Are Retail Brands Disrupting Modern Office Design?

Posted by Breanna Sheldon on : June  18,  2018

Are Retail Brands Disrupting Modern Office Design?

The contract furniture industry has seen a noticeable shift in the last few years, as specifiers respond to market demand to bring retail furniture into modern office designs.  How does the inclusion of brands such as West Elm, CB2, Ikea, and Restoration Hardware affect commercial interior designers and the contract furniture industry? While we did previously write importantly about the importance of commercial grade furniture and it’s ability to last in an office environment, unlike most residential brands, many commercial furniture seekers are turning to Residential brands because of the low cost… we investigate the growing trend! 

Cozy Office Designs at Lower Prices:

Comfortable, inviting spaces that resemble residential interiors aren’t just trendy, they’ve been shown to help employees stay healthy and productive. As office designs add larger common areas, and more flexible spaces, there are fewer dedicated workstations. Demand for casual and flexible-use furniture is increasing, and retail brands have the goods – comfortable, home-like pieces at affordable prices.  Creative color schemes and accessories like throw pillows and pouf seating add a coziness not common in contract furniture.

Modern Office Designs Attract Top Talent:

Modern and comfortable workplace designs help attract the best employees. As companies compete to hire top talent, a “cool” office design is a selling point for new hires.  “The cooler the space is, the easier it is to attract top talent. College students and even high schoolers are used to studying and working very differently. The office landscape is shifting to reflect that.” For clients focusing on top talent, the lower price points of retail furniture lines leave more resources for hiring. Sandi Jacobs, a West Coast dealership, says, “I had a conversation with a client who is in the process of building a new campus in the Bay area who said, ‘My company needs to dedicate our capital funds to invest in talent and product development. The companies with the best of those wins.’”

Startups and Short-term Office Leasing:

Today’s economy, powered by startups and mergers, has changed the way companies lease space and invest in office designs and contract furniture. Leases are shorter, and rather than depreciating furniture over time, people are looking for low entry costs and trendy interior designs. 

According to Jacobs, “They want it to be cool, hip, and in line with what is going on in the market now. Then, they want to be able to walk away when the lease is over in three to five years because it costs more to move the furniture than it did to purchase it.”

Residential Style’s Effect On Commercial Interior Design:

Should specifiers be concerned about this new trend? Contract furniture suppliers need to keep up with consumer demand.  Retail furniture manufacturers are filling a need that hasn’t been met quickly enough by the contract industry. Soft furnishings in particular have entered office interior design with surprising speed. People want to be as comfortable at work as at home.

Of course, many retail products are chosen for their lower price points. However, the client ends up compromising on quality and warranties.  As Jacobs says, “Many are simply trying to get a lot for their money. However, residential and retail grade furniture is not built to the BIFMA standards of commercial furniture… Still, the product is 1/3 of the price, and sometimes that’s all that matters … but the warranty question always comes up. For the most part this furniture is priced to the point where it is cheaper to simply replace it. Residential quality furniture does not have the durability that commercial furniture has. It is competing with the major manufacturers that have ten-year to lifetime warranties.”

This retail furniture intrusion has had an effect on contract dealerships, and not for the better. Frees states, “Because retail websites don’t have a model that is structured for the contract segment, these retail transactions require a lot more resources to specify and track orders…. None of those products are on CAP or in automated pull-down spec sheets. The orders are placed over the phone, via e-mail quote, or at times even handwritten. This means that there is more room for error. Contract manufacturers have products on CAP. We specify, download, and order. It’s foolproof.”

Jacobs shares how contract dealers are handling the change: “Many dealerships have created a role of merchandiser or ancillary specialists because it is a lot of online searching. Right now we are searching for wood stump coffee tables. We go in and Google, compare prices, and reach out to companies to see if there are volume discounts. There are lots of resource and internal hours invested. This started ten years ago when we began sourcing ping pong tables and billiard machines. Now rather than having multiple people using that time, we centralize it to one person or department who can streamline the process.”

Both clients and specifiers have to be educated on the new practices surrounding retail furniture. While commercial grade products come with long warranties and full-service repairs, retail furniture has no such warranty. Contract specifiers must make clear to clients up front that if the furniture breaks, the client will be paying to replace it.


Office of Kinfolk Magazine, with Furniture from a low entry cost Residential Furniture Manufacturer.

Disruption of the Contract Furniture Industry:

Are retail furniture brands disrupting the industry? Some contract brands, such as Herman Miller, cross over into residential interior design, but most do not. Jacobs states, “The furniture industry is built on an old model. There really hasn’t been much disruption. If the biggest disruption is that people are ordering on West Elm online, that’s not much. Really our entire model is built on just-in-time manufacturing. They source raw goods when they get the PO and it is custom-built. That’s what gives clients unlimited choice. Where is the middle ground between just-in-time manufacturing with ultimate customization and ordering online or going to IKEA? I think the manufacturers are starting to address this, but overall there’s nothing filling that gap right now.”

Commercial interior designers and contract furniture dealers should make an equivalent effort to work smoothly with the retail industry.


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