Last April, when Christina Burke, a Saskatoon marketing consultant, moved from one apartment to another, she didn’t want to take the six-piece sectional she inherited from her parents when she first left home. “It was huge and it wasn’t going to fit into the new place,” she says.
She could have spent upwards of $3,000 on a new sofa. But then, if she moved again, she’d both be down three grand and just as stuck with the new piece. As a remedy, a friend recommended she check out Pivot, a Saskatchewan-based start-up that rents contemporary couches and other furniture. For $9.99 monthly subscription fee plus about another $30 for the rental of the couch, she got a clean-lined, light grey sectional that suited her space. “I loved that I didn’t have to spend thousands of dollars upfront to purchase,” says the 31 year old, who also opted for a desk for about $10 more. She did, however, stop short of a rental rug. “The rugs are way too expensive to rent at $33 a month,” she says.
Whereas furniture rental businesses of the past – Rent-A-Center perhaps being the most famous – were largely geared toward low-income earners with bad credit, companies such as Pivot and a similar venture, U.S.-based Feather, appeal to an entirely different customer. Upwardly mobile, young urban professionals such as Burke are opting to rent because it gives them a low-commitment way to outfit apartments that they tend not to live in for longer than a couple of years. Instead of frequently buying, reselling or, worse, adding to the immense amount of furniture that goes into landfills every year, they can get new sofas, tables and decor on-demand as needed and return them when that need is up.
Globally, the residential market for rental furniture is expected to double over the next six years, to US$16-billion in 2025 from approximately US$8-billion in 2018 according to researchandmarkets.com. Pivot’s revenues are private, but as evidence of its growth, after launching in 2018 it already has more than 100 employees, operates in four cities – Calgary, Regina, Saskatoon, and Winnipeg – with plans to launch in others. U.S-based Feather, which launched in 2017, recently raised US$12-million in financing from Spark Capital, a backer of both Wayfair and 1stdibs.
Crucially, the model of start-ups such as Pivot and Feather differ from businesses such as Rent-A-Center because they don’t charge interest or steep mark-ups if someone wants to buy a piece outright. With Pivot, as soon as a customer’s payments accumulate to what they would have paid retail, the item becomes theirs. “I will most likely end up purchasing the desk,” Burke says. “But I will most likely switch out the couch at some point, mostly just because I can."
To Michael Prokopow, associate dean at Toronto’s OCAD University and a professor who studies material culture, renting, as opposed to owning furniture, signifies a huge cultural shift: “People used to live in the same house with much of the same furniture until they were carted away in a bag,” he says. “That seems to be an ancient model. We don’t have the same commitment to permanence anymore. Instead, there is a pervasive nomadism in Western life, where we’d rather be open to change at any moment, as we’d rather not have the burden of carrying our stuff with us as we go.”
The nomadism that Prokopow refers to is largely what’s driving the trend. According to Rentals.ca, more than 40 per cent of those born between 1980 and 2000 rent their homes, versus 27 per cent who own (the remainder live with family). Those renters tend to be peripatetic. According to one Australian study, renters move on average every two years. Another study of American millennials found that they moved up to 12 times before purchasing their first home (thereafter, constant relocation becomes financially costlier, and therefore less likely).
Moving might offer some benefits, especially if it’s for cheaper rent, a nicer space or to be closer to a better job. But, let’s be real, the process of packing, shipping and getting resettled can also suck. In a 2019 survey of 2,000 Americans, conducted by OnePoll for Vancouver-based furniture retailer Article, respondents ranked moving as slightly less stressful than losing a job and slightly more than getting married. One of the most annoying aspects of changing house is that, much like Burke, 37 per cent of people discover that their old furniture doesn’t fit their new space. (While Article doesn’t rent furniture directly, they work with CasaOne, a start-up similar to Pivot and Feather.)
Reducing stress is one way that Pivot and Feather entice customers. Pivot, for example, offers in-home drop-off and assembly, or dis-assembly and removal, seven days a week. “About 20 minutes after I ordered online,” Burke says, “I received a phone call from Pivot setting up a time for delivery. They were there that night setting up.” If Burke relocates, she feels “a sense of relief that I don’t have to worry about moving the sofa, too.” That’s because Pivot will come and fetch it and replace it with a different piece at her new apartment.
One potential drawback of such services, at least for the aesthetically adventurous, is that the looks currently offered tend to be narrow: muted blues and greys and other neutrals. Nothing flashy. “Crazy shapes might win design awards,” says Daniel Simair, one of Pivot’s co-founders, whose previous start-up, Skip the Dishes, sold for a reported $200-million in 2016. “But our pieces are all meant to be versatile and timeless.”
“When we launched,” Feather’s founder Jay Reno says, “I put 1,000 options on the site, including mid-century modern, Victorian, more contemporary, all to see what people would go for. Resoundingly, people picked a style that wasn’t super industrial, not super mid-century modern, not super any one thing – just simple and elegant.”
Having pieces with broad, enduring appeal is important, because it helps ensure ongoing use and helps reduce the likelihood of redundancy simply because something is no longer trendy. “Furniture accounts for seven per cent of all waste,” says Reno, who first became dismayed by the wasteful nature of home goods while studying climate and environmental sciences at Columbia University in New York. He adds that 9.7-million tons of furniture waste are added to landfills every year. "That’s a staggering number.”
Renting furniture has the potential to reduce waste by helping to recirculate pieces. To maximize durability, Feather treats its upholstered items with a sealant that beads liquids when something spills. The company is also experimenting with making its furniture out of interchangeable component parts, so that if, say, the armrest of a chair gets damaged, only that piece needs to be swapped out.
Having a kit-of-parts approach is something that Pivot is already doing. “We’re trying to design our sofas, beds, coffee tables so that they can be broken down, thoroughly cleaned and reassembled, all with common pieces,” Simair says. “That way we’re creating a stronger circular economy, where things aren’t just made, used and disposed of, but repurposed over and over and over again.”