of this yet,” he says.
Most of the people I talked to say they don’t plan to shop at West Elm again, and some are reconsidering shopping online for furniture at all for the foreseeable future. Ashley told me she plans to look elsewhere or buy off the West Elm outlet floor, a move that Denise Gianna, an interior designer in Beacon, New York, recommends. “If somebody needs to furnish a room, I would say, take a weekend or a couple of days and go to stores that have floor samples, that have clearance centers,” she says. “The higher-end the furniture and decor, the easier or the quicker it is to get it. It’s the things that are more affordable that are harder to find at this point.” Better to buy something you’ve seen with your own eyes and drive it home yourself.
Furniture shopping is emotionally taxing. It’s a significant financial undertaking and a yearslong commitment for most of us, imbuing the purchase with excitement, sure, but also with a boatload of stress (no shipping pun intended). Add a recent move, additional trauma, and a pandemic, and suddenly a home decor purchase is a lot more meaningful and sensitive than it might be ordinarily.
I learned my lesson reporting on other people’s painful online furniture shopping experiences, and instead follow a legion of local vintage sellers on Instagram hawking gorgeous old furniture for a fraction of the price of mainstream retailers. My new couch is a beautiful leather Chesterfield I bought for $1,000 from a vintage furniture seller in Brooklyn, who drove it to my house the next day — minimal wait required.
Angela Lashbrook is a writer whose work has appeared in OneZero, Refinery29, the Atlantic, Vice, Vox, and the Outline, among other outlets.