When Buying Furniture, Don't Always Trust the Tags

Every year, Americans spend $78 billion on furniture.

But are buyers really getting what they think at nationwide stores like Kmart, Ashley and World Market?

The federal government used to set specific standards for furniture labeling, but dropped the rules four years ago after the industry complained the standards were outdated.

Because the furniture industry is not specifically regulated by the government, there's plenty of potential for confusion.

"Good Morning America" purchased four different pieces of furniture and showed them to consumers -- along with the store tags that came with them -- and the majority of our test subjects trusted what they read on the tags.

Major Material Not Disclosed on Tag, Web Site

Next, "GMA" consulted two furniture veterans: Stewart Crick, a woodworker of 25 years, and Jennifer Litwin, author of two furniture-buying books.

We started by examining an $80 Martha Stewart table from Kmart. The store circular described it as a "dark cherry accent table." The shelf tag mentioned solid wood legs.

After a few seconds with a power sander, we uncovered something else.

"This is clearly not cherry. This is fiberboard. And then here's the finish," said Crick as he examined the materials beneath the surface.

If you take the time to dig deeper, Kmart's Web site describes the table as wood and natural veneer with dark cherry finish, but makes no mention of the fiberboard.

The government used to require a description of the significant materials right on the furniture tag.

"I think this is just so standard in the industry these days," Litwin said.

When "GMA" asked Kmart to comment, officials said that some of its literature was just a snapshot of what was available at the store and that more complete product descriptions appeared on the Web site to provide clear information to consumers.

Wood Names Used in Product Descriptions of Furniture Lacking That Type of Wood

Next, "GMA" tested a $130 nightstand made by Ashley, which boasts that it's the No. 1 selling home furniture brand in America. The wording on the tag? "Horizon Maple Nightstand."

"I don't see any wood," Crick said of the piece.

We discovered the surface wasn't maple -- or any other kind of wood.

It was more like contact paper over a core of particle board and fiberboard.

It used to be against the rules for manufacturers to use a type of wood in their product description if it didn't contain that wood.

"Paper furniture," Litwin said of the nightstand.

"GMA's" third test piece also came from Ashley -- the $350 Glen Eagle secretary desk, which the tag described as "brown cherry" and the Web site described as "solidly constructed."

"That's not a species of wood," Crick said.

It turned out that brown cherry was a stain color. Wood-colored stains are another thing the government used to require manufacturers to disclose.

When we used a chisel to remove the top layer of the desk, we saw that it was a wood veneer over particle board and fiberboard -- something that wasn't mentioned in any of the product disclosures.

"It does bother me because it's implying that it's made from a solid wood, and particle board costs a lot less," Litwin said.

Ashley Furniture told "GMA" that it makes no claim that the Horizon Maple nightstand contains wood or maple.

Ashley said that the Glen Eagle secretary desk was simply a brown cherry color and that the phrase "solidly constructed" did not mean solid wood, but rather referred to the stability and tight construction of the piece.

Ashley said parts of the desk, like the legs, were solid wood, though not cherry.

'100 Percent Split Grain Cow Hide' Turns Out to Be Fake

"GMA's" most disappointing purchase was the $179 Taylor Chair from nationwide chain World Market.

The tag described the upholstery as "rich brown leather" and "100 percent split grain cow hide."

We snipped some samples from the chair and had them tested at the University of Cincinnati's Leather Lab, where retailers often go to check up on their foreign suppliers.

When scrutinized under a microscope, 10 percent to 20 percent of the samples turned out to be fake, the professor in charge of the lab said.

"I found immediately that these samples were obviously not leather," said professor Nicholas Cory. "They are not leather. There are no traces, absolutely no traces of any leather fibers. They are just plastic."

The federal government requires leather shoes and purses to be labeled in detail -- "but not furniture," Cory said

World Market told "GMA" that -- without the company's knowledge -- about a quarter of its Taylor chairs had been made of a synthetic material.

The chain says it has now pulled them out of stores and will provide genuine-leather replacements to any customers who contact the company.

Advice for Furniture Buyers

"GMA" asked consumers for reaction to our furniture findings and heard comments like, "I think they should be regulated," "It's tricking the consumer, basically," and "I think we have to investigate -- look below the surface."

With the help of a bunch of power tools, that's exactly what "GMA" did.

Just because a piece of furniture contains a type of wood in its product name, don't assume it actually contains that wood. If the piece is solid wood, chances are that's something the store will brag about in detail.

Ask the store manager for a signed letter describing the main materials the furniture contains and guaranteeing that you can return it for a full refund at any time if you discover differently.

Ask for a written warranty. Most pieces of furniture do not come with one, something consumers would never tolerate with other expensive home items, like appliances.