Shopping: Check it Out; Mail Order Sofas and Beds

FED UP with traipsing round stores looking for an end-of-sale bargain? You could have been wasting your time as you can buy a sofa or bed through mail order catalogues for considerably less than the "full price" store items. And their year-round sales mean you don't have to make an impulse buy you may later regret.

Small ads are full of sofas and wrought iron beds for around the pounds 300 mark (expect to pay at least double in the high street), but can you trust the quality?

Sofa Workshop Direct is the mail order arm of its bespoke, high street stable mate, Sofa Workshop. The former advertises sofas for just over pounds 300, the latter sells custom-made models from pounds 699. The mail order sofa is cheaper, as it is only available in a limited range of fabrics and styles, the cushion interiors are standard, and it's guaranteed for three instead of 10 years for the custom-made version. What you see in the brochure is what you get, factory born and bred.

You also have the advantage of a 21-day money back guarantee if you change your mind after delivery, as long as the furniture is returned in mint condition. "We do have some returns, but it's generally because the sofa is too big for the room, or the colour didn't match the decor," says Sofa Workshop Direct managing director, Euan Kelway-Bamber.

The company is aware that its showroom, alongside its factory in Wales, has helped customers make their final decision. "People like the fabric samples they are sent in the post, but something holds them back. There's a general misapprehension that anything mail order is cheap and nasty, but they're always pleasantly surprised at the quality they are getting for the price."

Low overheads and limited choice give the mail order manufacturer the edge on price. As does furniture that can be paid for on delivery, instead of weeks in advance.

There's nothing like a good sales pitch to get customers rushing to place their order. Special deals from "cancelled orders" seem to run and run.

Cannock Direct is currently having a "factory clearance" of double wrought- iron beds in a choice of three styles for pounds 245 each, including delivery. But how can you gauge the quality of a mail order bed? Fabric samples are easy to view by post, but assessing an iron bed is a bit more difficult.

The Handcrafted Bed Company sends customers metal samples in any one of the 12 finishes they produce. Marketing director Jacqueline Hughes says a well-designed brochure increases sales. "Mail order is becoming more acceptable, but you can't expect to sell stock from scrappy line drawings." A recent client survey showed that 40 per cent of their customers are professionals with a high disposable income and limited time for shopping.

Seductive magazine-style directories devoted to interiors are a far cry from the big-book catalogues full of underwear and nylon bedspreads. Most firms also have 24-hour order lines and websites to make the customer's life even easier. Some people just haven't got the time to struggle round the shops any more.

The high street stores know that they cannot be left behind. Many now offer a mail order facility: convenient it may be, but it's not necessarily for the bargain hunter.

Fiona Brandhorst

Sofa Workshop Direct (01443 238 699 *),; Cannock Direct (01543 462 500 *),; Handcrafted Bed Company (0115 965 6575 *)