The £800 Townhouse dining table is an “elegant, sturdy classic” built for gathering round. Marsha Moore’s £20 melamine camping table, with a surface area of less than a square metre, is not, and certainly not where she imagined eating Christmas dinner.
But Moore, a writer who recently moved into an unfurnished flat in London with her husband and son, is one of many Britons trapped in a furniture nightmare before Christmas after deliveries of key pieces such as sofas, tables and beds were delayed by supply chain disruption.
“We have been eating at camping tables since we moved in in early November,” says Moore, who selected products, including a sofa, with the shortest wait time after being advised that orders could take up to 25 weeks.
After her dining table’s arrival was bumped to 2022 she headed to Decathlon for a second substitute surface. “Now we’ve got two of them pushed together and some folding chairs we got from Argos … we will be eating Christmas dinner on our camping tables.”
Her family is not alone. Social media is full of tales of furniture woe and pictures of empty rooms as, even after long waits, new purchases fail to materialise, with one longsuffering shopper even giving it a name: the “Great Furniture Delay” of 2021.
This week, the online furniture retailer Made.com warned that up to £45m-worth of orders were delayed, with the newly listed company blaming its profit warning on factory shutdowns in Vietnam, clogged ports and extended shipping times.
It follows last month’s gloomy update from Ikea. The furniture giant says it is struggling to keep shelves in its stores and warehouses stocked with more supply chain disruption and higher prices on the cards for 2022.
Shoppers looking to make rare big ticket purchases are surprised by how long they now have to wait for furniture pieces tailored to their taste. In John Lewis the average wait is 16 weeks for a sofa while some upholstered beds take 20 weeks.
The pandemic has turned the once steady furniture market into a rollercoaster ride. Britons typically spend around £14bn a year kitting out their homes but last year’s lockdowns wiped £1.3bn off UK furniture sales, according to Retail Economics. Demand has see-sawed back with sales on track to hit £14bn again this year.
In Ian and Eilidh’s Glasgow flat a pair of lonely-looking camping chairs are stationed in front of the television rather than the muddy Glastonbury field they were bought for. The festival, like their sofa, fell foul of the pandemic. Ian thinks his L-shaped sofa is on a “container ship somewhere”.
As first-time buyers on a budget, it is with some irony that Ian reports they “chose something that would fill the room”. “The sofa had an estimated delivery time of eight to 10 weeks so we optimistically thought it might arrive shortly after we moved into the flat in late August. “It’s now December and we are still sofa-less.”
The PhD student is “not a camper by nature” and with no end in sight to their sofa odyssey bemoans not being able to have anyone over at Christmas “because there is nowhere to sit”.
Richard Wilding, the professor of supply chain strategy at Cranfield School of Management, says that before the pandemic, global supply chains were like a “well-choreographed ballet”. Then in 2020 demand fell sharply in the initial phase of the pandemic only for it to roar back in 2021.
“We talk about black swan events,” he adds. “These were rare events but at the moment we have flocks of black swan events coming at us: in recent months we’ve had ports in China being shut down again; Vietnam has gone into a really big lockdown.
“When things look as though they’re getting back to normal in the UK, what you’re suddenly finding is rolling lockdowns are occurring in other regions. As soon as that starts to happen that means that the ballet is once again disrupted, so we’re getting disruption after disruption.”
Production and transport delays are putting a strain on customer service, with DFS, the UK’s biggest sofa chain, coming under fire from disappointed customers. One customer suggests its initials stand for Disappointment, Frustration and Sitting on the floor. A Facebook group devoted to “angry customers” of its Sofology brand has 3,400 members.
One horror story comes from Janet Bell who, when she ordered her £2,900 Tallulah sofa and matching footstool from Sofology in May was looking forward to sinking into its “perfectly plump” cushions. But her September delivery bled into November and then calamity struck: her old sofa was collected only for the following day’s delivery of her new couch to then be cancelled, “leaving me and my children with nothing to sit on”.
DFS says supply chain disruption has increased the average wait for its sofas from eight to 15 weeks but the “vast majority of customer orders are delivered on time”.
“The short-term operational environment continues to be difficult for the furniture industry … Against this backdrop, lead times are being extended and in some instances we are not able to deliver orders within the timeframes we originally scheduled.”
In Worcester, Caitlin Wakefield, a charity worker who bought her sofa from a local shop back in August, has her fingers crossed it will finally arrive on her new delivery date, which is just four days before Christmas.
“We were happy to wait because we wanted to support a local business coming out of the pandemic,” she says. “I didn’t want to go to a big corporate, like Ikea, where we could probably get the sofa at the weekend.
“When we ordered in August they had a massive backlog of orders from people who had changed their homes around in lockdown or moved house. [But] when I called in mid-November to ask ‘is it coming’ they said they were struggling with staff at the factory where it is being made in south Wales.”
Although China and Vietnam are important manufacturing hubs a lot of sofas are actually made in the UK. However, British companies are said to be struggling to recruit upholsterers, for example, because of worker shortages linked to Brexit.
Thanks to a new wave of retailer all is not lost for households desperate for a sofa to sit on. Companies such as Snug and Swyft sell modular sofas with rapid turnaround times that can be clicked together in different configurations.
After three weeks without a sofa Janet Bell, a single mum with two teenage children, banked a refund through PayPal, and took a risk, ordering a sofa online she had not physically tested out. Five days later she was sitting on a cloud. A Snug Cloud Sundae corner sofa to be precise. “It arrived on time and it is fab,” she reports. “I love it, the kids love it, my cats love it.”