Home Office Transforms To Meet Consumer Customization

NEW YORK— The home office is alive and well, and if the current of recent market trends seem to run contrary to that assessment, a growing body of evidence suggests the dedicated workspace is experiencing a metamorphosis rather than being swept away by events.

To a significant extent, function is driving the transformation of home and small professional offices, and a change in living arrangements is having an effect. Still, anyone who discounts the influence of home fashion is unlikely to keep up with the changes in the market. 

A consumer desire to establish secondary workspaces in the home has driven office furniture developments for the past few years. With laptop computers, tablets and even smartphones making electronics utilization an anywhere affair, sofa tables and writing desks gained popularity. Demand for more traditional, often-elaborate workstations waned in contrast. 

It turns out, though, that the developments aren’t so much a case of either/or. Today, vendors and retailers acknowledge that consumers are demanding home office furniture that more closely suits their preferences. The Internet certainly plays a role. Once shoppers had to drag themselves from store to store to find just what they desired, or review page after catalog page. What they eventually purchased was often a compromise between what they wanted and how much time and effort, and money, they were willing to spend. The variety of products available online, however, enables shoppers to search specific preferences and something closer to the ideal. 

In the larger furniture market, this shopping tendency manifests itself as personalization. In home and small office, the trend can be considered differently, as it is more to specific purposes, and may be termed customization.

Although shoppers do continue to purchase utility pieces, with vendors noting demand for coffee tables with tops that fold up to accommodate the use of computing devices, purchasing of more feature-rich workstations is on the rise, suppliers and retailers have said. 

Consumers who have tried to do a full days work on a multi-use piece of furniture that didn’t have the features to accomplish tasks efficiently may be driving some of the demand. Many consumers purchasing for home offices sought alternative products, rather than reverting to traditional workstations, such as crafting desks. So some at least some home and professional office shoppers demonstrated a preference for the abundant open storage crafting desks provided.

To a significant extent, new approaches to getting things done have blurred the lines between what might be regarded as traditional home and small office set ups and utility furniture that can be used for task functions. Younger consumers have been among those shoppers who have been looking for a combination of function and flexibility.

Angelo Surmelis, who has been designing furniture for Walmart and Walker Edison, has focused on younger and more space-starved consumers. From his perspective, customization is a vital component of developing office furniture for customers who have to make the most of lesser spaces. Dimension is only part of the consideration. For many consumers, and especially apartment dwellers, the luxury of a separate room to house a home office just isn’t an option.

“I’m a big believer in customization, having lived in small spaces for most of my adulthood,” said Surmelis. “Making a single room function for living, work, eating and relaxing has been part of my design process.”

As a result, he said, his designs reflect broader lifestyle considerations. “The home office products I’m designing are less about ‘just being for the office’ and are more universal,” Surmelis said. “Since our lives and homes are becoming less compartmental, the products we use can function for more than just one room in the home. Desks can double as dining tables or consoles. The office chair needs to look less like it only belongs in the work space, but that it can also feel and look stylish in a living room.”

As a consequence, he said, “The style and design for office products is less formal and a lot more playful with a mix of material and the use of bold color. The one constant is storage. There can never be enough storage.”

Office accessory providers also have had to adapt as consumer preferences have changed to more functional and fashionable tastes.

Modularity has become an important element in home and small office furniture. Writing desks, for example, have taken off in part because they can readily assume the role of an accent table. Yet combined with a rolling file and a few office accessories, a writing desk can become the basis of a functional home office.

Still, features that can customize a desk to certain consumer preferences don’t necessarily require additional furnishings. Twin-Star introduced a new line of home and small office compatible desks that offer the fashionable simplicity of writing desks but on a greater scale. In this case, the goal was to provide adequate task space to potential purchasers who want a stylish workstation but whose idea of customization is to forestall clutter. 

“We created a nice large workspace that is minimalistic to appeal to younger generations and those who are moving away from paper to digital format files,” said Lauren Thiessen, a Twin-Star media spokesperson. “Our desks are equipped with power ports and USB ports to keep the desk nice and organized without having to get up just to plug your laptop charger in. The finishes, color palette and designs are on trend and simple so they can blend into any space flawlessly and match many different styles of room décor.”

In addition, with the new desks, Twin-Star accommodates consumers who want various options in room arrangement.

“Our new large workspace desks are finished on four sides so you can float the desk in the middle of the room, which is becoming more popular in room designs. They allow for multiple set-ups because you aren’t worried about which sides of the desk are finished or not,” she said.

Considerations of fashion and scale often suggest the concerns of younger, frequently apartment-dwelling consumers, but lifestyle changes are influencing other home office shoppers. Blake Zalcberg, CEO of OFM, a commercial furniture distributor, pointed out that changes in living circumstances, as they are reflected in the furniture market, aren’t confined to the shift in demand from houses to apartments and condos. Homes have changed, too, and that is impacting the market for office furniture.

The prominence of the living room in floor plans has faded as consumers have turned to home layouts personalized to their lifestyles. Today, consumers may choose to put a home office just about anywhere in a home. 

With a consumer more aware of household fashion today, office space has to be consistent with the décor style that sets the tone for the whole house.

“People want office furniture that fits their home style,” Zalcberg said. “They want a look that doesn’t blow it apart. They’ve thought about the home throughout the entire purchasing process.”

He said that many consumers may look for modular products and transitional styles they can adapt over time so that they don’t wind up with a home office that’s appears out of date before the functional life of the furniture is up, or, in many cases, before they’re ready to redecorate.

The Commercial Influence

In addition to home fashion, trends in commercial office furniture have effected how home and small office furniture shoppers think about the products they want. The commercial market may be a bigger influence today than in the past. 

In addition to workers who toil full-time in the home office, more employers have expanded flextime schedules. As such, they’ve helped create a cadre of corporate employees who have become part-time home workers. At the same time, the 24/7 information stream can make workdays longer and more complex. As a result, a new class of informal telecommuters has arisen as some employees conduct correspondence and information gathering after the formal workday. 

The home office is much more of a professional environment. As a result, consumers who are setting up home offices may want the amenities and functions their fellow employees have at headquarters. The trend has a couple of relevant consequences. For one, many employers will pay for or at least supplement the creation of a fully functioning home office. Even if they don’t, the home office established for business purposes can be written off of income taxes. In both cases, a consumer setting up a home office may have a significantly bigger budget to employ. Given the dollars and the tendency today for consumers to customize and personalize purchases, a home office designed for hours of work is likely to be more elaborate than one set up to accommodate a personal computer.

Zalcberg pointed out that subsidies and tax savings may well affect decisions about what kinds of home and small office furniture purchases, at least for some shoppers. However, he pointed out that the availability of information and shopping choices online is important. With a wide variety of products at various price and quality levels readily accessible online, consumers can take advantage of myriad cost-saving promotions. Furniture shoppers can more carefully weigh how much they might pay for those features that they want to customize, even before tax breaks and subsidies kick in.

At the same time, consumers have a variety of providers who offer different purchasing propositions. Consumers can visit a seller such as Amazon, providing a range of choices, Staples, with products influenced by the latest commercial trends, or Wayfair, which emphasizes style choices at relative values.

Whatever their agenda, shoppers can peruse vast presentations. Under such conditions, the price and value equation and the issue of price elasticity becomes increasingly complex. In the most recent Forecast consumer study, the proportion of consumers who said they would consider the highest price category provided for home office work centers jumped, but so did the lowest ranges down to under $50. Respondents demonstrated that a growing proportion of consumers will pay for the products that suit them best, but they also indicated that they are looking for bargains at a time when they are always a click away.

Standing Desks Trending

A recent trend in commercial products, collaborative workstations, had limited application in the home and small office, but a new class of products promises to have a significant impact in the consumer market.  

Standing desks are becoming increasingly popular in the commercial sphere. Chris Gibson, vp/marketing and product at Humanscale, a manufacturer that makes adjustable workstations that allow users to function in standing or sitting positions, said more businesses these days are sold on the wellness benefits associated with dual-position desks. He noted that, currently, 40% of commercial projects that come to the company specify standing workstations for at least a proportion of employees, up from 10% in 2010.

Sitting is the new smoking is a slogan that resounds through the standing desk sector and the sentiment does capture how wellness considerations have gone beyond ergonomics in office product development. With more people tied to work for a longer period of the day, a healthier way of going about business can become attractive.

Just how standing desks will take their place in home offices is an evolving proposition, and even manufacturers of the segment concede consumer price flexibility is impossible to determine. Fully functioning electric or mechanical standing desks, with surfaces that adjust to sitting or standing heights, can cost well over a thousand dollars. On the other extreme, fixed standing height desks, sometimes paired with adjustable stools, arrive at prices competitive with other home office furniture. 

Z-Line Designs has developed a number of simple standing-height desks consumers can pair with its adjustable stools, to give them some of the same options more elaborate designs provide but at a considerably lesser price. However, given the uncertain but potentially lucrative future of the segment, Z-Line also is developing other standing/sitting alternatives including a motorized option.

“Z-Line feels the standing desk is here to stay,” said a company spokesperson. “This is a growing category and style of item and will be prominent in both the office environment and home.”

Bush Industries also has developed motorized standing desks, with its commercial business providing impetus for home and small office. Still, the company also provides alternatives by pairing sitting desks with higher standing workstations. In that case, a purchaser can work sitting and work and, when so inclined, move to a standing desk positioned beside or behind the traditional desk.

Online retailers have been expanding their assortment of standing and adjustable workstations. Of course, given their advantages in unlimited virtual selling space, e-tailers have an advantage in jumping on such trends early.

Taylor Piersiak, associate director, Wayfair business, said, “We’ve been selling standing desks for awhile, at least two and a half years at this point. Sales are growing quite well. They were off to a slower start given most of the product initially available was at prohibitively high pricepoints for small/mid sized businesses and the home consumer. However, as pricepoints have started to come down, the sales velocity has increased rapidly. As consumers get more health conscious and companies get more invested in promoting employee wellness, products that support those efforts are becoming increasingly important.”

Furniture’s Omnichannel Footprint

Furniture remains important to many bricks and clicks retailers who are building on omnichannel operations to provide growth for the category. 

In recent quarters, office superstore retailers have identified furniture as a growth category, one they are determined to build. Both Office Depot and Staples, once engaged in a merger initiative since cancelled, have lately characterized furniture as segment where they have the potential to increase sales outside of the core paper/toner/ink business (see story, page 1).

In the company’s first quarter filing with the United States Securities and Exchange Commission, Office Depot stated that furniture was a category where it enjoyed year over year comparable store sales gains. In fact, it reported that an increase in average order value primarily reflected an advance in furniture sales.

During Staples’ first quarter conference call, chairman and CEO Ron Sargent pointed out that the company enjoyed “comparable sales growth in furniture, facility supplies copy and print, mail and ship and break room supplies.” 

In discussing the company’s future made after the Office Depot merger fell through, Sargent identified growth in such non-core categories as critical to the company’s future prospects.

Although the company refrained from offering any timetable for new initiatives in the category, Mark Cautela, Staples director of corporate communications, confirmed that, “Furniture is a key component of our strategy to grow our product assortment beyond office supplies.”

Among discounters, home and small office furniture provides opportunity.

Shopko has grown its furniture categories. In its discount stores, the retailer continues to provide significant floor space for a furniture array that provides products for use throughout the home. 

However, even in its considerably smaller Hometown stores, home office presentations stand as the heart of ready-to-assemble furniture merchandising. Given the floor space available, Hometown stores limit on-the-floor furniture assortments and favor examples of the company’s upholstered assortment. But they feature boxed but carefully merchandised ready-to-assemble home office displays, including desks, bookcases and file cabinets. 

Peter McMahon, Shopko’s CEO, said that the company strategy for Hometown stores includes offering “great furniture” in rural markets, giving shoppers the ability to pick from the restricted ranges in store or to shop the website, “and we will ship it to the store for free.” In that way, Shopko Hometown becomes a local furniture resource consumers can use to fit out home and small offices as they like without having to undertake the frequently long drive to a big box or specialty retailer. 

Shopko isn’t alone among discounters in seeing omnichannel opportunities in office furniture. Target has been revisiting the furniture segment, beginning a rollout of new merchandising including more multiproduct vignettes. In home office, the company has emphasized getting additional product on the floor less, rather encouraging shoppers to check out its online assortment via signage posted alongside what it still mounts in the store. Once, that might have been a dicey proposition, but today, with most shoppers sporting smartphones, the online assortment is immediately at hand. 

As the home and small office market has evolved, success looks like it will depend on retailers not only providing access to furniture that satisfies both functional needs but a broad range of personal priorities that range from scale to style.