As long as people insist on sitting in a chair before they will seriously consider buying it, the Internet is unlikely to become the ultimate destination for furniture shoppers. "There will always be people who want to kick the tires," says Jeff Quinn, a senior analyst at Gomez, a Lincoln, Mass., consulting company that tracks online markets. That law of human nature is just one reason, according to Quinn, that only a scant 0.7% of the $189 billion in U.S. retail furniture sales today are transacted online.

If Aunt Bessie prefers to buy her chintz-covered love seat in the fluorescent glow of a furniture store, fair enough. But what about a small-business owner who's in the market for some durable office desks?

For years many small businesses have ordered their office furniture sight unseen (not counting photos) through catalogs. "As long as there's a good warranty and the price is right, it's done," says Farid Gazor, who three years ago launched a company offering E-commerce software to furniture dealers and manufacturers, reasoning that the Web could make their old-line industry more efficient. In the process of building that business Gazor discovered that companies with 5 to 250 employees were a neglected -- and promising -- market segment. Compared with large companies, small businesses "were much more ready to adopt a more efficient way of buying furniture," he says. So in January 1999 Gazor transformed his company into NextOffice, an online office-furniture purveyor in San Francisco that targets small companies.

Gazor is hardly alone in pursuing an office-furniture E-commerce niche. Some manufacturers, such as Herman Miller and Knoll, have recently come around to the idea of selling online. Their Web sites, of course, offer only the products they manufacture. In contrast, eclectic sites in the NextOffice mold have sprung up to sell the furniture of many competing brands. (NextOffice, for example, carries the wares of more than 90 manufacturers.) With the dot-coms, furniture typically is delivered from the manufacturer's warehouse to the customer's door by trucks that are under contract to the site.

The cyberspace merchants also tend to have a lot of furniture-industry experience. Rich Peterson, who cofounded Officefurniture.com, based in Danville, Calif., is a former furniture distributor with 18 years in the field. Another site, OfficebyDesign.com, is the virtual version of a 12-year-old Cleveland office-furniture dealership, TodaysOffice. A third, Office Furniture USA (www.ofusa.com), is a network of 145 furniture stores around the country. The sites' customers are mostly small businesses with fewer than 200 employees. No customer is too small: the sites say they're pleased to deal with soloists and home-office workers.

The online office-furniture sellers seem to adhere to an unwritten E-commerce pricing dictum: Thou shalt not discount. The prices listed on the sites, several of their owners acknowledged, are similar to what retailers charge. The owners say they aim to compete with brick-and-mortar stores not by cutting prices but by providing such Internet-enhanced features as quick access to a wide variety of products and real-time information on inventory and order status. "Customers have more choices," Peterson declares flatly.

So if you decide that the Internet is a place to hunt for office furniture, where should you look? Inc. asked 14 small-company CEOs to evaluate seven Web sites specializing in online sales of office furniture. Our panelists judged the sites by value and selection as well as other criteria. Although they didn't go so far as to order any furniture, they did simulate a shopper's experience, sampling such things as the sites' customer- service responses.

Here's what the panelists found:

www.furniture-online.com
What it's good for: Hardly anything, said three of the four CEOs who evaluated the site. However, the fourth CEO lauded the site's "broad selection, ease of use, and rapid and thorough customer service."
Don't waste your time if: You like to browse. One of the site's weakest points is "its lack of a sitewide navigation system that shows shoppers where they are and where they can go," one CEO noted.
What our CEOs had to say: The reviewers felt the site lacked sophistication. "My two-year-old son could design a better site," sniped the harshest critic.
What you ought to know: Of the seven sites evaluated for this column, this one had the highest restocking charge for returned goods, a fee of 20% to 25% of the purchase price for certain items. "The manufacturers will charge me a restocking fee of 20%, and then I have to eat the freight," explains Furniture-Online.com CEO Art Fiala. "Some companies won't take a chair back at all."

www.nextoffice.com
What it's good for: Interactive personal attention. If you fill out a form and send it to the company's professional space planners, they'll set up a private site for you with sample layouts for your office. Live chats and E-mail support are also available. "They answered my question promptly and adequately," noted one CEO.
Don't waste your time if: You prefer plain vanilla to banana splits. The site specializes in high-end goods. "Its furnishings did not interest me at all," said one no-nonsense reviewer.
What our CEOs had to say: High-tech bells and whistles complement images of fancy furniture on this site. Reviewers praised what one called a "standout feature," a device that changes pictures of items to show them with different wood finishes or fabric colors.
What you ought to know: You won't know how much you'll owe in delivery charges until you reach the checkout page.

www.ofconcepts.com
What it's good for: Smooth navigation from point to point. It was "very easy" to move around the site, one CEO said, lauding in particular "the way it is categorized in the left-hand column for you." Another judge said he also liked the online-chat feature.
Don't waste your time if: You're looking for something special. "There wasn't anything to grab or hold my attention," said one critic.
What our CEOs had to say: Reviewers weren't exactly raving about the site, but they thought that both navigating and ordering functions were "easy and self-explanatory," as one of them put it.
What you ought to know: The site will help you set up a lease-to-buy agreement with a third-party leasing com- pany, typically for orders of more than $2,500.

www.officebydesign.com
What it's good for: Sample office layouts and funky furnishings, such as lime green boomerang-shaped tables, which impressed several panelists.
Don't waste your time if: You need one-on-one attention. The site provides its phone number only obscurely and encourages all inquiries by E-mail. One tester sent an E-mail message and waited 36 hours without a reply. "My expectation is that an acknowledgment of receipt, if not a full answer, should be sent within 24 hours. I was not satisfied," one judge commented.
What our CEOs had to say: Despite poor customer service, the site has much to offer, according to several of the panelists. It was "stylish and colorful with clear links," noted one CEO. "The shopping cart was easy to use. When I clicked on 'continue shopping,' it took me to the subsection I'd been browsing before -- a nice touch."
What you ought to know: A "move manager" feature is in the works. The tool will help customers schedule an office move and will send them E-mail reminders.

www.officefurniture.com
What it's good for: Reasonable prices and a wide range of products. One reviewer also recommended the site as a sure bet for anyone who wants to become "more knowledgeable about the market offerings."
Don't waste your time if: You have a slow Internet connection. This site posts a lot of pictures -- notably, of several "Virtual 3-D Showrooms" -- which is a great way to see the merchandise if speed isn't an issue. "They should take the Staples approach and show the items as hypertext links that you can click on if you're interested in the product," advised one CEO.
What our CEOs had to say: This is an outfit on the right track. "This site could go from functional to awesome" if it would allow small-business owners to plug in the shape and dimensions of their offices and get specific advice, one judge said.
What you ought to know: The site's restocking fee is a relatively steep 20%.

www.ofusa.com
What it's good for: A 3-D rendering program that allows visitors to view their own offices online with different furnishings. "Interesting, if a bit hard to use," said one CEO.
Don't waste your time if: You're a bargain hunter. Although the site touts its "everyday great prices," a majority of our reviewers suggested its offerings were on the high side.
What our CEOs had to say: The reviewers faulted the site for a lack of customer service. "It's a pretty plain office-furniture site with one slick toy," said one CEO.
What you ought to know: All sales are final. Warranties are handled individually by the 145 brick-and-mortar franchisees.

www.shop121.com
What it's good for: Comparison shopping. A shopper can select four desks, and the site displays product information on all of them side by side, giving the details, right down to the dovetail corners. There's also a powerful search function that can access data covering, among other things, price, style, and manufacturer's name.
Don't waste your time if: You need instant answers. The company is removing its immediate online help feature because of a lack of use.
What our CEOs had to say: Save time to explore, as there's much that's worthwhile to see. It's "a big site," noted one CEO. "It provides everything you need."
What you ought to know: Before the site could complete an online order, it had to contact a customer by phone for help in handling a complex freight-charge calculation. That extra step was a "major shortcoming," complained one panelist. The company said it would automate the task online before 2001, although it would welcome follow-up phone calls from customers.

The bottom line
Most of our reviewers said they were unfazed by the idea of ordering furniture sight unseen. One balked, saying that it's impossible in online shopping "to feel the texture, an important factor in the decision making." The panelists generally favored sites that offered the greatest variety of products. The top-scoring sites, Shop121 and OfficebyDesign, received kudos for their large inventories and for offering good prices. The panelists also valued customer service as a top priority. "I have furnished a few offices in the past," said one CEO. "The only time it really came out right the first time was with one-on-one help." Other sites rating high for their customer service were NextOffice and Officefurniture.com.

Jill Hecht Maxwell is a reporter at Inc. Technology.


The savvy entrepreneur's guide to buying office furniture online

Comments
Would CEOs go back? What is the site good for? CEOs' quick take
www.furniture-online.com "No." "Nothing in particular." "An amateurish generic site that sells bland generic furniture."
www.nextoffice.com "When I have a specific need." "The space-planning feature seems cool." "Functional and straightforward, but its furnishings didn't interest me at all."
www.ofconcepts.com "When I have a specific need." "Nice flow of information." "I wish I'd had access to this site when I was buying our conference table."
www.officebydesign.com "Occasionally." "Courteous and responsive customer service." "Very hip site, from the look and feel, to the products offered."
www.officefurniture.com "Occasionally." "I found the ergonomics section helpful." "Very good selection, and the prices are comparable with those in catalogs I receive."
www.ofusa.com "No." "Window shopping." "Very well organized, but if you need help, it's difficult to find."
www.shop121.com "When I have a specific need." "Detailed product information." "A very professional, comprehensive site."
Grades
Navigation Inventory Ordering Customer service Reliability Value Average grade
www.furniture-online.com B- C+ B- B- A- B- B-
www.nextoffice.com B+ C B A- A- B B
www.ofconcepts.com B B- B B B B- B
www.officebydesign.com A A- A C- A+ A- A-
www.officefurniture.com B A- B A- B A- B+
www.ofusa.com B- C B C B+ C+ B-
www.shop121.com A A B+ A- A A- A-

Our Panelists

Ty Austin, chairman, M-Cubed Information Systems Inc.; president and CEO, NetX Information Services Inc.
Bill Blount, general manager, Precision Shapes of Virginia
Chris Charuhas, CEO, Visibooks
Gregory S. Howe, president and CEO, BMS Corp.
David L. Jacobs, president, Spyder Active Sports
Aaron Kassin, president and CEO, My Contact Lenses Inc.
Taketoshi Natsui, president, Disco International Inc.
Susan S. Nedell, president, Wyndemere Inc.
Beran Peter, CEO, Instruction Set Inc.
Robert Rogers, president, the Chesapeake Center
Jean D. Sifleet, lawyer and certified public accountant
John Spinale, CEO, Bitmo
John Webster, CEO, PermitsNow Inc.
David Whitman, president, Whitman Global Carpet Care


Please e-mail your comments to editors@inc.com.