‘Big Furniture’ Rushes Standing Desks To Market for WFH
A Standing Desk Offering Born of the Pandemic
As we write about in detail in our recap of COVID-19’s Dramatic Impact on the Office Fitness Industry, and Standing Desk Suppliers in Particular, the $1B+ commercial contract office furniture manufacturers (whom we affectionately refer to as ‘Big Furniture’) have taken a huge beating, as bad as hotels and airlines in some ways. Practically in lockstep with the release of commercial office leases all over the country, large “project sales” of office furniture are down between 20% and 50% right now, depending on their customers’ geography and industry profiles.
Once they realized the dramatic impact the pandemic was going to have on their revenues these behemoth companies, like Herman Miller, Steelcase, Knoll, HON, National, et al, have all attempted to pivot as quickly as possible to capture the Work From Home (WFH) market, to try and offset their enterprise sales losses as customers abruptly turned to e-commerce for their home office standing desks.
These pivot maneuvers have taken different forms, from acquiring digitally-native furniture companies (e.g. Kimball acquired Poppin.com) to taking retail and e-commerce companies they already owned (e.g. Knoll acquired Fully.com in 2019 and Herman Miller acquired Design Within Reach back in 2014) and cross-pollinating commercial and consumer products back and forth between them.
All of these large companies, however, have the same channel conflict problem. For decades they have sold their commercial-grade office furniture products exclusively through their dealers, so-called “commercial contract furniture dealers.” But to be competitive with online sellers like UpLift, Fully, iMovR, Autonomous, and dozens of ultra-cheap Chinese-made desks sold on Amazon, as well as retailers like IKEA and Costco, there is not enough margin to cut in their dealers on these single transaction sales to consumers. So they basically cut them out of the equation and for the most part have gone “D2C” (direct-to-consumer) with their WFH offerings.
To at least try and keep their dealers from getting too upset about the situation the products being offered through the D2C channel are “highly curated” (i.e. artificially limited). Only a handful of colors, sizes and options are offered to the consumer, whereas an enterprise customer would theoretically want to stick to buying through their contract furniture dealer who can order anything from the catalog and provide installation and design services.
There’s a practical reason for this, though, in that unlike e-commerce players like iMovR that manufacture on-demand and can offer tens of thousands of desk configurations that can all ship out in one week, companies like Herman Miller, Steelcase and Knoll have been producing desktops in large batch runs forever. It’s just how they’re wired. For enterprise customers that can wait four to six months to deliver a few hundred or a few thousand desks to a corporate campus that’s not a problem. But for e-commerce, it is. So to enable relatively fast shipping they’ve had to pre-produce a limited number of colors and sizes and keep them in stock, which would be a huge and impractical capital investment if they were to offer all their colors and sizes online.
Work-From-Home Standing Desks From Herman Miller, Steelcase and Knoll
Since our inception in 2013 we’ve lab tested and reviewed dozens of standing desks from digitally-native vendors like Fully, Uplift, iMovR, Autonomous, StandDesk, Geekdesk, Vari, Uprise, Stir Kinetic, Eureka and many others. There have even been a few cross-over brands like Humanscale that have sold through traditional contract furniture channels while also dabbling in retail and ecommerce. ‘Big Furniture’ didn’t generally play in this sandbox until the pandemic, but now that they have entered the fray we have started reviewing their standing desks to see how they stack up to some very strong incumbent competitors.
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Compared to Herman Miller, Knoll and other peers of the world’s largest commercial office furniture manufacturers—as well as other scrambled-up offerings from Steelcase to list something online for the work-from-home user while the enterprise market takes its time recovering after the pandemic—the new Solo is a better executed product, at least as far as user installation goes. At least there’s a manual in the box, albeit a 25-page manual, which is more than can be said for some of the other desk models that were clearly never intended to be installed by consumers. All-in-all the cost-reduced Linak DF2 base technology, despite being made in Thailand, is from a top-flight manufacturer. But the desktop is of very basic quality and the entire package comes in priced the same as much nicer desks that are much more customizable and tech-forward.
To avoid comparison to Fully’s Jarvis desk (Knoll acquired Fully in 2019), the configurability of the Hipso desk is severely restricted. Only a single-stage (two-segment) lifting column is offered, so the desk will not work well for shorter or taller users, and therefore no corporation is likely to ever buy these (the base lacks ANSI/BIFMA height range compliance), but ergonomic issues don’t disappear just because a standing desk is used in a home office versus a commercial office. In an attempt to meet a competitive e-commerce price point the simple HPL desktops offered are of minimal quality. Significant assembly is involved. Five-year warranty is relatively short compared to what digitally-native e-commerce sellers (including Fully) offer on desks in a similar price range.
As with offerings from Steelcase, Knoll, and other commercial office behemoths, what Herman Miller has delivered here is a vastly overpriced, severely limited offering with a sketchy delivery and installation experience for users at best. It is so overly limited in desktop shapes, sizes and finishes that you’d have to be pretty lucky to get a good match with your home office space. And you better not be too short or too tall because this hacked-back Renew standing desk doesn’t even meet ANSI/BIFMA G1 standards for ergonomic height adjustment range.
To avoid channel conflict with its golden goose “contract furniture dealer channel” the number of options this desk usually comes in has been pared down to a scant few, with very limited size and decor options, and a narrow height adjustment range ideal only for average-sized users. Not even ANSI/BIFMA G1 compliant so even though you’re still paying a lot of money for the quality brand of Herman Miller, the desk you’re getting is severely overpriced compared to more tech-forward, configurable and durable desks made in the USA you can find online.
The only good thing going for the Nevi as compared to Herman Miller’s other two desk lines (Motia and Renew) is that you can at least upgrade to a full ergonomic height range on the lifting base so that shorter and taller individuals can also have a decent ergonomic experience. Everything else about this desk is not so good. It’s expensive. Low-quality componentry coupled with a weak warranty is not a winning combo. The additional $199 to $299 delivery and in-home assembly charge is strange in this age of free shipping on practically everything, and customer reports of the in-home assembly experience gone wrong are troublesome.