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Unfinished furniture—do you feel lucky?

by Leon A. Frechette

Have you ever purchased an unfinished piece of furniture that required assembly? If so, I hope you were lucky and didn't encounter problems such as missing hardware, broken or misaligned pieces, or incorrectly cut holes. Sometimes the problems can be fixed easily, but it takes a trip to a local hardware store. Sometimes it takes a complaint to the retailer or manufacturer—and the ensuing delay—to solve the problem.

This is one subject that's a pet peeve of mine. Unfinished knockdown (KD) furniture frequently has problems. It's a fact of life in this fast-paced industry.

Unfinished KD furniture offers several advantages: it provides an opportunity for those who love woodworking and want to build furniture but lack the space or tools; it allows the purchaser to give the piece a preferred finish, perhaps to match other furnishings; and it allows the buyer to purchase a piece of furniture anywhere from one-third to one-half off the cost of a finished piece in the same wood species. That's the upside.

The dark side to KD furniture boils down to quality control on the part of the manufacturer. "Quality control" is such a simple phrase. Unfortunately, quality control and customer service seem to be things of the past. As long as we have large warehouse chains and box stores that can beat down the manufacturers' costs, we are bound to see products that are sold with "issues." Manufacturers don't have the time, nor can they spend the money, to babysit quality control. It's a lose-lose situation.

I have seen firsthand how products with defects are handled when they come down the assembly line just before they are boxed for distribution. The workers, who don't get paid enough, are just putting in their time, so they allow defective parts to proceed down the line. The packager may see defective items but is unable or unwilling to hold up the line, so the defective products go into the box. The manufacturer's attitude is to let the retailer take the brunt of customer service for the "lucky" person who purchases a defective item. Basically, the manufacturer passes the buck on customer service and quality control.

You really don't have any good choices here. When you discover defective or missing parts in KD furniture, you can bring the whole unit back to the store where you purchased it. If the instructions include a customer's hotline, you can call the company and ask them to send replacement parts. Of course, this shuts down your project until the parts arrive, perhaps four to six weeks down the road. A third option is to solve the problem on your own. It all comes down to what you are capable of doing to correct the problem and whether or not you even want to invest the time to deal with these issues. It's frustrating and I know because I've been there.

Unfortunately, we all contribute to poor quality control to some degree. We are so unwilling to purchase items unless they are on sale that retailers are forced to push manufacturers to lower costs. Manufacturers can only cut so far on production costs. Something has to give—and it does—in product quality.

I don't see any improvements in sight. Buying unfinished KD furniture is a form of Russian roulette but without the deadly consequences: you may get a box with all kinds of problems or you may get a box with none. To quote Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry: "...you've got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?'"

Copyright © 2006 LAF/C.R.S., Inc. All rights reserved

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