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It comes in a box with instructions. It could be a simple cocktail cart, a home entertainment center or even a fully upholstered chaise longue. It could be totally traditional, with rope moldings and a cherry finish, or coolly contemporary, in blond hues with chrome accents.

But no matter what form it takes, if it comes in a box with the tag "Some assembly required" it's ready-to-assemble, and it's one of the hottest trends in home furnishings.

Ready-to-assemble furniture (RTA) got its start in the '50s, debuting as the common TV stand. Boxy, low-cost and often of poor quality, early RTA was built to work well, not look good. By providing a space for TVs and, later, microwaves and computers, RTA filled a function-first gap created by new technologies, a gap that assembled-furniture manufacturers were slow to fill. RTA fills the same gap today.

"Traditional (assembled) furniture designers look at the look first and then figure out a way to get function into it," said Kevin Sauder, executive vice president of marketing and sales for Sauder, an RTA maker in Ohio. "We have always viewed function as an important part of what we do."

Though most assembled furniture manufacturers now offer office/armoires and free-standing entertainment centers, RTA has managed to maintain a leading edge as TV stands have blossomed into home entertainment centers, microwave carts have grown into free-standing kitchen buffets and computer carts have morphed into nearly full-blown home offices.

Its streamlined manufacturing process and close ties to the electronics industry have given RTA a leg up on other furniture makers when it comes to responding to constant changes in technology, especially in home office and home entertainment. And now flat-packed furnishings (another nickname for RTA) are making their way into every room in the house.

There are RTA bedroom sets, RTA kitchen work centers and even RTA chairs, sofas and lounges.

And while RTA may be less expensive, that doesn't mean it's of poor quality. No longer defined by boxy designs or low-quality construction, RTA is starting to look more and more like the real thing.

Designs now run from traditional -- with raised panels, rope moldings and real wood veneer -- to contemporary -- with sleek styling and metallic finishes.

Better design isn't the only improvement in RTA. Changes in manufacturing, materials and assembly have made RTA one of the fastest-growing areas of home furnishings, said Bill McLoughlin, executive editor of the trade publication Home Business World.

Improvements in the design and quality have contributed to what McLoughlin calls the "explosive" growth of RTA.

"Five or 10 years ago, (RTA) was a box. But today you can get a good-quality piece of furniture at a reasonable price," McLoughlin said.

RTA still retains its basics. Its main ingredients -- an "engineered wood" base of either medium-density fiberboard or particleboard covered with laminate, veneer or a printed paper product -- have been improved, not replaced, McLoughlin said. The substrate often is thicker than it was in the past and the coverings have become more durable as well as better-looking. In addition, precision engineering has made for a sturdier final product. And RTA manufacturers have tried to simplify assembly and instructions.

"Assembly methods have advanced along with design," said Phil Miller, general manager of Creative Interiors, an RTA maker in Virginia.

Internal connectors and external cam lock systems, for example, have replaced screws, making assembly not only easier but also better, said Miller. And manufacturers are spending more time making assembly instructions easier.

Sauder's company, for example, regularly tests its assembly instructions on sixth-grade students. And at Blu Dot Design & Manufacturing, a Minneapolis RTA company specializing in modern furniture, instructions are so simple that some begin with "Close your eyes . . . " or "This is too easy!"

(More involved instructions allow for time to "Curse a little" and "Take a beer break.")

In addition, many companies operate toll-free phone lines so customers can "have someone talk them through it," said McLoughlin. Still, Sauder admits that assembly still stumps some first-time buyers. What often unstumps them is the price tag.

Price is a strong selling point for RTA, but it's no longer the only one. Smart designs and fashion-forward finishes have made RTA more attractive to buyers. However, what Miller calls the "value equation" can't be overlooked.

There is no yardstick for measuring savings on RTA, primarily because RTA, like assembled furniture, is available in many price ranges. The price of an entertainment center could run from $99 to $999, for example. But Jim Downey, a buyer for Sears HomeLife Furniture, estimates that RTA can cost 20 to 30 percent less than a comparable piece of assembled furniture.

"The leading manufacturers in RTA have been able to develop a product that rivals the low- to midrange case-good products at a lesser price," said Downey.

While some savings come from the less costly materials in RTA, big savings are realized in the heavily automated manufacturing process, as well as in shipping. It's also cheaper to ship flat-packed boxes than full-size furniture. There are also savings in assembly.

The lower cost of RTA requires less of a commitment on the part of the buyer. And many RTA manufacturers know that their products are often impulse buys, following closely on the buyer's purchase of, say, a larger TV or a faster computer. But the impulse aspect of RTA is one of its charms, said Sears' Downey.

"If you elect, somewhere down the road, to change your decor, you may not have $1,000 tied up in the (RTA) piece," he said. "If I'm going to spend $3,000 or $4,000 on a built-in wall unit, I'd better like it for a long, long while."

Even when RTA is not an impulse purchase, it is an immediate one.

"It's easy access," said Josee Lambert, corporate development manager for Montreal-based Deco Design, an RTA maker. "You can go shopping and buy it right away. You don't have to wait six or eight weeks for it to be delivered."

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