Annie Elliott has gained a huge following on social media with her advice on how to scour discount stores for decor that just looks expensive. So, we took her shopping.
We recently went with Elliott to a Maryland HomeGoods to learn what the designer looks for quality amid the store’s discount decor. “That’s one thing about HomeGoods: You really have to inspect things because they’ve jumped around a lot,” she says. “Just because something is cheap doesn’t mean it’s a bargain.”
So which items are worthy of a place in your home and which are better off staying on the shelves? Here, Elliott shares her tips for spending wisely at the decor store.
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Put furniture to the test
Elliott generally advises against giving out large upholstered pieces at the retailer. If you see something you like, she suggests inspecting the fabric closely. “Heavier wovens with texture are fine, but if the pattern is printed on, it can look cheap and may not wear as well,” she says.
She also recommends trying the merchandise on: Take a seat to make sure it’s actually comfortable, then look at the frame. No one wants a wobbly chair, so Elliott suggests giving it a good shake to make sure it feels stable and solidly made. “When you grab the armrests, you shouldn’t be able to feel the piece of wood that forms the arm,” she says.
Finally, consider the cost. During our shopping trip, most lounge chairs cost around $500—not bad, but as Elliott points out, “Once you get to that price point, you have to ask yourself, ‘Is this better than Crate & Barrel, which has really good quality?'” The Verdict: Only go ahead if the price is right and it looks well made, otherwise you might want to invest in better pieces elsewhere.
Examine assets carefully
Make sure doors on sideboards and cabinets are aligned, and that all drawers open and close smoothly. While shopping, Elliot stopped to give a trendy cabinet a second look only to discover that its facade showed visible paint drips in the trim and that its doors were crooked. “If you’re handy, I think you can fiddle with the hinges and level the doors, but if you have to take it home and fix it, it might not be worth it,” she says.
When asked if trendier pieces of furniture are a good investment at HomeGoods, she advises, “If the price is really low, and you know it’s not going to last forever, by all means go ahead.” However, she offers a more sustainable alternative: vintage. “You can paint a piece of wood you get at a vintage store, and the quality is 9 times out of 10 better,” she says.
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Elliot says the retailer is a good source for inexpensive, stylish side tables. A wooden mid-century-inspired end table that cost $130 caught her eye, as did a small rattan table for $60 that could double as a plant stand. She also liked a small live event table for $100. “You can’t really fake a live edge, so something like this is a good buy,” she says, inspecting the wood. “It’s a little worn, but because it’s the look of the piece, it feels intentional and it works.”
However, not all tables were winners. She pointed out those with flimsy or cheap metal legs and joints that looked like they were poorly welded. “The thing I advise people to stay away from the most is things that look cheap or poorly put together,” she says.
HomeGoods is a godsend for well-priced, designer-looking lamps, and you can often find an identical pair. Elliott says to always look for ceramic styles, and spotted several designs that were a steal with price tags in the $35 to $50 range. What to skip: lamps with full metal bases, “because when there’s so much metal in one place, it just doesn’t look expensive and the finish might not hold up as well,” she says.
Consider the mirrors, but pass on art
Elliott recommends checking the mirror section, as you can often find hard-to-find smaller sizes that measure 24 inches or less—perfect for small powder rooms. However, when it comes to wall decoration, the designer treads carefully. “Art is highly subjective; I would rather people buy art from a local art school, or vintage store, or get a print from Etsy rather than buy something really generic,” she says.
Make a beeline for the baskets
Elliott is a big fan of the many organizational solutions at HomeGoods, with twine and straw woven baskets at the top of the list. Many of the styles rival Moroccan-inspired versions from higher-end retailers like Serena & Lily, but at a fraction of the cost. “The big ones are especially great for stashing firewood or blankets in a family room,” she says.
Check out the accessories
With everything from hourglasses to obelisks, the decorative object section of the store is a treasure hunt in its own right. What made Elliott’s cut? “Animal figurines because they come in interesting shapes and are a non-controversial way to fill a hole on a bookshelf,” she says. Another endorsement: decorative trays. “If you’re trying to clean up clutter, just put it in a tray and suddenly it looks intentional,” she says.
Many designers and stylists—not just Elliott—will tell you that HomeGoods is their go-to source for large glass containers to display artfully arranged branches. “Most of the glassware says it’s made in Spain and the quality is excellent for the price,” says Elliott, who used several of the glass bottles to fuel her own malfunctioning fireplace.
Elliott says the store can be a reliable place to pick up extra sets of sheets—just read the label to make sure they’re 100 percent cotton, linen or bamboo, and stay away from man-made materials like polyester or microfiber. “I don’t worry too much about thread count, but look for the words ‘percale’, if you want a cool, crisp finish to your sheets, or ‘Egyptian’, if you want a fuzzier, softer feel – both is cotton,” she says.
Pick up and throw pillows
According to Elliott, no trip to HomeGoods is complete without a stroll through the pillow aisle—high praise coming from a designer accustomed to custom creations in luxurious materials. She suggests looking for pillows with zippers, removable covers (because they can be cleaned easily) and avoiding those that are sewn. Her one pillow pees: Tight, overstuffed pillows with no give. “I really object to polyfill when the pillow springs back into shape,” she says. Her preference: a mix of polyfill and down feathers.
When shopping for throws, Elliott says to look for natural fibers. And she believes the more realistic-looking faux fur throws will have a longer life than shaggier options, which already seemed to lose and fray on the shelf. “You have to think that if it doesn’t look good now, once you get it home and use it for a while, it’s really not going to look good,” she says.
Michelle Brunner is a writer in DC, covering interior design and culture.