weekly feature | Nov 3, 2021 |
What are digital multilines, and how can they work for you?

There’s no denying it: The design industry is starting to embrace e-commerce in earnest. But it’s early—so early, in fact, that it’s often hard to understand what exactly is going on. While a showroom is always just a showroom (you walk in, place an order and walk out), to-the-trade online shopping is far more complicated. A variety of sites and software tools have sprung up in recent years that all take different approaches, and for a designer looking to shop smart online, it can be tricky to even know where to start.

However, amid a somewhat chaotic landscape, a genre of platforms is starting to emerge. For lack of a better term, we’re calling them “digital multilines.” These sites, ranging from SideDoor and DesignerInc to Bellvine and Daniel House Club (see a full breakdown below) all take slightly different approaches to the same basic idea. Their goal is to replicate the convenience and scale of e-commerce marketplaces, add some trade-specific features, then wall off the whole thing from the general public. Basically: Amazon, but built for designers.

Not to be confused with boutique digital-first showrooms like Somerselle or Denvir Enterprises, these are volume businesses, aggregating dozens if not hundreds of brands. They tend to make money the same way showrooms do: by buying the product at the equivalent of a “stocking dealer” price and offering it to designers at net pricing. From there, designers are free to set their own markup when selling to clients (or not take one at all, depending on their business model).

For designers, the upsides are clear. Instead of setting up individual trade accounts with dozens of brands, they need only create one with the platform. Digital multilines also dispense with minimum order requirements, making it easier to shop for individual pieces. Finally, many offer a kind of concierge service that helps deal with custom orders and facilitate logistics.

There are risks, of course—mainly the centralization of risk itself. When designers order from 35 different vendors, it’s a hassle, but it’s extremely unlikely that all 35 companies will mess up simultaneously. Many of these digital multilines are only a few years old, and it might make some designers nervous to place the bulk of purchasing for a big project in the hands of a single platform. Other designers may inherently distrust tech platforms altogether and prefer the (occasionally messy) directness of a one-on-one relationship with vendors.

However, the potential conveniences are real. And given the rapid rate at which new digital multilines seem to be springing up, it’s hard to imagine that they won’t play a significant role in the industry in the years ahead. Interestingly, the surge of new players has almost nothing to do with technological innovation—most of the software that powers these platforms is nothing revolutionary. The change is cultural.

Five years ago, most trade-friendly home brands simply weren’t interested in selling online. Whether it was the complications of regional exclusivity agreements, the lack of digital assets, or simply a lack of interest, there wasn’t a lot of momentum to bring purchasing online. The success of big e-comm sellers like Wayfair and influencer-driven sites like McGee & Co started changing minds—but it took a pandemic to really get the gears in motion. After seeing the entire world shift to digital commerce, home brands everywhere are now identifying real opportunity selling online, and they’re willing to try out partnerships they would have scoffed at two years ago. (One founder of a digital multiline told me: “A couple of years ago at High Point, no one was interested in selling through us. Now everyone gets it.”)

That’s not to say all the kinks have been worked out. Regional exclusivity is still a knotty problem. Many home brands still don’t really have the digital assets to sell effectively online even if they wanted to. Customization online is tough. And cultural hesitation persists, especially for ultra-high-end makers. Despite that, the entrepreneurs behind these platforms are all betting that the wind is blowing in their direction. “[We built our business] around the way we think the industry is headed,” says Marisa Terrizzi, the chief strategy officer of DesignerInc.

From the outside, it’s difficult to know how successful these platforms are—most declined to answer specific questions about how many designers use their service or the volume of transactions they’re processing. Some may be gone by this time next year. A new entrant to the market may emerge and eclipse them all. It’s also possible that there’s room enough for many players in this space. “People like to think that it’s going to only be one platform for everything,” says Bellvine founder Heather Sawtelle. "But if you look at other industries, that’s just not the case—different designers will find the solution that works best for them.”

It’s also worth noting that the following grouping is somewhat arbitrary—it could be argued that Wayfair’s trade program is technically a “digital multiline” too, and still other players are attempting a similar model from different angles. This shouldn’t be considered a comprehensive list, but simply a snapshot of six companies trying to solve a complicated problem: selling to designers online.

Launched in 2020 by Utah-based entrepreneur Lynsey Humphrey (who co-founded the design firm Alder & Tweed, a furniture brand of the same name, and the wholesale startup Design Kollective), SideDoor is an online marketplace for designers only. After setting up a trade account, users log in, browse product at net pricing and buy transactionally (meaning there’s no wait to get a final quote). The selection is sold as shown, meaning the platform is not set up for custom orders unless vendors specifically list custom options. As part of its services, SideDoor organizes shipping for orders, relying on an in-house logistics team. White glove delivery is optional, and Humphrey says SideDoor will find a receiver if needed.

Pricing: Free
Size: 100 brands selling roughly 250,000 SKUs
Notable brands: Universal, Caracole, Stark Carpet
Perks: SideDoor’s unique hook is a feature that allows designers to curate product from its marketplace and create a shoppable collection they can share with clients directly or on social media—an option that’s particularly handy for e-designers who want to avoid getting shopped. It also allows designers with a large following to try a more lucrative version of affiliate marketing.

Founded in 2020 by brothers Peter and Alexander Spalding, Daniel House Club was born from a residential design firm started in 2015 (Peter handles design, while Alexander oversees operations). The site’s mission is to deliver an online shopping experience that mimics consumer-facing e-commerce. Designers can purchase themselves, or create dashboards with shoppable links (and their own pricing) to share with clients. “Clients are accustomed to purchasing and browsing online. Sending them to DH Club doesn’t feel like sending them to some virtual back alley,” the Spaldings say.

With that approach comes greater transparency. Daniel House Club is accessible to the public, so non-trade users can browse the selection of goods without a login, but only at retail pricing. Once designers set up a trade account, they can access discounts ranging from 30 to 50 percent. Commerce on the platform is transactional, and customization is currently limited. Operating in Portland, Oregon, with a core staff of three and a support team of freelancers, the company facilitates logistics on orders made through the platform (shipping always costs 10 percent of the order total).

Pricing: There are three tiers of membership: Free yields a 30 percent discount off MSRP on all merchandise; Pro costs $228 annually and yields a 40 percent discount; Pro+ costs $1,068 annually and yields a 50 percent discount.
Size: 76 brands selling roughly 80,000 SKUs
Notable brands: Hudson Valley Lighting, Gastón y Daniela, Kravet
Perks: “We spent a lot of time developing our dashboard system,” say the Spaldings. “It allows designers to organize and plan their sourcing by project with their clients. … When boards are shared, designers can choose to hide pricing or share a percentage of their discount. If the client checks out, we cut a check to the designer immediately. Many designers enjoy this feature, since customers are much less likely to haggle over prices online than on a paper invoice.”

Founded by furniture industry veterans in 2015, Design Trade Service is a relatively mature company in the world of digital multilines. Six years in the business may have helped it develop a designer following—DTS was one of the few companies we surveyed that provided any information about its user numbers (“in the thousands,” wrote president Greg Wyers, a former Norwalk franchise owner).

The company’s basic premise is similar to those of other digital multilines. The public can browse product, but only designers with a login can see pricing. Purchasing is transactional, and the company facilitates shipping and logistics with a 14-person team. Wyers says DTS differs from other players in the space by offering a comprehensive listing of its 52 brands’ catalogs. “DTS has complete catalogs from the furniture industry’s largest manufacturers, as compared to most other sources that offer a very limited selection,” he wrote.

Pricing: There are two tiers of membership: Free gives designers access to net pricing; Pro, which costs $299 annually, offers an additional discount ranging from 3 to 6 percent.
Size: 52 brands listing more than 400,000 SKUs
Notable brands: Theodore Alexander, Loloi, Global Views
Perks: The biggest, says Wyers, is that “pricing is firm, does not fluctuate, and is based on published manufacturer suggested retail pricing. We do not inflate prices to fabricate discount levels.”

DesignerInc is similar in concept to other digital multilines, but differs meaningfully in execution. Founded in 2016 by early YouTube employee Heather Gillette, the platform was designed to integrate into designers’ workflow with the goal of simplifying product sourcing. In its present incarnation, the platform has a distinctly “to the trade” feel: Its behind-the-scenes dashboard resembles project management software; it offers fabric; a concierge service supports custom orders and COM; and the range of vendors encompasses at least a few brands that lean more “designer” than retail.

The platform does feature a limited selection of “click to buy” product, but most commerce is not directly transactional on DesignerInc. Instead, designers request quotes (the platform allows them to batch-request quotes, and calculates a shipping cost instantly). For simple stock checks, Gillette says final checkout is available within three hours. More custom orders are finalized for checkout within 24 hours. Working with an in-house team, DesignerInc facilitates shipping logistics across the country. Its pricing generally reflects designer net, though Gillette says it’s authorized to go below that with some brands.

Pricing: Free
Size: 1,600 brands listing more than 600,000 SKUs
Notable brands: Brunschwig & Fils, Hellman Chang, Oly
Perks: Designers are eligible for cash back on future orders placed through the platform. There’s also a simple social network connected with the platform, as well as a digital publication and an AI-powered visual search engine.

Founded in 2019 by industry veteran Heather Sawtelle, Bellvine zigs where other digital multilines zag. While many platforms tend to feature similar rosters of brands (a few big North Carolina–based manufacturers come up again and again), Bellvine is focused on boutique, high-end showroom makers. The logistics underpinning the system are also distinct. It has a customization tool that allows designers to select finishes, materials and add-ons with live pricing updates (for example, you can spec a lighting fixture and know what it’s going to cost without talking to a rep). It also has back-end communication tools that allow designers to chat with reps directly, request memos and order CFAs. Sawtelle has structured her own business model in a way that also allows regional showrooms to sell their lines through the platform.

For a platform that is modeled so closely on the existing design industry, Bellvine is surprisingly transparent. The site is not walled off from the general public. Users can browse product without a login, though the listed prices are an approximation of retail, and only designers with an account can see net pricing. Purchasing for most orders is directly transactional, though more-customized orders require approval from a seller. Unlike several of the other companies featured here, Bellvine relies on manufacturers to facilitate logistics and shipping, though the site streamlines communication between designer and vendor.

Pricing: Free
Size: 26 brands selling more than 7,000 SKUs
Notable brands: Gary Hutton, Fisher Weisman, AST Fabrics
Perks: Bellvine offers a unique set of customization tools and access to a curated group of boutique manufacturers.

Originally founded in 1998, Steelyard is—by decades—the veteran player in this space. Like many of the platforms featured here, it aggregates product into a searchable database for designers. However, Steelyard’s approach differs significantly in other ways: Instead of earning a margin on product, the platform charges manufacturers to list their catalogs; it also is not transactional but instead based on lead generation, connecting designers to brand reps who ultimately process and manage the sale. (Recently, the company introduced a marketplace that allows for more direct selling of discontinued items, markdowns and showroom samples.)

Price: Free
Size: 125 brands listing 300,000 SKUs
Notable brands: Century, Oly, Verellen
Perks: Probably the biggest perk is simply the premise: If designers are uncomfortable with a digital intermediary, Steelyard offers many of the same basic product browsing functions as its competitors but it connects buyers directly with sellers and then gets out of the way.

Homepage image: ©somjork/Adobe Stock

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