Furniture company Outer expands ‘Airbnb of retail’ showrooms to Australia

Co-founder and Chief Executive of furniture company Outer, Jiake Liu.

Co-founder and Chief Executive of furniture company Outer, Jiake Liu.

A raft of changes in customer behaviour have transformed the retail landscape in the past two years. Lockdowns accelerated the growth of e-commerce by a decade, while the rise of remote work made employees rethink their homes as a space for work, relaxation, play and exercise.

Outer, an outdoor furniture company founded in California in 2019, has capitalised on these trends. 

The company sells high quality outdoor furniture through its online store, which has recently expanded into Australia.

But it has something else unique for a furniture business: a network of private homes owned by customers that function as showrooms — an “Airbnb of retail”, according to the company. 

While Outer was launched exactly one year before the pandemic by co-founders Jiake Liu and Terry Lin in the US, it thrived during the waves of lockdowns. 

“The home is turning into everything; the office, the gym, the restaurant, and then everything in between,” Liu tells SmartCompany.

It’s changed “how people kind of reevaluate their space when they’re working from home, when they’re working out at home, when they’re entertaining at home”, he explains.

According to the most recent Productivity Commission research, more than 40% of Australian workers are still working remotely to some degree, compared with 5% in 2016. 

The pandemic has also prompted a wholesale shift in consumer behaviour — evidenced by the surging sales of premium products designed for at-home experiences like Peleton. 

Buyers searching for homes with home offices, along with gardens and courtyards have skyrocketed over the past two years, according to Domain

Beyond the showroom 

Outer’s neighbourhood showrooms are the homes of customers, or ‘hosts’ who have already purchased products from the company. Shoppers can visit these homes physically or virtually.

These hosts are paid regardless of whether something is bought, and the company now has more than 1000 showrooms that are active in the US.

Since its launch in Australia in late 2021 there are now 10 spaces across Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Hobart — but Liu expects this number to grow as the brand grows its local presence.

The challenge of buying furniture online is that, particularly for expensive investment pieces, you ideally want to be able to touch the product and experience “the fabrics that the shape, the ergonomics and the comfort”, Liu says.

On the flip side showrooms are constrained by stock availability and often only see traffic on the weekends.

“Instead of talking to a salesperson who is trying to sell you on a product, we actually want to promote authenticity in the product presentation, and how the customer actually lives with the product,” he explains.

If the host recommends the product: great! 

But Liu says that’s not the primary purpose. Instead it is fostering a community of like-minded people who care about quality and sustainability. 

The future of retail: Experience and community

“Experience and community are certainly two really important topics that we talk about almost on a daily basis,” Liu said of the emergent trends reshaping retail.

The approach for the furniture company; creating beautiful products that also solve common problems like soggy fabric on outdoor chairs, speaks to a wider strategy of building a community around the brand and its values. 

Randwick, NSW Neighbourhood Showroom hosted by father of three Mike.

Randwick, NSW Neighbourhood Showroom hosted by father of three Mike.

“There’s a lot of underserved customers, but really we wanted to look for the most passionate customers who have been fed up with challenges or the pain points,” he said. 

The goal is making “daily life just that much more enjoyable”, Liu says. “And I think our community really resonates with that.” 

Another ambition is to help customers rethink their homes as they look forward to a world that has profoundly rethought the relationship between work and home. 

Around 90% of our weekday time is spent indoors, according to Liu. Through businesses like his that place sustainable products and supply chains front and centre, he says he wants people to find more ways to build time spent outdoors into their day-to-day routine.

Mansfield, QLD Neighbourhood showroom.

Mansfield, QLD Neighbourhood showroom.

This all circles back to the Neighborhood Showrooms.

Liu wants Outer’s customers to meet in real life. He says most hosts in the US tell the company the appeal of joining the neighborhood network wasn’t to make some extra cash.

It wasn’t even to show off their home; though Liu says that is a factor. Mostly it was so they could meet like-minded people who shared their interest in design and decorating.

Liu says companies that succeeded during the pandemic understood and catered to the changing lives and values of their customers.

He’s excited to expand Outer’s network to Australia’s outdoors-loving population. 

“Outdoor living is one of those once-in-a-generation consumer behavioural shifts,” Liu says. 

“And it’s becoming bigger both for consumers and for businesses; restaurants, hotels, and offices.” 

“So it’s time that brands exist for that purpose.”

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