Herman Miller goes cyberpunk with its gaming chair Initiative
The year 2020 has forced the office furniture industry to evolve – in at least one case into futuristic new designs for gaming chairs that look like “Blade Runner” props.
That case is Herman Miller (Nasdaq: MLHR,) a leading office furniture company, whose new Sayl gaming chair marks an ergonomic leap into the future. The Sayl is a sleek-looking task chair with a Tron-like vibe, sporting a spider web back of bright plastic. The range of colors pops like a rave rainbow: piercing lavender to neon green to a shade of aquamarine the company calls “ocean deep.”
Jon Campbell, director of gaming for Herman Miller, says, ” While the pandemic has definitely impacted the gaming market, the launch of our gaming chairs was actually planned well before we ever heard of the word ‘coronavirus’.
“We spent two years researching gamers, realizing two important things. First, players were already choosing Herman Miller because they were dissatisfied with the available options and second, we noticed the number of injuries due poor postural support was increasing at an alarming rate. We dove into gaming because we knew we were positioned well to contribute to the community in a unique way.”
Herman Miller’s ad for Sayl depicts an urbane-looking gamer in a jump suit energetically flitting about her well-appointed apartment before elegantly settling into her Sayl, which looks like something a hacker would use in a sci-fi movie written by William Gibson.
But this isn’t a movie; this is serious. Mr. Campbell refers to gamers as “seated athletes,” and refers to the gaming chairs as “performance chairs, keeping the players healthy.”
He said the functional upgrades include “arm optimization” for elbow support and a forward seat angle allowing the player to lock it in an upright sitting position. The chair’s back is flexible on the edges for freedom of movement. The web-style back is fashioned with 3D Intelligent suspension; each strand varying in thickness and rigidity. But the bulk of the Sayl’s gamer features are strictly design options that address the intended market. Campbell says that looks are important in an era where YouTube influencers live-stream their “battle stations” to thousands of YouTubers around the world. And Herman Miller is betting on the gaming boom that has grown exponentially over the last several years.
The Covid-19 pandemic flattened the economy in March as cities shut down, forcing tens of millions of people out of work. Covid-19 has infected more than 11 million Americans and more than 246,000 of them have died.
The pandemic has also dealt a blow to the wider office furniture industry, which was estimated at $14.8 billion in 2019 by the Business & Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association. The financial impact is too early to calculate. But much of America has gone remote since the corona virus swept across the country in March, shutting down schools and entire cities. Gleaming New York City skyscrapers sat empty as former commuters worked from their homes or from distant states, as long as they had an Internet connection.
Herman Miller has reason to hope its slick new chairs will sell well. The company reported a 15% dip in net sales during the quarter ended Aug. 29, as the economy slogged itself through the summertime pandemic. But one bright spot proved to be the home office category, which boasted a 300% increase in sales during that period as remote workers bought new furniture for their home offices.
While some offices have since reopened, many have remained closed as Covid-19 infections spike to new heights. Office furniture manufacturer Steelcase (NYSE: SCS) endured an 18% dip in sales last quarter and implemented steep pay cuts. Other office furniture companies like HNI Corp. (NYSE:HNI), Haworth and Knoll (NYSE: KNL) are also dealing with this enormous shift. Workers are settling into working from home, as Herman Miller’s shopping site – now heavy on the home office furniture – clearly shows.
Herman Miller is best known for its iconic Aeron chair, an office staple of black polymer frame and mesh design that sells online for as much as $1,542.75. Aeron has been a top seller for thirty years, its ubiquity so entrenched that offices would look strange without them.
Which leads us back to the gaming chair. In a nod to the work-from-home trend, the company now offers an Aeron gaming chair that looks quite similar to the classic design for $1,445; the gaming chair prices include shipping within the USA.
The company also released the Embody Gaming Chair in July, in conjunction with co-partner Logitech, for $1,495. It’s a sleek, futuristic style that looks like a space pilot’s chair from “The Expanse.” And this is exactly the look they’re going for. The design is meant to transport the gamer to other worlds, virtually and stylistically, if not geographically.
The Sayl gaming edition sells for $725, which is less than half the price of the other Herman Miller gaming chairs, though it still costs more than its competitors. The furtherance of the gaming chair market has led to some interesting and futuristic designs from companies outside the traditional office furniture industry. Alienware — owned by Dell — Noble and Secretlab among other companies all embrace a racecar-style seat design and sell in the $350 – $500 price range.
There are signs that the bleak economic prospects could be changing, especially with a new president on the way and Pfizer (NYSE: PFE) announcing successful trials for a potential vaccine for Covid-19. Herman Miller recently opened a store at Westfield Century City in Los Angeles and will open a second store at The Shops at Hudson Yards in New York City on Nov. 20. These are the first Herman Miller stores to open since the company closed its store fronts in New York and Japan at the outbreak of the pandemic. More locations are planned for 2021.
While office furniture companies are hoping for the days when commuters pour back into the cities, they also know that some of those workers will remain remote. In fact, one market segment – the gamers – have always been remote.
“Gaming is literally pandemic proof, when you think of the people who have been quarantined in their basements for the last 10 years,” said Campbell.
Aaron Smith is a seasoned reporter who’s written for Forbes, CNN, People magazine, High Times and the Boston Globe, as well as other newspapers in New York and Maine. He’s covered the gun industry, the cannabis industry, the markets, business, the police beat, white collar crime, the courts and the military. He’s also written a book called “Circus Jerks,” about his adventures riding the rails with Ringling Brothers. He is new to the office furniture industry, but he’s a quick learner.