Manufacturers are rethinking, reimagining the home office category
With a few notable exceptions (think Nebraska Furniture Mart and Mathis Bros.), home office departments are shrinking in independent home furnishings stores across the country, and in some cases, have disappeared altogether.
“There are companies—manufacturers and retailers—who are pulling back from the home office category as we knew it,” says Jena Hall, creative strategist, award-winning designer and Furniture Hall of Fame inductee.
“Home office has been radically and rapidly changing; so much so, that it may be time to start calling the category something else,” she says. “But there is business to be had and anybody who says otherwise is kidding themselves.”
The Way We Were
Hank Long remembers the Golden Age of selling office furniture. “When we started growing the home office category in the late ‘80s, desktops were the largest part of the market and printers needed to be connected by wires,” remembers Long, who retired recently from his long-held position as senior vice president of merchandising and design at Hooker Furniture. “We sold a lot of executive desks with credenzas, modular configurations and computer cabinets that had a place for large monitors, keyboards, CPUs and printers. Today, people work from their sofas on their iPads and laptops if they are not doing serious work, or are just returning emails, and the wireless printer can be anywhere in the home with WiFi. And, e-readers are now taking the place of books, so bookcases, particularly large ones, are less important.”
That said, according to Long, small bookcases still sell well at Hooker, where home office represents 17 percent of the company’s case goods volume. Interestingly, he adds, “lateral files are still the best-selling pieces in all three of our categories—executive, modular and writing desks.”
At first blush, these facts seem odd, especially if we’re to believe the trend oracles who have long predicted that by now we would live in a paperless society. Long’s explanation: “We think consumers—even Millennials—don’t totally trust the Cloud with their tax returns or investment documents.”
This Is Us
From tablets and laptops to smartphones, how and where we work has obviously changed dramatically, and everyone is quick to point to advances in technology as a key driver. “I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but with technology advancing the way it is, we can work from anywhere,” says Lori Kelley, president of office and entertainment furniture specialist BDI, who, in addition to her office at the company’s headquarters, maintains a home office which she describes as “integral” to her ability to be productive and effective.
“Our lives are no longer 9 to 5,” says North Carolina furniture designer Catina Roscoe, of Catina Unlimited. “We take our work home.” Indeed, most Americans will say they are working longer and harder than ever, and for millions, much of the work is being performed outside a corporate space. And, “over the next decade, the percentage of people working out of their homes—not just entrepreneurs, but as contract labor, is only going to increase,” posits Aspenhome’s Scott Donk.
“We’re all attached 24/7,” says HFA member Edward Massood, president of New Jersey-based Home Inspirations. “The truth is most of us are working more within the home than we have in our entire careers, so while our specific needs are changing, the category will continue to grow because people still have to be able to sit somewhere and do their work.”
A Generational Divide
“More and more people are working from more mobile computers and devices,” says HFA member Howard Haimsohn, Lawrance Contemporary Furniture in San Diego. “Young people in particular prefer and are able to do significant amounts of work while sitting most anywhere and working on a lightweight laptop or tablet device. So, the need for larger desks and work areas is shrinking.”
Aspenhome’s Donk says younger people who want a place where they can sit and surf are buying single items. “And they’re doing that not just in home office, it’s happening in bedroom and dining room as well,” says Donk. “But there is still a certain demographic that’s associated with upper-scale price points who wants the home office suite. You’re not going to find a young person, even one making $100,000 a year, who is going to fork over $4,500 for a home office. But the empty nester who has an extra bedroom and the space for a credenza, hutch, lateral file and executive desk, and the money to be able to afford it, will.”
Haimsohn says Lawrance does not sell as many executive-size desks for home use as it has in the past, and there is less need for file cabinets due to digitally stored documents. But he’s not changing the amount of space devoted to the category in his stores. “We are still selling desks,” he explains. “They just don’t need to be as big, with all the drawers for papers and pens and files.”
The story is much the same at HFA member Pilgrim Furniture City. “Our dedicated home office department is probably a little smaller now in terms of the footprint,” says Steve Bichunsky, vice president. “That’s not because we are pulling back from the category, but because technology has changed people’s requirements for the furniture they need to work and the pieces we sell have become smaller in recent years.”
Don Essenberg, president of Legacy Classic Furniture, says home office furniture isn’t dead, “it’s just moved to a new room in the house.”
Hall says the idea that we can work anywhere in the home has resulted in a proliferation of decorative pieces with (often) hidden function, such as bachelor chests in foyers with drop-down drawers, end tables in family rooms that store files, or credenzas in dining rooms that may function as a buffet during holiday gatherings, and as convenient places to charge electronics the rest of the time.
Other manufacturers are following suit. At High Point Market last fall, case goods maker A.R.T. debuted the Roseline Mobile Console, a stand-up desk that doubles as a bar or can be repurposed as a console. “We put it on casters so that the piece can be front and center when needed, then put away when you need more space,” says Adam Tilley, senior vice president of product and marketing.
“You can find home office functions in secretaries, in bedroom wardrobes, in lamp tables and nightstands,” Hall describes. “That presents new challenges for retailers, because these pieces don’t ‘read’ home office to shoppers at first glance. At a time when manufacturers are cutting back in marketing, promoting these items effectively demands excellent point-of-purchase materials, including photography that demonstrates the function, as well as good sales training, to help retailers convey that there is more than meets the eye.”
Balance in All Things
Manufacturers and retailers say the changing face of home office is driven by more than changes in technology. Lifestyle choices are playing a key role in the rising number of people who work from home. “In our territory in the Northeast, for example, more and more people are working from home simply to avoid the long commutes,” Massood says.
“I think it’s a huge opportunity,” adds retailer Lora Sigesmund, co-owner at Perlora, based in Pittsburgh. “One of my kids thinks she can move back to Pittsburgh and work remotely now. Her office is in New York. Meanwhile, my younger daughter lives in a very small apartment in Brooklyn and she literally works out of her bed.”
“Work/life balance is definitely top-of-mind for many,” says A.R.T.’s Tilley, “and we want to design pieces of furniture that support that mindset. I think consumers want convenience and access to information when and where they want. Unfortunately, the office is everywhere now and being able to plug in all over the home is important. This means pieces of furniture that can co-exist with various devices in all rooms of the home. Designing fashion-forward, beautiful pieces with thoughtful functionality is where we have to be.”
“Flexibility is key,” adds Lynne McArdle, president of Alden Parkes, a manufacturer serving high-end retailers and the interior design community. “Consumers are shifting to a more relaxed lifestyle when it comes to workspaces and they can take their laptop anywhere and work. We see growth in small desks that are incorporated into a room where living occurs.”
Are You Sitting Down?
Like the bedding industry, which has successfully moved to equate a good night’s sleep with a healthy life, the most important trend in the category now is the rise of high-low desks and specialty seating. Especially when coupled with promotion of the idea that sitting for long periods may actually be as bad for our health as smoking.
“At NeoCon (a market for commercial interiors) last June, most of the large contract players were showing a lot of standing desks, either free-standing or adjustable,” Long notes. “At Hooker, there are about 20 people in our office who work standing, and our best-selling piece from our House Blend Collection is an adjustable desk that will move from a sitting position to standing.”
“It’s an entire movement,” says Perlora’s Sigesmund, who points to the ergonomic sit/stand MuveMan Stool and the Swapper Chair from Via Seating that she herself uses. “It supports your core, it’s better for your posture. People want to live better, healthier lives. With all the interesting, innovative product available, and the link between technology, ergonomics and health, I’m shocked that any furniture retailer or manufacturer would think there’s no room for home office in their line-ups anymore. As with everything, it is education. And maybe we just need a cool new name.”
Kelley at BDI, which enjoyed sales increases of 25 percent in 2016, is hard at work on just that. “Right now, retailers have a hard time trying to adequately display the category correctly to educate and engage customers, and it’s been my experience that anytime it’s hard to figure out how to footprint something at retail, success is limited,” she says. “We’re working on creating retail environments designed to maximize return on the least amount of square footage. Our plan is to help retailers demonstrate to consumers how to lay out and set up a space just the way they want it in order to be as effective and productive as possible, with the proper point-of-purchase materials, and an on-screen configurator we’ve developed that will allow you to do it real-time, print it out and place an order.
“We’re in a new reality,” Kelley sums, “and I believe if we can help retailers figure out how to display home office in a way that speaks to consumers, they will be very, very happy with the results. And, they’ll probably see the same kind of increases that we enjoyed this past year.”