A Fresh Look at Furniture

Home / Cover Stories / A Fresh Look at Furniture
A Fresh Look at Furniture

Everyone understands just how hard the COVID-19 pandemic hit the independent office supply industry. But the commercial furniture sector proved to be the silver lining for many dealers, keeping them afloat—and even ahead—when office products took a dive. And this momentum is gathering pace as businesses use interior design and furniture to lure workers back to the office and recruit new staff. The Great Office Refresh has triggered several new trends and a surge in sales for many dealers—albeit not without some challenges.

Complete Office Supply, Indianapolis, Indiana, has sold furniture for three decades, primarily to the non-hospital healthcare and mortgage industries. “There was a short downturn in furniture sales from COVID-19, but sales have generally been going up,” says president Alan Bird. “Projects between $100,000 and $500,000 are coming in regularly now, and we are also getting mid-market jobs. More companies seem to be spending cash they accumulated to convince hybrid workers to come back. They are freshening up offices and breakrooms.”

It’s safe to say this trend has come as something as a surprise. “We were fully expecting more calls to downsize,” admits commercial furnishings sales manager Lucia Hardy. “But instead, it seems all people want is to get back to their perceived normal and they’re using furniture to entice workers back to the office. Also, it’s a very competitive labor market; and as always, when you want to get young fresh faces, you need to freshen things up.”

Office Plus of Kansas, located in Wichita, has been selling furniture for 20 to 25 years and half of its 40 employees are heavily involved in the sector. According to vice president Bryan Kristenson: “We didn’t experience the huge commercial office space exodus during COVID-19 that some cities did. Some of the largest companies vacated their spaces, but many of the small and mid-size ones didn’t. However, some of our most active commercial space customers weren’t spending much on furniture.”

Luckily, other verticals made up for it. “We saw tremendous growth in furniture for education during COVID-19,” reports Kristenson. “Many of the smaller schools were trying to figure out how to reconfigure their classrooms to keep teachers and students safe. So initially, we saw a lot of reactive spending, like for screens and dividers. Now, we’re seeing more of the sector trying to forecast what is needed. Many schools are creating an active team environment to try to get better results. This means reconfiguring to create different environments for learning within one classroom and tailoring rooms to the students. K-12 and higher education got money from the government during COVID-19, so they’re investing heavily in their schools to attract kids and retain teachers.”

While education is the company’s top furniture sector, healthcare is not far behind. “There’s a lot of spending and growth in healthcare,” Kristenson says. “Primarily, it’s in lounges, offices, waiting rooms—areas focused on staff.”

According to Environments Denver/EON Office Denver, about 25 percent of its business is furniture—primarily in what some might consider unusual niches. “We joke that we’ve become the credit union dealer of Colorado,” says Van Young, vice president of the commercial furniture division. “They are a tight group and one referral leads to another. Another furniture niche we have is national car dealerships. They don’t have big budgets, so we started supplying them with mid-market products. They realized they didn’t need $1,500 chairs; a $300 chair works fine.”

For at least a month during the pandemic, furniture sales were down, but the company swiftly made an impressive recovery. “COVID-19 affected us in April 2020: it was the worst month for furniture we’ve had,” Young recalls. “We worked every day and had sales, but we couldn’t deliver anything. However, overall, during the two years of COVID-19, margins increased. We had 130 projects continuously, ranging from $5,000 to $500,000 offices, and work was steady.”

Office products dealer GBP Direct, in Kenner, Louisiana, set up shop in 1999 and added furniture to its offering over the past 10 years. A decade later, the sector accounts for about 60 percent of its business. The company’s biggest customers are chemical plants and oil manufacturers, followed by law firms, schools and healthcare facilities. Here again, COVID-19 initially had an impact on revenues. “The biggest thing we saw was that projects in the works came to a standstill,” says business development manager Cody Durbin. “No one knew what things would look like in a couple of months or when anyone would be going back to the office. But by 2021, it was all pretty much back to normal.”

At Marco Office Supply, Furniture & Printing, Inc., Naples, Florida, furniture accounts for about 40 percent of total sales. The company saw a drop during the shutdown, but business has since bounced back—and the pandemic even brought some new clients to the dealer.

“People are coming back to the bigger companies and new small businesses are opening up here left and right,” says president Philip Penzo. “Many people who worked for companies that shut down during COVID-19 are opening their own businesses, and they need things like desks, chairs and reception area furniture.”

Penzo is happy to see offices reopen, since the company has less interest in the home office market. “We don’t do a lot of home office furnishing, because the delivery is usually a pain,” he explains. “Everything here is gated communities, which are hard to get into; and then the homes are expensive and you have to take your shoes off. Then it turns out the furniture needs to go to the second floor and there’s no elevator. We sell commercial, so we usually send these requests to our neighbor specializing in home furnishings.”


Latest trends

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the focus has understandably been on optimizing workplace hygiene. “Since COVID-19, people want everything in the office to be easy to clean—materials like wipeable vinyl, laminate and glass,” says Durbin. “In office breakrooms, we see everything going to plastic or anything that can be wiped clean. In healthcare especially, they’ve moved away from fabrics—it’s all vinyl; and we’ve seen a shift away from furniture with wooden feet and arms. Wood is porous, so healthcare is turning to metal, which is easier to clean. In offices, they are looking for more flexibility and smaller individual tables.”

Office Plus of Kansas has also noticed a shift in office atmospheres. “We’re seeing the color palette change to warmer colors,” reports Kristenson. “Before, it was ‘Heads down and get it done.’ Now, it’s more relaxed, less stark—interiors that would not have been considered workspaces 10 years ago. Companies are creating more of the environment workers got used to at home: more desk-to-sofa.”

When it comes to the types of furniture that businesses are now buying, “There’s no one big thing we’ve seen,” says Kristenson. “But we are seeing a lot more furniture that allows height adjustment, like stand/sit desks. We’re also seeing more open-type room plans, with lower panel heights and screens two feet high versus six to seven feet; and more lounge-type seating as more companies are using interiors as a recruitment tool.”

The transition to a more relaxed workplace can involve a fundamental culture shift. “It’s a challenge employers need to work through,” advises Kristenson. “They invest heavily in creating a café-style work environment, but then it’s not utilized: employees don’t feel okay using it because there’s a cultural perception that if they’re sitting at a café table or on a sofa, they will be perceived as not working. It requires a change of mindset: leadership needs to reassure employees that it’s okay. It’s part of the conversation they need to have upfront; and they need to realize that new workers work in a non-traditional manner. If employers provide a more comfortable environment, employees can stay in the building. They won’t have to go to Panera Bread. They can stay engaged and stay in the environment, and still get that mental break we all need from time to time. It can mean 15 minutes a day; but per employee, per year, it all adds up.”

Meanwhile, Young reports that offices are becoming more upscale: “To attract new workers, offices need to be more luxurious, up to date, modern and user friendly. Nearly every project includes sit/stand units and touchdown stations where workers can go anytime to work. Small meeting rooms are also being converted into open areas and breakrooms are becoming work areas. The workforce is all very mobile now, so workers get a cup of coffee and take their laptops in with them. Also, lounge pieces are very popular, but in a more mid-century, modern style; and bright colors are in. Companies are moving away from dark colors; they’re looking to liven up the old black, burgundy and blue. They want to make it more inviting, like a luxury home—a nice, upscale environment where employees want to sit. It’s a fine line for companies, as this arrangement is not always conducive to managing people. But it’s great for employees who like to work on their own, but where the company prefers them in the office; or for employees who miss the interconnection of working in the office.”

The new trends that Penzo has spotted include a return to higher panels separating spaces and a reconfiguration of furniture. “Many conference rooms don’t have the big conference tables they had before,” he explains. “Instead, companies want one big room with furniture that can be configured as a classroom or for a conference. Instead of stacked tables and chairs, they’re opting for nesting tables and chairs with wheels and flip-tops. Women and guys don’t have to lift, move and set up stackable chairs; and they don’t have to hire someone to set up and break down meeting rooms. With nesting tables and chairs, you wheel them out and flip open, then wheel them back out of the way.”



Keeping up to speed can be a challenge for furniture dealers today. “You need to be up to date on all the technology trends,” Durbin advises. “It’s not just the way you interact with video calls, but also computer design. You have to insert designs into AutoCAD programs and have 2D and 3D software. There are so many different parts. You have to be familiar with how all that works, since so much now is done by computer. If you’re not well versed in these areas, it can be really challenging. The old-school way of ‘Here’s a catalog’ is out.”

Durbin goes on to highlight other challenges that GBP Direct has experienced: “Price increases, freight and supply chain issues have gotten better since 2021, but there are still shortages—metal chairs, laminate foam and other products. It’s challenging trying to navigate this. One project we had was delayed five months, waiting for one component that was sitting on a boat off California. Also, not all manufacturers have as many sales reps and they aren’t doing business like they used to. We used to have reps coming to see us all the time. Now we often have to call them to see if we can set up a webinar if we need something.”

According to Penzo, supply chain issues are encouraging a “catch as catch can” buying attitude: “Customers will contact me and ask, ‘What can you get me?’ and I’ll say, ‘Twenty chairs in blue,’ and they’ll say, ‘I’ll take them.’ Also, most imports come in black and are half the price. A client will need a conference room chair, and we’ll say, ‘We can get you a HON chair in any of 100 colors for $395 in six weeks. Or we can get you an import through S.P. Richards in black tomorrow for $150 less.’ Most will take the next-day and money savings.”

According to Penzo, government accounts are the most frequent exception to this rule: “We have state contracts and they don’t want to bid out anything. We are a HON and Global dealer, and these brands are already on the state contract. They know they will get the same price from any dealer based on the contract, so they’d rather buy local.”

Young also highlights staffing as an issue: “One of the challenges for us is hiring people. Everyone’s looking for the same people, like designers, and there’s not much workplace loyalty. We have people in customer service who have been with us for 30 years, a purchasing manager 35-plus and someone in accounting for 20 years. I’ve been here 18. We have employees that are very devoted to the family-owned company. You don’t see that anymore.”



These seasoned furniture dealers have some pearls of wisdom to share with their peers. “Pick your manufacturer partners well; there are a lot of manufacturers offering a lot of options,” Kristenson advises. “Choosing the right one makes growing your expertise and focus easier. Also, invest in good people who know the industry. Designers are a critical asset to get beyond selling ‘stuff.’ But they are hard to hold onto, as it is a very competitive field. So find good talent and provide them with a career path.”

Young sounds a word of caution: “If you’re going to start selling furniture now, I wouldn’t. It’s a different business now with Amazon. It’s hard to compete with online sellers. We get calls all the time from people who say, ‘It’s cheaper on Amazon.’ People always think it’s cheaper on Amazon; but Amazon is always changing its pricing. You can buy something today and then a month from now, the pricing will be more.”

Young suggests that service is their USP. “If a customer goes to Amazon to order, we tell them not to call us for 90 days,” he says. “We want them to have the full experience of not having any service. All we have to sell is service; and many customers appreciate it.”

Penzo agrees that service is the key differentiator for independent dealers and—in contrast to Young—suggests the timing for entering the furniture sector has never been better. “Furniture’s a good market because it’s not as competitive,” he explains. “Online mail order furniture comes in a box. The receptionist asks, ‘Who’s putting this together: the lawyer or me?’ Neither one wants to do it; so they have to hire someone or it sits there in the box. The next time, they call us. We may get the same product, but we put it together in the warehouse. If there’s a problem, we fix it before taking it to the customer. And we don’t leave it on the front steps: we deliver it where they want it. With furniture, people want this personal service.”

Durbin advises furniture newbies: “Be cautious; and be aware it’s a big investment in modern technology. If you’re just getting started, find a good manufacturer and designers to partner with to help you. Then stay on top of trends and educate yourself.”

For all that’s changed since the pandemic in the world of furniture, Bird believes some things remain the same: “I believe you’re only as successful as the quality of your people. This includes the people on your payroll, and the manufacturers and other partners you choose for outside help. If you don’t select the right people, you will fail. Put two, three or four minds together. That’s how we’ve been successful.”


Lisa Veeck is associate editor of INDEPENDENT DEALER magazine and the owner of Clean Communications, a full-service content-generating firm specializing in the office products, cleaning and maintenance, and healthcare fields. She can be reached at lisa@idealercentral.com or on 773-484-7412.