digital disruptors | Jul 13, 2022 |
The viral site exposing the wild west of online furniture pricing

When Dane Hurtubise and his girlfriend moved to New York last year, they decided to do what many new apartment owners do: Shop online for furniture. In a strange twist, however, one of those purchases soon led Hurtubise and his longtime friend Geoffrey Abraham down a rabbit hole into the complicated world of online furniture shopping—and eventually spawned an idea for a new company.

The journey began with an Urban Outfitters coffee table. After ordering the item online and assembling it at home, Hurtubise realized it was missing a part and turned to Google in search of the piece. That led straight to a case of buyer’s remorse when he found that very same table for half the price at Home Depot.

The quandary led to conversations with Abraham, who was also curious about the reasons driving such a price discrepancy. The potential to dive deep into the experience and search for a potential business solution was a natural next step for the pair: Hurtubise had founded and sold software company Parklet just a few years before, while Abraham sold his outdoor advertising and pedicab company, Cabrio Taxi, in 2021—by this time, both were itching to start a new project.

“We started looking into this, and it just got weirder the further we went,” says Abraham. As he explains, there are relatively few home furnishings manufacturers, and they each sell through many different channels. Relative to other product categories, furniture also entails higher price points (and potential for larger profit margins), which spurs many nonhome brands to expand into the home realm. But instead of creating products from scratch, they often opt to drop-ship merchandise, sending items right from the manufacturer to customers’ homes without ever touching the product themselves. Those conditions often lead to a practice that is a kind of digital “white-labeling”—a term that refers to a product made by one manufacturer or company that others then rebrand and sell.

For shoppers, that means identical products available from different brands at different price points. To help navigate that confusing marketplace, Abraham and Hurtubise began imagining a website to streamline the consumer shopping experience.

The result was Spoken, a site that finds the lowest price for furniture items sold across multiple major online retailers. The site follows a format similar to pricing comparison sites like Google Shopping but applies more rigorous research to bypass sellers that disguise identical products with new images and names—a tactic that gives shoppers the “haunting sense you’ve seen the same item multiple times,” says Abraham. Though it sometimes feels that way, the price discrepancy between identical pieces is not always entirely arbitrary, he adds. Sellers may adjust the price of an item based on shipping processes, customer service or return policies. One of the driving forces behind Spoken is giving that information to shoppers at the outset.

Backed by startup accelerator Y Combinator and launched last year, the site now reaches 100,000 monthly users. What’s more, Spoken has sparked several viral moments across the internet, including a Reddit post that has garnered more than 20,000 upvotes and thousands of comments, along with several TikTok videos with views in the millions.

In one such clip, design and lifestyle influencer Preston Konrad opens his video with a popular TikTok trend—a voice-over that says, “What’s a scam that’s become so normalized that we don’t even realize it’s a scam anymore?” Konrad responds, “Overpaying for essentially white-labeled furniture,” before naming Spoken as a solution for finding designer home items at the lower online price.

Abraham agrees with Konrad’s sentiment. “I think it’s very apt,” he says. “Buying used cars used to feel like what it feels like to buy furniture today.” It is part of the reason why Spoken’s founders decided to launch the platform with posts on Reddit, where they could gather information (neither began with many connections to the furniture industry) and interact directly with potential users to figure out which products would perform. Plus, the platform’s primary goal right now is to act on behalf of the consumer—“agnostic” to brand preference, Hurtubise says—as opposed to comparison shopping sites that make money off of affiliate links and brand partnerships. It is a route that the Spoken team wants to avoid going down—they are not currently bringing in revenue, as the focus for now is on improving the still-new site and its user experience. In the future, Abraham says they plan to pursue ways to make money without compromising the site’s integrity.

The platform has caught on with the younger Gen Z and millennial demographics on Reddit and TikTok for a few reasons, Hurtubise speculates. Part of it has to do with the confluence of booming online shopping habits and interior design interests during the pandemic, but he also thinks the site’s popularity relates to a sense of distrust among younger generations who have been bombarded by advertising online and on social media.

“With Gen Z in particular, there’s an acceptance and a ‘Now what?’” says Hurtubise. “You’ve intuited that there was a lot of price discrepancy on the internet but didn’t necessarily have the tool to see that. Now you do, and you’re both vindicated but also empowered to take action.”

As for the future of Spoken, the duo currently have plans underway to overhaul the site to make it more user-friendly—including onboarding more products and improving search features. While the site may be met with some wariness from designers, who already deal with the challenge of clients comparison shopping online, an influx of positive feedback from everyday consumers has given Abraham and Hurtubise the fuel to keep forging ahead.

“It’s given us more conviction that what we’re doing is compelling, and people are resonating with the message,” says Abraham. “As folks that are building the product and wanting to share that, it’s exciting to be a part of that.”

Homepage image: ©somjork/Adobe Stock

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