The internet, while undoubtedly proving a revolution in the way we live our lives, has frequently been blamed for encouraging isolationism, as people choose to communicate via e-mail and social networking sites.
This opinion is at odds with statistics, which suggest that, over the past year or so, Britons have spent more money engaging with the world in a way that has surprised many consumer experts. Indeed, if these holiday-purchasing, restaurant-loving people are checking their social media accounts, it's on their smartphones as they dash from one post-work or weekend leisure activity to another.
However, even in the current climate of leisure spending certain things are essential, such as furnishing one's home with objects like beds, chairs, sofas and tables. It's here that customers would be well advised to involve themselves more closely with the process. While families all over Britain – and further afield – find shopping online for everyday household essentials less time-consuming than actually visiting a supermarket, and book holidays via websites rather than using the services of their local travel agent, there is less agreement about the best way to buy furniture. This is due to the fact that decisions like this need to take many factors into consideration: size, design and colour, not to mention price. At this point, it is a good idea to take the time to visit a local showroom or to have a conversation with an expert about what would best suit a customer's lifestyle and available space.
Jonathan Stewart, who runs Wharfside in Shoreditch, London, a family firm established in the early 1960s, has tweaked his business model to create a formula for success in this new era of internet shopping. "Of course, many furniture companies have a thriving online presence," he says. "If you wanted to start from scratch and buy everything you could possibly need to furnish and decorate your new home online, it would be very easy. However, what Wharfside offers is the chance to buy online or over the phone, yet specify exactly what would best suit you and your lifestyle. What we have found is that most furniture companies manufacture items intended to suit maybe 40 or 50 per cent of customers, so you could well find yourself with, for instance, a dining table that might be suitable for a standard couple-with-two-children scenario, but isn't really what you want at all. Especially if you love to entertain."
Running a business that caters for a discerning international clientele means companies like Wharfside are able to focus their attention on building a more intimate relationship with customers, who like to feel their furniture is one of a kind, rather than the mass-produced goods typical of so many high street stores.
"What we have found is that our customers are no longer quite so content with a world of 'one click' buying" says Stewart, echoing the findings of various consumer groups over the past 12 months. "What they are looking for is far from an off-the-peg experience and they are very happy to build a relationship with us as we work towards making sure their order exactly suits their needs. They are also looking for longevity, rather than products that conform only to this year's fashion."
These days it seems "flexibility" is the watchword and businesses that can offer it will be better placed to weather the current trend away from acquiring objects to buying recreational experiences. Companies such as Wharfside, that specialise in selling custom-made items, have found a neat way to combine the two. Acquiring a piece of bespoke, solid-wood furniture made in a workshop dedicated to the production of ecologically sound items counts both as a retail transaction and an experience.
"We're finding that our customers will often have their first encounter with us online, but will then either visit our enormous store in Shoreditch or our showroom in Leatherhead or, at the very least, develop a relationship with us on the phone," says Stewart. "Having, say, a dining table or a sofa made to measure and built to the specific requirements of you and your family is a completely different experience to adding a mass-produced item to a virtual basket. Over the years we have not only gained a wealth of knowledge in sourcing furniture in a wide variety of different woods and fabrics, but we can offer our clientele a completely custom-made piece that is not only exactly the right size for the room, but can be extendable, if necessary. The award-winning Nox table, for instance, is made by Austria's Team 7 and weighs 140kg, yet it can be extended or contracted using just one hand."
Stewart acknowledges, semi-seriously, that he "curates" Wharfside's collection and, indeed, the atmosphere at the Shoreditch warehouse is very different to that of most furniture showrooms, where a high turnover of comparatively low-quality products dictates the use of space. "Elsewhere, furnishing your home very often involves a great deal of compromise," says Stewart. "Yet when it's possible to produce items that are exactly right for the available space and the lifestyle of the customer, then why buy mass-produced furniture?"
It is certainly true that companies like Wharfside have learnt that shopping can become an experience when that personal touch is added to the mix and, for customers who don't like compromise, this could well signal a permanent movement away from "one click" shopping to the satisfaction provided by bespoke items.