The Death of Office Culture Leads to Boom Times for Used


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Apr 27, 2023

The Death of Office Culture Leads to Boom Times for Used

Swivel Office Solutions) The warehouse was packed, filled to the brim with used

Swivel Office Solutions)

The warehouse was packed, filled to the brim with used Herman Miller Aeron chairs, Herman Miller Mirra 2 chairs, Herman Miller sit-to-stand desks, and other remnants of the daily commute era. "There's so much product. We have no room in our warehouses," Zachary Unger said excitedly. "At this point, we need to get, like, another 10 warehouses. It's crazy."

In the weeks before, the owners of Swivel Office Solutions, based in a nondescript warehouse an hour east of Manhattan, just past John F. Kennedy International Airport, had seen even more of what had become normal since the pandemic: Fortune 500 companies coming to them, saying they needed to clear their office space, and if Unger's company could do it fast and for cheap, they could have furniture for next to nothing. "The office market is just crashing like crazy," said Zachary. He and his family-run business have become focused on making the most of it, by relentlessly pushing refurbished, high-end furniture from a bygone era for cheap on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace. Here, multi-thousand dollar standing desks go for $600, and thousand-dollar Aeron chairs and Mirra 2s cost $500 or less.

Since the pandemic, Swivel Office Solutions has made a business out of collecting office furniture from downsizing companies and selling it on Facebook Marketplace. (Photo credit: Maxwell Strachan)

Before the pandemic, Zachary's father, Steven Unger, had made his living buying chairs, desks, and cubicles and then selling them to companies that were opening up. Some of the world's most profitable companies would need 300, 400, or even 1,000 chairs, and they’d need them quickly. Unger could make it happen.

Then the coronavirus pandemic changed everything for the Ungers. Suddenly, as employees became comfortable working from home, many businesses had every reason to reduce the size of their office footprint, and very few to expand it. One company even bought millions of dollars worth of furniture, only to never open up. "Nobody was opening up space anymore. It was all just downsizing," Zachary said. Early on, the switch frightened the Ungers. "It was scary because nobody was buying anymore," Zachary said. "We couldn't sell companies furniture." That trend has continued through to the current day. According to Zachary, the business hasn't sold 100 desks to a company in three years.

But the flood of top media, finance, and tech companies rushing to save money by reducing the size of their office space—or closing their offices entirely—also offered the Ungers an opportunity. Traditionally, liquidating an office doesn't come cheap, sometimes costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. But many companies had valuable desks and chairs. Where there was nice furniture, Swivel Office Solutions was willing to swoop in and offer to handle it for a fraction of what a moving company would charge because they were willing to take on the risk involved in storing the nicest furniture and then finding buyers themselves. "We had to start liquidating companies instead of selling to them," said Zachary. "We come in and we say we'll do it for literally a quarter of the price, and we can do it in a day." The arrangement took advantage of the Ungers connections with business owners, office landlords, real estate brokers, who had previously let them know when a business needed to move in. Except now, they more often said when a business was moving out.

The Fortune 500 companies, it turned out, were increasingly willing to give the Ungers hundreds of high-quality chairs and desks for free (or close to it) if they were willing to handle clearing the office space nicely and quickly enough for the companies to get their security deposits back. And so that was what the Ungers did, and how they ended up with a great deal more Herman Miller than they're used to carrying.

The weekend before we met, for example, a company had contacted the Ungers to tell them that it was abruptly shutting down and needed to get 150 chairs out of the office "ASAP," said Zachary. Swivel Office Solutions sped over and collected the chairs, which were as good as new. "They never even opened their office, actually. They ordered a bunch of stuff and just shut down," said Zachary.

The cellophane-wrapped chairs and desks started to pile up. Suddenly, the Ungers had hundreds of used, name-brand chairs at a time when millions of workers wanted to upgrade their at-home setups on the cheap. Supply-chain woes additionally handed the Ungers an advantage—here they were with hundreds of chairs that they could sell at a moment's notice. If you order 100 chairs new from a company, it could take up to a month, Zachary said: "We could have them on a truck literally in 10 minutes."

The Fortune 500 companies, it turned out, were increasingly willing to give Swivel Office Solutions hundreds of high-quality chairs and desks for free (or close to it) if they were willing to handle clearing the office space nicely and quickly enough for the companies to get their security deposits back. (Photo courtesy of Swivel Office Solutions)

Swivel Office Solutions is one small part of a growing secondary office market that is capitalizing off companies like Meta, Twitter, and BuzzFeed, which have reduced their office space amid a cascade of layoffs within the technology industry, a complex macroeconomic development that also, more straightforwardly, has led to office chairs and desks flooding the market. "I’m just one of many people taking advantage of this opportunity," said another seller who said he started selling Herman Miller chairs in California as a result of Silicon Valley downsizing.

That seller, who said he did not have time to talk after we exchanged Facebook messages, is indicative of a distrustful corner of the economy that largely prefers to operate in the shadows, except when it comes to obsessively posting to Facebook Marketplace. Another New York chair seller, who described negotiations between top companies and moving companies as "a big conspiracy," demanded I not use his name because of his own lack of trust in the press.

In all cases, the most desirable and iconic piece to obtain is an Aeron chair by Herman Miller, perhaps the most iconic piece of office furniture in corporate America. Since it burst onto the market in 1994, the Aeron chair has become synonymous with Silicon Valley, and, more broadly, doing business, especially in a vaguely creative-adjacent way, serving as something like the chore coat of chairs. Herman Miller, in its own self-aggrandizing corporate history, says the Aeron "swiftly revolutionized the office furniture industry" and led to an "ergonomic revolution."

Silly as it may sound, it is also hard to argue against. "It's our most popular chair by far," said Zachary. By 2000, Businessweek had named it the "Design of the Decade." The next year, Fast Company went further, calling it one of the best product designs of the previous 100 years, right behind the automobile and Harley-Davidson and ahead of the iMac, Coke bottle, and Disney World. It has more recently been described as "America's best-selling chair" (8 million and counting) and landed a spot in the Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection.

And now, they have flooded the market, as they did after the last tech bust, when they earned the nickname the "Dot-Com Throne." Zachary started to sell his father on building a second-hand retail business, selling chairs and desks on Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, eBay, and Amazon. It was a riskier proposition, one that made his dad more than a little nervous. Instead of taking the wholesale approach of buying 100 chairs and then turning around and selling them in one go to a company as quickly as possible, Zachary was proposing getting 100 chairs, then sitting on them and selling them piecemeal online.

Zachary asked his father to give him two months; he would take care of the online selling, and his father could handle the liquidating. Eventually, Steven relented, and the company started fixing the used chairs that had become worn down after years of use, spraying them, for example, with a touch-up paint called Arm Chair Black. "When they come in, they [can occasionally] look like garbage. Nobody wants to buy garbage," Zachary said. But he said that Swivel Office Solutions won't sell a chair unless they can make it look "pristine," and he proudly showed me the refurbished chairs, which looked good as new.

The plan started to work. People would come in, sometimes even with stipends, hoping to upgrade their home office setup. Often, they came from the city, but they also traveled from New Jersey, Connecticut, and even Boston. Swivel Office Solutions shipped discounted and used Aeron chairs to Florida, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Mississippi. "The whole business shifted," Zachary said.

The lack of newly opening offices—and the subsequent risk that came with taking on hundreds of chairs—gave Swivel Office Solutions leverage when it came to negotiating with downsizing companies. Where before, they needed to pay to take the nicest furniture, Office Swivel Solutions could now often pay less or nothing at all. "We don't like to pay for furniture anymore," Zachary said. But he was quick to note that free isn't truly free. It still costs the Ungers plenty of money to pay for the workers, trucks, and other equipment and warehouses needed to liquidate offices and then hold the furniture until they find buyers on the internet. (Cubicles, it's worth noting, rarely even make it back to the warehouse anymore, according to Zachary.)

Selling off the chairs and desk one by one takes more work and time—Zachary lives on his phone, constantly messaging with potential buyers—and it means they have had to become comfortable with office furniture piling up. But Zachary said the math works, since they are able to sell the furniture at prices customers see as good value but which is more money, per chair, than the Ungers would get selling in bulk to companies that want wholesale prices. Take a standing desk that retails for $3,000 when purchased new. Each used desk might only fetch $150-200 if sold in bulk to a company, but can net $600 when sold to a WFH customer, according to Zachary.

Zachary most prefers eBay—"people trust it"—while Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist can be a bit tougher to navigate. On those sites, people often flood him with lowball offers or have his team drive hours only to say they don't want the chairs after all. (The company requests payment in advance when delivering.) Amazon, meanwhile, is high stakes, and the chairs must look pristine.

The business is going well for now. But questions remain. From what he's seen, Zachary expects the decline of commuter culture will only continue from here. The people he talks to often say that renting enormous amounts of office space just doesn't make as much sense as it used to, now that people have adapted to working from home. "They’re all saying that in five, six years. I don't know if there's any more chairs coming in, because every company is gonna be just working from home. There's not gonna be any more furniture coming out," he said. "That would be a huge collapse if the whole office industry just shuts down and there's no furniture left."

Zachary remains optimistic. It's a good business, he said, because there will always be demand for chairs. As he put it, "Everyone needs a place to sit." When I asked Zachary about his own office set-up, he said he has a sit-to-stand desk. But then, he admitted even he doesn't spend all his time there. Why would he?

"Mostly," he said, I just deal with the phone."

Zachary Unger remains optimistic about the office furniture business. As he put it, "Everyone needs a place to sit."

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