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The Wide World of Loose Furniture

March 7, 2018

Design Trends Force Commercial Architects and Designers into a Home Design Mentality. Nick Meter is a veteran of the commercial furniture industry. He is now director of New Client Sales + Customer Experience for Tangram’s Los Angeles team. 

I want my office to look like this page I saw on Pinterest.”

“The space needs to look more residential and eclectic. Have you seen the Soho House?”

“Why can’t I just use the same chairs from Restoration Hardware that I use at home?”

The past five years have seen a rapid shift in the design preferences of corporate clients. Empowered by websites that make the envisioning of design options possible (e.g., Pinterest, Houzz, etc.) and fed by the ongoing trend of promoting “residential” qualities within a workspace, clients are increasingly seeking solutions outside of established channels.

As contract furniture manufacturers adapt to this trend with new product and material introductions, products from online/retail/boutique outlets are increasingly requested, specified, and implemented.

This trend is welcome in that it allows for greater eclecticism and texture within corporate spaces. At the same time, it presents a unique (but not insurmountable) challenge to all of the key members of a project team.

Our collective thinking—developed through years of working with contract and semi-contract vendors—must be recalibrated so that we can design and manage better together. Our dialogue with clients needs to evolve so that they can understand that what they may consider a “simple online order” or “15 minutes on Pinterest” is not a substitute for professionally administered procurement and implementation or interior design, respectively.

When evaluating movable furniture, fixtures, and equipment (FF+E) from online, retail, and boutique (ORB) sources, consider the following professional roles and their experience:

Architects and Designers

Design firms often work more, not less, when specifying ORB products for several reasons. Unlike contract furniture, there is little to no established market representation to assist with specifications. Therefore, the influence of the design firm can’t be leveraged to drive vendor performance with regard to pricing, lead time, and warranty.

In addition, samples of product and material are often not readily available and are typically not stocked in a design library. Contacting the vendor through its website, main office, or email can be challenging when compared to typical contract sources. Given these issues, clients and designers are often asked to make selections without adequate collateral, leading to a protracted selection process or a dispute when items do not meet their expectations.

Not understanding these potential problems, clients wrongly conceive of the specification process for ORB items as easier, not harder. “Shopping” is familiar to them and not considered an activity requiring professional oversight and assistance. Clients who find and suggest ORB items themselves are not aware of the necessary follow-up work required to specify the product, coordinate it with interior finishes, or the vendor and dealer communication needed procurement and implementation.

Online, Retail, and Boutique Dealers

Dealers also typically expend more resources when specifying ORB products due to a number of factors. Reliable manufacturer representation and support is highly variable and provider-dependent. The dealer’s influence as a long-term business partner to the manufacturer is not as easily leveraged, making it harder for sticky discussions around shipping damage, warranty, and repairs to get “unstuck”. Also, warranties are weaker in general for ORB products when compared to contract-grade providers.

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Clients might experience low first cost but will pay for time and materials more frequently during the lifespan of the product. Lead times for ORB items are highly variable and freight carriers’ standards for timeliness and performance vary more than those of contract manufacturers.

ORB vendors typically require 100 percent payment up front. This practice negatively affects cash flow and is a major constraint for smaller, more boutique dealers. As mentioned above, samples are often not readily available or stocked in a design library. Vendors such as Overstock and One Kings Lane do not necessarily keep running inventory of product. As the name suggests, Overstock sells a fixed amount of a particular product and then discontinues selling it. This practice creates continuity issues for clients.

Clients and design firms, not realizing these problems, misunderstand the importance of the dealer. Because the pricing available to the client often matches what is available to the dealer, the dealer markup becomes more obvious and therefore more open to objections from the client or design firm. In these cases, clients often don’t realize the value of a dealer markup and the services that are included, even with ORB products. Benefits include point-of-pricing and specification assistance; a single consolidation point for ordering from multiple manufacturers; a single point of payment and follow-up; responsibility for paying the vendors; responsibility for receiving, delivering, and installing in good condition; and responsibility for all follow-up work.

The Role of Project Managers

Project managers should also understand several key issues. ORB products can offer attractive cost or aesthetic alternatives to contract lines, and in many cases are viable and worthwhile.

However, quality, lead time, and product inventory continuity are highly variable. Warranty, representation, and follow-up capabilities of the vendor are typically more limited than with contract goods. The last thing a project manager wants is to be caught in the middle of a battle of finger pointing between various members of the project team.

The complexities of specifying, ordering, and implementing the product should not be short-sold to the client when discussing the corresponding design fees and dealer markups. Design firms and dealers should be held to the same high standards for execution but with a nuanced understanding of the issues as described above.

The bottom line? When all the players on a workspace design project are in tune and understand the value each plays, there is a much higher probability client expectations are met. Tight collaboration is critical to meeting those expectations for cost, quality, and timeliness—this includes determining when to specify ORB items that may look great but are problematic to procure and may not stand the test of time.

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Nick Meter is a veteran of the commercial furniture industry. He is now director of New Client Sales + Customer Experience for Tangram’s Los Angeles team. 

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