In the six years since Jay Reno started college and finished his masters' degree, he had moved seven times. Each time, he says, the load felt more punishing. The bed frame seemed to get heavier, and things got damaged. Reno, who grew up in New Hampshire and now lives in New York City, knew there had to be a less headache-inducing way to get stuff from A to B. Or better yet, he thought: What if he didn't even own stuff in the first place?

Reno figured he surely wasn't the only Millennial thinking along those lines. So, in 2017, he founded Feather, a New York City-based furniture rental subscription service. Furniture rentals is not a new idea: The 800-pound gorilla in the industry is Rent-a-Center, founded in 1986 with a rent-to-own model that last year was expected to bring in around $1.8 billion in U.S. revenue. Reno says unlike Rent-a-Center, Feather is targeting higher-end customers: people who can afford to buy but just choose not to. Convincing a critical mass of affluent customers to forgo new furnishings in favor of renting used items will be no easy task. Still, Reno has a pitch he's confident will be persuasive. 

"Buying things upfront doesn't make sense when your space is constantly changing," says the 32-year-old founder, who graduated from Columbia University in 2012 with a master's degree in environmental studies. "Owning things ties you to a physical place. It grounds you in a way that you don't want to be grounded."

The price of flexibility.

To be sure, swapping the burden of ownership for the flexibility of renting comes at a cost. Feather members pay a monthly $19 subscription fee plus the cost to rent each individual item. For instance, a living room package that includes a sofa, lounge chair, coffee table, and floor lamp will set you back $90 to $167 a month. Members can swap out items for free once a year, depending on their changing needs or tastes. Subsequent swaps will trigger a $99 delivery fee. Non-members can also rent from Feather, though they pay a $99 delivery fee each time and higher per-item fees. A Deco Weave West Elm "Eddy" sofa that runs $39 a month for members costs $134 a month for non-members. 

A key part of Feather's pitch to customers is positioning furniture rental as a more environmentally friendly alternative to buying furniture you may one day discard. Reno suggests the same consumers that, say, buy sustainably manufactured clothing at Everlane, or cleaning products in reusable packaging from Grove Collaborative, will appreciate Feather's sustainability angle. The company says it cleans and refurbishes all items, save for mattresses, which don't get reused between renters, to extend their lifespan. Mattresses and furniture that are no longer usable get donated.

Should customers want to buy an item after renting, Feather says it can be purchased for the retail value, minus whatever they already have paid in rental fees. At some rent-to-own companies, like Rent-a-Center, items cost more than they would if customers had purchased them directly from a retailer. Rent-a-Center doesn't argue with this point. "Yes, there is a premium paid for the flexibility for the service, which includes free set up, delivery, and repairs," says Michael Landry, vice president of franchise development at Rent-a-Center. Feather charges repair fees, which vary depending on the item, if damages go beyond regular wear and tear. 

Millennials are increasingly opting for renting versus buying homes, says Michael Brown, a partner in the retail practice of global strategy and management consulting at A.T. Kearney. Going into the third quarter of last year, only about a third of Americans 35 and younger owned homes, according to a February 2019 report by financial services firm Legal & General. "Renting a home; leasing a car; taking an Uber; renting the runway are all manifestations of this trend," adds Brown. He notes further that rented furnishings are expected to account for 25 percent of the total U.S. furniture market this year. Overall, U.S. furniture-industry sales in 2019 were expected to increase by 2.8 percent to $114.5 billion from the year before, says Jerry Epperson, managing director at research firm Mann, Armistead, and Epperson. 

Investors too are on board with rentals. On February 19, Feather announced a $30 million series B round of funding led by Cobalt Capital, with participation from prior investors including Spark Capital, Kleiner Perkins, Bain Capital Ventures, and others. It had previously raised $16 million from investors. The company says it is using the new funds to expand to additional markets and build its 60-person team.

Feather isn't the only startup aiming to reimagine the furniture rental industry. Los Angeles-based competitor Fernish also launched in 2017. Last year Fernish raised $30 million from early-stage investor fund Real Estate Technology Ventures, Intuit's co-founder Scott Cook, and Amazon's head of global e-commerce and retail operations, Jeff Wilke.

It's early days for Feather. Its service currently is available only in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Orange County, California. Reno declined to comment on its number of members or annual revenue, beyond saying the latter is in the "eight digits." 

The true test for Feather--and by extension, Fernish--is whether it can make the product more widely appealing, beyond early-adopter Millennials. Kevin Thau, a general partner at Feather investor Spark Capital, is convinced it can. "Today's consumers demand fast and reliable products and services that make their lives easier," he says. "Feather delivers on just this by allowing consumers to easily rent furniture and skip the enormous hassle of purchasing and inevitably moving their furniture from one place to the next." 

Reno says even legacy retailers are starting to respond to the idea that ownership is less popular among certain customers. Feather offers Williams-Sonoma brand West Elm and Joy Bird furniture in its inventory, along with mattress firm Leesa. Crate and Barrel partnered with Fernish to offer its collections to renters in 2018. And in a related sign of the times, in November 2019, Nordstrom announced it would include exclusive products available for both purchase and rental through Rent the Runway. 

"We're already starting to see consumers shift away from ownership as a default," Reno adds. "And we believe this behavior is only going to grow."

Published on: Feb 19, 2020