Today, many independent office supply dealers have diversified by selling furniture. However, some dealers—like DBI We Do Office in Lansing, Michigan—started in that category from the outset.
“DBI originally stood for ‘Doubleday Brothers, Inc.,’ a well-known furniture dealer in Lansing,” explains Steve Klaver, co-owner, vice president and chief operating officer. “The owners were going to close the store, but one of the chair manufacturer reps bought it. He wanted to keep the name, but the company said he couldn’t, since there were still Doubleday Brothers companies in other parts of Michigan; so he used the acronym DBI instead. In 1996, he sold the company to U.S. Office Products (USOP). When USOP went out of business, it was still a successful Haworth dealer, and Haworth didn’t want it owned by Corporate Express. So Haworth bought it. I joined the company in 1987. Before that, I worked with about nine other people at another office products company. So we asked DBI if it would like to start an office products division. Management said yes, so it went from 12 employees to 21 overnight. George and I bought it in 2001.”
From traditional to “resimercial”
The office products category has done well ever since. Yet when the pandemic hit, the company fell back on its furniture roots. “During COVID-19, office products were down by 20 percent, but furniture was up 20,” Klaver says.
He suggests that this spike in furniture sales was down to a combination of strategic moves and timing: “We offered customers a free onsite visit to give them ideas on how to make their spaces COVID-19-compliant. We also had customers which had planned new facilities and the expenditure before COVID-19. We also won the bids for two insurance companies, building all new facilities.”
Creating post-pandemic office spaces has also proved lucrative. “We have been helping customers design a more comfortable workplace,” explains DBI sales manager Nicki Zyla. “People are looking for ways to attract and retain employees by bringing the buzz back to the office where you can feel the energy and excitement. They are creating social spaces where smaller groups can meet. Social spaces are flexible, and inspiring, so people can pause, gather, connect, and refresh. This trend is referred to as ‘resimercial.’” The idea is to combine residential and commercial elements to create an almost ‘home from home’ feel.
Both Klaver and Zyla admit that they lost some business to Amazon at the beginning of the pandemic; but as people return to the office, they are remembering what they appreciated before.
“We don’t just drop deliveries at the front desk,” says Klaver. “We put the copy paper where it needs to go. If they order through Amazon, clients also miss our analysis of their expenditures and our salespeople watching and looking out for them. Service is in the eye of the beholder and most people don’t value good service until they have bad service.”
Zyla believes another trend has also helped: “More than ever, people want to buy local. People have seen their local businesses struggle and if they can buy local and spend the same amount of money, they are likely to do so.”
It never hurts to try
DBI has also enjoyed success through a campaign that’s hard for online suppliers to match. “Our ‘Try Before You Buy’ has helped with sales, especially in our retail midgrade furniture range,” reports Klaver. “Around Christmas, we sold a lot of chairs to people tired of getting backaches from working on their dining room chairs. Also, we sold a lot to people who wanted to buy a chair for their spouse. The gift cards didn’t sell well—people wanted something they could put under the tree. They’d pick out something they thought was right and if their spouse liked it, great; if not, they brought it back and swapped it out.”
Watch out for the fork
In the next five to 10 years, Klaver thinks diversification will remain important—and technology will be key. “If you are not investing in websites and analytics tools, you’ll take the fork in the road to the left,” he says. “Those investing in technology will go right and keep growing.”
Company: DBI We Do Office
Year started: 1984
Management team: Steve Klaver, co-owner and vice president/chief operating officer; Nicki Zyla, sales manager
Main wholesaler: Essendant