The changing nature of ownership: How brands are catering for ‘generation rent’

With home ownership among young people continuing to drop, a new market is emerging for subscription-based and “versatile” furniture brands that want to change the relationship consumers have with material goods.

The concept of ownership has completely evolved. Netflix has changed how we watch movies, Spotify has revolutionised how we listen to music and Uber has transformed how we get from A to B. Now, alternatives to owning furniture, the third largest material asset in consumers’ lives after a home and car, are popping up and taking advantage of the growth in the rental market.

Better known as ‘non-attachment’ today’s society unknowingly lives by the ancient Sanskrit term: Aparigraha.

Climbing house prices and flat salaries have become a recipe for renting. More than 40% of young Brits say they will never own a home, according to mortgage lender Landbay, while the average millennial that does go on to buy can expect to pay more than £100,000 on rent before acquiring their first property.

Not only are young people being forced to rent for longer, but families are also being priced out of the market. Quite often, the only thing that remains constant is the cactus plant that moves with us from rental home to rental home.

Life on the move has triggered furniture brands big and small to move away from purely targeting home owners and instead tap into the growing rental market by offering alternatives and helping change the relationship consumers have with material goods.

Appealing to the modern-day market

Even Swedish flat-packing pioneer Ikea has released an entirely new range of furnishings designed for millennial renters.

Its Självständig collection, meaning ‘independent’ or ‘free from outside control’, launched in October and includes pieces such as cushions, customisable rugs and versatile furniture which come in an array of colours and can be used indoors or outdoors. Its intention is to help renters add some personality to their homes.

Ikea’s Självständig collection is designed to help renters express their identity.

Ikea is also opening a string of smaller high street stores, moving away from its behemoth out-of-town warehouses to increase footfall and encourage online orders.

Feather Furniture is another brand waking up to the opportunity the rental market presents.

Founder Jay Reno launched the US subscription-based furniture rental company in April last year because he wanted to remove the pain-points, cost and waste associated with renting a home while offering an alternative to ownership.

Reno says the brand’s main audience is millennial renters. “In the US people move on average 12 times while at college, so it just doesn’t make sense to own a bunch of things when you’re moving constantly,” he explains.

There are 75 million millennials in the US, making up 30% of the market, according to Reno. So purely positioning itself to target this demographic rather than the wider population works for the company.

There’s this period of time which makes a lot of sense for someone like them [millennials] to use us,” he says. “It’s definitely not a narrow market.”

It’s not unlike a rental car where you open up the door and it looks new and smells new but the odometer says 20,000km. Feather’s furniture is disposable but the customer disposes of it back to us.

Jay Reno, Feather

Meanwhile US startup Burrow, which has been described as ‘the Glossier of furniture’, is hoping to appeal to renters by removing choice and offering a single product – a sofa – in three sizes and five colours.

One of the biggest inspirations behind the birth of Burrow, is combating what the brand’s head of growth Alex Kubo calls “the paralysis of choice”.

“Today’s consumers are inundated with options. Take Wayfair. You can get carpal tunnel syndrome just trying to click through all the [product lines] they carry, and Wayfair is just one example. People spend hours clicking around those black holes seeking a product made for comfort in probably the least comfortable way,” he says.

Burrow acknowledges consumers want a personalised experience but don’t want to waste time seeking it out, so it has removed the choice to streamline the process.

Despite defining its target demographic as “the modern consumer”, Kubo says younger people are more likely to buy higher-priced items without needing to try them in person.

He believes Amazon’s dominance coupled with the rise of the on-demand economy have made consumers of all demographics accustomed to fast fulfilment.

READ MORE: Ikea shifts marketing strategy to focus on product innovation rather than rooms

Taking on the Swedish behemoth

Renting usually results in a number of reluctant Ikea trips, arguments during the building process, followed by the realisation you’ll probably have to sell your items and do it all again if you move on.

By comparison, Burrow says its sofa arrives in a few boxes and can be assembled in 10 minutes without the use of any tools because the pieces are designed to lock together using built-in latches, as do the arms on either end. Only thumb screws are required at the bottom of the sofa, according to the company.

In most instances, Kubo is adamant Burrow is not competing directly with Ikea, at least not anymore. Burrow’s positioning initially led the company to be perceived as a more expensive Ikea but a few months after launching, the brand repositioned itself at the more premium end of the market.

“We thought pricing as low as we possibly could would endear us to consumers, when in reality it put us in the wrong frame of reference,” Kubo says.

Feather furniture offers a subscription based service suitable for frequent movers.

While Burrow plays on the fact it is high quality and easy to assemble, Feather aims to get consumers to switch to renting by focusing on three key points: convenience, accessibility and sustainability.

In terms of convenience, Reno says Feather staff will deliver and assemble the furniture for consumers for free as part of their monthly subscription.

“Consumers will get better quality furniture at roughly the same price-point as Ikea over the course of a 12-month subscription,” he claims.

“Usually when you’re moving it’s very stressful and you have to pay thousands of dollars for a security deposit and furniture. It’s all very expensive. But we allow consumers to pay monthly and not have to fork out thousands and thousands of dollars for stuff.”

Sustainability is also at the heart of the business. He says millions of tonnes of furniture are thrown out every year in the US alone, and claims two of the biggest culprits are Ikea and Wayfair.

“[This is because they’ve] designed their furniture to be disposable,” he claims.

Ikea produced 590,258 tonnes of waste in 2017, according to its sustainability report, 16.1% of which was sent to landfill, while 68.2% was recycled and 15.3% was incinerated for energy recovery.

Similar to Burrow, Floyd is best known for one product, a versatile bed frame with same-day delivery. It follows the slogan: “Made for life, not landfill. A bed frame that grows with you”.

The company’s head of brand marketing and communications, Lauren Kase, acknowledges frequent movers are contributing to furniture being disposed of, but society in general has been trained to consume furniture at a much faster pace.

“We believe moving or renting doesn’t need to equate to throwing away furniture. People have been moving and renting for centuries and not throwing away products at the rate we do today,” she says.

“Our goal is to design for keeping by creating pieces that are built to last.”

Floyd’s platform bed was born out of the company’s frustrations with bed frames.

Meanwhile, at Feather customers can return their items to the company when their subscription ends. The products are then managed and maintained over a number of years so they can be repurposed rather than disposed of.

“It’s not unlike a rental car where you open up the door and it looks new and smells new but the odometer says 20,000km. Feather’s furniture is disposable but the customer disposes of it back to us. We’re able to reuse and repurpose it over many years rather than it last one turn,” he says. “That’s what people are really liking about the service.”

Creating a cultural shift

When asked what success looks like, Reno is quick to acknowledge that other than ROI and hitting various targets that it’s actually vital Feather helps transform the way people consider material goods to create a “happier and healthier planet”.

“If we can do that starting with furniture, then we have achieved our mission,” Reno says.

“We need to change our relationship with things, because things tie you down to a place, things make us less focused on relationships and people. We want to help usher that change away from ownership.”

Renting household goods could well be the next home design trend and with various rental services such as Table + Teaspoon (dinnerware) and Rise Art (art work) cropping up.

There’s no doubt an increase in rental figures is changing how consumers view home decorating, so does this spell the end of ‘forever furniture’? Perhaps. But it’s going to take a momentous effort from these brands if they’re to de-throne the Swedish flat-packing giant.



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  1. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance 19 Dec 2018

    Ignores a major benefit of disposable furniture – it’s much less dangerous to the millions of us with asthma. Old soft furnishings can be lethal, once they get past 5-10 years old and the dust mite debris builds up inside. So well done Ikea, you saved a lot of lives.

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