This past weekend I decided to buy a new couch for my home. Wearied of endless trips to Fourways, battling through the traffic, wasting petrol, dodging Metro Police roadblocks, I decided to check out online catalogues for the stores before traipsing off there. Genius.

First port of call: Google. Search “couches johannesburg”, “furniture johannesburg”, “couches”, “furniture”. Ridiculous results. A handful of Google Ads that a handful of more up-to-date furniture stores have purchased, however mostly leather and mostly nothing that I would be putting into my home. Well done to the stores that took the trouble to advertise.

The organic rankings are appalling. There is obviously not one iota of common sense in the entire South African furniture industry. By the fourth or fifth result we were already into US stores and designers.

So scratch that.

Start brainstorming names of stores I know of. Start with Sevens, a really big furniture store in Fourways. Surely they would have a big site with all their products neatly organized?

Yeah right. Check out this dodgy piece of junk. A seven-page scanned brochure with giant, single images on each page. No prices, no categories, no search, no nothing. Not even descriptions of the pages before you get into them. Just “Page 5”.

From here I figured I’d try a bigger retailer. How about Game? Massmart? Sophisticated? National?

After about seven clicks called “Catalogue” and “Furniture” just to get to the product page, check out this pink-bordered beauty will you? In particular, notice the really effective product naming (“Home Furniture” anyone?) No prices, no sub-categories, no stock availability, no information, sweet f* all.

Next, Weatherly’s. Ok, so their navigation didn’t work in Firefox. When I did finally get into the site in my cobwebby copy of IE 7.0, it was a big improvement on the others. This catalogue actually has descriptions, decent photos and seems comprehensive. That said, it does use 100% of the CPU of my machine to open up zoomed versions of the pics, but at least the information is there. Pity I think their couches are super-ugly and best suited for my granny’s granny.

@Home, I was pleased to find, do have a product catalogue. The “marketing” version of it, however, consists of the kind of gratuitous scrolling Flash widget that first-year design students get 60% in their final exams for using. It contains badly chopped up scans of yet another print brochure, with no information.

However there is a full catalogue two more clicks, a pop-up window and a different skin away. Offered as part of their Wedding Registry, it is well-structured and contains prices, photos and even a stock-level reading for the different @Home stores.

So, having finally found a couch I liked in the colour I liked, with stock, at Design Quarter, I headed off to see it in real life and order it. I guess I should have kept my enthusiasm under control.

Yes, they had that kind of couch. However, not in the colour I wanted. Yes, there was stock of it at another branch. So at least their online system wasn’t completely wrong. Or was it?

On Monday morning I phoned the store to confirm my order and was told: “Sorry, there is actually no stock in the country”. This despite this catalogue saying (and still saying) there are at least four at four different branches. As of today (Thursday — 4 days later) it still says that. So don’t gimme no story about delayed stock feeds.

Needless to say, I’m back where I started now. Clearly the furniture industry has a massive wake-up to catch when it comes to digital. Clearly they haven’t gotten the message that a vast number of consumers are now using the Web to research high-ticket items before they buy them. And that that is one of the biggest trends around.

Continuing to ignore these consumers creates an enormous gap for digital-savvy businesses in their vertical to come along and kill them. As is happening in the electronics business, where online stores with sharp, smart, detailed sites make their real-world counterparts look positively archaic.

As for me, I’m sitting on the floor tonight.


  • Jarred Cinman is software director at Cambrient, South Africa's leading developer of web applications. He co-founded Johannesburg's first professional web development company and was one of the founders of VWV Interactive, for many years the premier creative web business in the country, winning numerous Loeries and various international awards. In 2001, Jarred co-founded Cambrient, which has, in its six-year history, built the leading local content management system and serviced an impressive list of corporate customers. Cambrient Contentsuite is also the engine behind Moneyweb.


Jarred Cinman

Jarred Cinman is software director at Cambrient, South Africa's leading developer of web applications. He co-founded Johannesburg's first professional web development company and was one of the founders...

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