Some furniture-rental companies are also faring surprisingly well, in part because they offer a way to enjoy big-ticket items without shelling out full price for them. Jay Reno, the CEO of San Francisco-based furniture rental startup Feather, says business is robust in most of the cities it serves. “We are seeing a significant uptick in demand for work-from-home furniture as people continue to work from home,” he says, “especially in our West Coast markets, where people typically have a little more space.” Feather’s only declining market is New York City, which is still reeling from Covid-19 and losing residents, while the cities that haven’t been as impacted are not seeing the same kind of exodus. Reno suspects that the economic crisis is making Feather more appealing. “Home rentals tend to increase during any type of recession or depression pretty significantly,” he says. “The same could be true with furniture as well. A lot of people are realizing they actually care about flexibility, and it’s also more financially prudent for them now to not have to buy it.”
Everset, a New York-based furniture rental startup, also lost some of its expected local customer base in the city, like students who ordinarily would be moving into Manhattan. However, its business is nonetheless also up. Everset had to hire extra employees in order to cater to a new genre of customer—affluent people who left New York for the suburbs and nearby rural enclaves and want a no-hassle furniture set delivered. “People are fleeing the city to rent homes in Westchester, New Jersey, Long Island, and Connecticut. We are getting a lot of demand from people who need furniture in those situations,” CEO Gavin Steinberg says. “It’s changed our business a little.”
While many traditional rental car companies are struggling, peer-to-peer rental platform Turo is weathering the collapse of travel because some of its renters are now using its cars in lieu of public transit for local errands, and as places to get some alone time. San Diego-based host Jon Wilson says his business hasn’t dropped significantly, but the demographics of his renters abruptly shifted. “Generally tourists account for 65 to 75 percent of my booking. This has done a complete switch,” he says. “Since the Covid-19 outbreak, locals have accounted for 90 percent of all my rentals.”
This change is happening all over the platform. “The marketplace changed dramatically from being the majority of folks using Turo for travel to the majority of people starting to use Turo for local mobility,” CEO Steve Webb says. The company also recently surveyed users about the shifts in their behavior and found that 13 percent of riders were actually using the cars as mobile workspaces. “I didn’t expect it to be that high!” Webb says. Even higher: A quarter of the respondents cited a desire for “personal space” as their motivator.
That doesn’t mean that people aren’t seriously rethinking the drawbacks of renting versus owning, especially as they use this moment to rethink their consumption habits more broadly. Boston College sociology professor Juliet Schor, who studies consumerism, says there has already been an observable spike in car sales in China post-lockdown. “I think that has to do with fears about renting and a lot of unwillingness to go on public transportation,” she says. As The Wall Street Journal recently noted, automakers are reporting increased interest in car ownership in the United States. However, the vast economic uncertainty that has accompanied the pandemic means that people are unlikely to make a lasting jump away from rentals—plunking down the money to purchase something outright is often simply not feasible.
Some people see renting as an attainable way to access experiences and things they couldn’t buy outright right now. Andrine Robinson, a Turo user who lives in Atlanta, cited its affordability as the main reason she’s using it through the pandemic. “It gives us that option of splurging a little bit, giving us the lavish lifestyle on an economical budget,” she says. In an uncertain springtime, ephemerality should be the rental economy’s biggest weakness, as people crave stability and a sense of ownership. But the rental economy companies succeeding right now have managed to turn that weakness into the crux of their sales pitch—if you don’t know what tomorrow holds, rentals that make today a little easier can look like a logical choice.
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