Wow, so it's a been almost a year since our last post but it seems like another lifetime. And while it feels like we're cautiously approaching more normalcy in our day-to-day, our industry is still reeling from the affects of the pandemic. From material costs to contractor availability and the hive-inducing backorders, the wildness continues. There are so many helpful voices sharing their experience and expertise from what designers can do to navigate the weeds we are very much still in, to what clients and consumers can expect. One of the most helpful articles I've found, and have even passed on to clients is this: It's Not Business as Usual.
Are there lengthy diatribes I could go on? Yes. Ranty explanations? Of course. It's a black hole no one wants to get sucked in to and honestly I'm not trying to paint a totally bleak picture. I think the more information we have, the better we can wrap our minds around things and the more inclined we are to patience and trust that everything will be worth it in the end. So I thought we'd compile a collection of FAQs that I hope will help, whether you're a designer who just needs a resource to send clients so they know you're not the only one who's stuff is in la-la land or a consumer who just can't get your mind around how something just totally goes off the grid (honestly we're baffled too).
I'm not even including pretty pictures here except the unrelated studio scene above because screen shots of product pages that say "available in 39 weeks" is just not what I want to be looking at right now. These are just some straight-shot answers that we hope are helpful.
What are lead times now compared to pre-pandemic?
It depends on what you're ordering, but we're seeing lead times for non-stocked items go 6+ months. The days of an 8-10 week lead time seems like a distant dream. It's almost laughable to us that certain retailers would even put items on their websites that have no possibility of being fulfilled for forever, and certain manufacturers are so overwhelmed with backlog that we're seeing unfortunate slack in quality. I'm not going to name drop, but this is where working with a designer is important. We're in the know and are doing our best to help navigate tough situations for clients. Oh, and are you in the market for appliances? Patience is certainly a virtue. I was just talking to another Charleston designer who's been waiting for 11 months on a range. Again, my intent isn't to discourage. We can be creative in the meantime, but just know that the meantime might be a while and in the end getting the right thing is totally worth it.
I'm not even ordering super custom furniture pieces, why are things taking so long?
Even if you're not ordering something custom or technically "made-to-order," there aren't a lot of stock-piled furnishings right now. As you can imagine, this is due to cut manufacturing capacities and demand that has not stopped. Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with demand on even the most basic items. Compound that with foam shortages and backed up logistics getting parts needed to manufacture from point a to point b, you can understand why things just aren't sitting around waiting to be shipped.
Should I just order from a big online retailer instead? Things I've ordered from my designer just keep getting delayed.
First of all, your designer is most likely ordering your items directly from the manufacturer. Retailers, even the big box names like Pottery Barn or Restoration Hardware, don't typically just have warehouses full of inventory. They're either making to order or drop shipping directly from the manufacturer. This means that whatever is backordered from the manufacturer is backordered across the board. If Four Hands shows me that they don't have any dining chairs, Pottery Barn isn't going to be able to magically make them exist. They don't exist right now period. So to be honest, it's kind of a crappy move to take that commission out of the pocket of the small business design firm who's been working hard for you from the beginning to give it to a big-box retailer who ultimately cannot do anything to get things to you faster. Additionally, those big box companies have very little personal incentive to handle your order with care. You get an 800 number, a person in a call center who clocks in and clocks out, and very likely has no direct access to the product fulfillment chain. In contrast, your designer I promise wants to fulfill your order ASAP, has direct access to the fulfillment chain, wants to make you happy, make your space beautiful, and further their hard-earned business in doing so. Imagine having multiple projects where almost every item is backordered. That's where we're at and we're working hard to keep our businesses running and projects completed. Please be patient with us and know that we are doing our very best.
Why can't my designer just send me tracking information?
Sometimes we can. If something ships via common carrier, once we have that information, it's all yours. The issue here is that most items that your designer purchases, larger items or heavier materials don't ship via common carrier. They ship via freight companies. If you purchase a sofa from Room & Board, their customer service team will call you to set up delivery once the item has been received by their distribution center. They aren't going to give you freight info in the meantime. This is likely the same with your designer. We will get freight tracking either proactively or by asking for it from the manufacturer (usually the latter). We can typically pinpoint when an item was picked up from the manufacturer and get an estimate of when it will be received at our receiver. I will pause to say that freight shipping is very slow right now. Again, there's a lot of moving merchandise and while I'm sure capacity is picking up, these companies are working through backlog. This means that your items may sit in a truck container or warehouse for an extended amount of time and the only thing we can do about it is be patient. This is something your designer has no control over and I promise is as antsy about it as you are.
Anyway, once items are received by our receiving warehouse, we notify clients and set up white glove delivery. At this point items are physically in our warehouse and we know when we can get them delivered. So that's the long answer. The short answer is: there isn't really "tracking information" to give. Understand that your design team is doing what is in their control to fulfill your order.
Why can't I just see the order information and keep tabs on it myself?
This probably varies from firm to firm, but most studios I know, ours included have a firm policy against sharing direct order information from the manufacturer. I get how that can sound at first, but please think about it. Would you call Serena & Lily and expect them to pass on their vendor's information so you, a customer, can call their vendor and try to get information on behalf of Serena & Lily regarding your order? When is the last time you called West Elm and asked for their overseas manufacturers phone number so you could call them to look up your order? If your designer is ordering items for you they are your retailer. They fulfill your order just like any other retailer would and they have policies just like any other retailer would. The difference is that they are far more personally invested in seeing your project succeed and therefore are working way harder on your behalf. The reason we do not share paperwork between us and vendors is simple. It's proprietary. Which isn't shady- it's business. Again- would you expect West Elm to give you the contact info of their upholstery supplier?? Even when we make the highest effort to keep clients informed, we have had a few experiences with clients bypassing us and calling manufacturers directly, sometimes even saying they're with our design firm to make unauthorized purchases. Sometimes our reps stop it at the gate, other times clients get bad information because they don't know who to talk to. Can you see how this gets messy fast? At the end of the day you have to trust your designer both aesthetically and to manage your project. As un-fun as managing logistics can be, it's something that needs to be done by your design team.
Why does it feel like things keep getting pushed back?
This is perhaps the most frustrating to us as designers. We're working hard to weigh our options and create beautiful spaces without sacrificing our standards. So we're so excited when things look like they're going to be in on time, we confirm with our clients, get prepared and it sometimes goes something like this:
Designer "Hi client, we're writing to let you know that your piece is set to ship on bla bla bla and has an ETA of bla bla bla. We will contact you to schedule delivery/installation when received by our warehouse."
Client "Yay! We are so excited we have been waiting so long!"
Designer *Checks warehouse day after item is supposed to be received to schedule client delivery*
Warehouse "Hmmm...no, we have not seen it..."
Designer "Hello manufacturer, you told us this was going to be in, and it is not, what's going on?"
Manufacturer "Hi, sorry, backordered with no further information or ETA, no system of letting you know ahead of time so you don't look like an idiot to your client, and I mean you can cancel it and we don't really care if it throws off your hard design work and/or profit margin that is crucial to maintain your business, paying your bills, for your kids swim team, mortgage, etc."
Designer "Cool, cool, let me just ask a few more questions that you can't really answer, break out in hives, look for creative solutions, dread breaking the bad news, feel under the gun for many weeks/months until item is finally received"
*Cycle may repeat several times.
This cycle can exist no matter where you are ordering from. Please hear me say: THE WAIT IS WORTH IT. Just not always fun. Yes, I'm being super transparent and it's debatable about whether or not I should really be showing all of my cards here. But I think when people can understand the reality and understand that we're all in it together working hard for our clients, there's something that makes the wait a lot more bearable.
What can be done to make this a little easier?
Here is a question I'm way more excited to answer. First, the most obvious is working with a designer. We've been navigating this since the beginning and while we don't have a magic wand or cheat codes, we have a whole team who's only job is to keep lists, sit on hold, investigate and get firm and persistent to do all we can to manage the madness. It is a full-time job and trying to handle it yourself on top of your actual job could put you in a straight jacket.
Second, we're encouraging clients to get orders in as soon as possible. Of course, this really helps. Does it guarantee timelines? No, there are always stragglers and we're still about a season behind when it comes to new introductions. But it very much helps.
Third, we do have relationships with custom workrooms who we partner with to produce exclusive and beautiful pieces on closer to 8-10 week lead times (see first point!).
I would love to say that buying American-made is the answer, but we're over here seeing 14-20 week lead times on American-made. Backorders seem to be equal opportunity. But buying vintage is always a good move and we love incorporating soulful vintage pieces in all of our work. Whether it's art, soft goods, a coffee table or lamp...be open to old things that will breath some seriously new life into your space.
When do you think things will get better?
Listen, I really can't say. We're hearing the foam shortage should be resolving around July/August. It's definitely the hope that as more people get vaccinated and the world begins to function more normally, capacity will be up and backlogs will be able to worked through. I do not see things drastically changing by the end of the year. I would predict and hope that by next spring we will see things much more on-track.
A few closing thoughts, in list form, because lists are where it's at:
If you're stuff's late and your designer hasn't reached out to you, of course you should reach out and not feel bad about inquiring, but understand that it's super likely that they too are backlogged in keeping everyone updated.
If you feel discouraged- don't! Just know you'll want to pack on the patience, which will make the finished product that much sweeter! Making your house feel like home is so important and it's literally what we live to do.
I've been waiting on my bedroom rug for six months and bedside tables for five. First world probs for sure, but I feel the pain!
Don't compromise the design standard of your home for circumstances of these weird times. Even though you can create a human baby in less time than it takes to get your appliances (joke credit: Becca Jones 😂). Let's just laugh about it all so we don't cry. It'll be better soon.