While the pandemic has forced many stores to shut their doors, the 115-year-old design firm Herman Miller is going in the opposite direction. This month, it opens two 1,500-square-foot stores in Los Angeles and New York, where customers can test drive the brand’s well-known desk chairs with ergonomics experts on hand to provide insight.
Herman Miller believes this kind of in-person consultation is important: While its office chairs are designed for a range of body types and working styles, it can be hard to know which is a good fit until you actually plop into one. At the store, you can twirl around in the iconic Aeron chair, with its breathable mesh base, or lean back into the more affordable Sayl, with its superior lumbar support. “Some people fidget while they work, so they need a chair that adapts to their movement,” says Debbie Propst, Herman Miller’s head of retail. “Others don’t move as much, but they need more back support since they will be stationery for hours.”
Herman Miller only had two stores before now, a one in New York’s Flatiron District and another in Japan, both of which shuttered temporarily due to the pandemic. Launching an entirely new brick-and-mortar concept at this time is a bold move, particularly as coronavirus rates continue to spike across the country. But Propst says the pandemic has also led to a surge in demand for the brand’s chairs. Today, a record 42% of the U.S. labor force is working from home, and many don’t have a timeline for returning to the office. Many are upgrading their home offices to make them more comfortable for the long haul. In its last earnings release, Herman Miller’s parent company said sales of home office furniture had increased by nearly 300% since last year. “We’re sitting longer than any time in history,” Propst says. “We’re not commuting, we’re not traveling for business, we’re not even moving around from meeting to meeting.”
Given the high price point of Herman Miller chairs, which range from $600 to more than $1,500, many customers want to try before they buy. Propst says the company is following standard safety protocols, like making gloves available, requiring everyone to wear a mask, conducting regular cleanings, and limiting the number of customers inside. For those who prefer not to shop in person at all, the company is also doing virtual store visits with its ergonomics experts, who can show customers features of each chair over video.
Herman Miller is leaning heavily into the language of health and wellness, making the case that a supportive chair can help improve your overall health and happiness. “We know that sitting is not good for our bodies, but how we sit matters a great deal,” Propst says. “Our ergonomic research shows that sitting comfortably and with a good posture can influence your sleep, heart rate, and productivity.”
The Herman Miller Group—which also owns Design Within Reach and Hay, among other furniture brands—has taken a financial hit this year. In the quarter ending in mid-September, sales across all brands fell 13% compared to last year. While the company’s home office sales have been trending upwards, it had previously made the majority of its revenue through corporate contracts, which have suffered as offices remain closed. Its corporate sales have declined by nearly a quarter compared to last year.
Propst says Herman Miller was expecting an eventual shift to remote work, but the pandemic sped it up. In response, the company accelerated its timeline for opening these stores as well. Now, the brand is focused on trying to convince individuals, not just companies, that a well-designed chair is worth the investment. “This is a new concept for Herman Miller that is particularly relevant given the pandemic, but we think it will have legs long after this period,” says Propst. “We’ve observed that many customers have already done their research and have narrowed their choices. They’re coming into the store to validate their choice, and our goal is to create a seamless experience for them.”