As the nature of the workplace continues to adapt to the rise of technology, many aspects of the traditional office space are being replaced. Cubicles were forgone in favor of bright open office plans. Assigned desks are also falling by the wayside, in favor of desk hoteling and flexible workspaces. But one aspect of office planning has remained a constant: the need to buy furniture. Whether companies are going old school and purchasing a desk and chair for each employee, or following current trends and spending their budget on couches and lounge areas, easily rearranged work stations and sleek standing desks, the process is the same.
When a company builds an office space, they hire a project manager who oversees the process from start to finish. There are countless other teams involved—architects, construction, engineers and more—but when the office is near complete and it’s time to furnish, the process can sometimes hit a snag.
Project managers typically come from a background in construction, architecture, design or engineering—they don’t typically have a furniture background.
“Project managers typically come from a background in construction, architecture, design or engineering—they don’t typically have a furniture background,” says Julie Deignan, director of Furniture Advisory Services for CBRE. “It’s a major piece of the project that needs an expert eye in order to elevate the client experience, and it’s a piece that was missing in most projects.”
Four years ago, Deignan recognized a hole in the market and saw how a team with a background in furniture buying and dealing could be useful to commercial real estate clients. As someone with over 18 years in the commercial furnishings and design industries, her hunch was correct. Today, her team has helped clients save an average of five to 28 percent of their total furniture budget.
For most companies, the furniture process starts with a design firm. The design team works with the company to create a comprehensive design plan—from wallpaper choices, right down to the color of the wheel casters on desk chairs. Once the client and the design firm determine the direction of the furniture aesthetic, the Furniture Advisory Services team enters the picture.
“Our role is working with the client on how to buy, not what to buy. Once the client knows how they want the office space to look, we set up the competitive bidding landscape designed to deliver transparency and value,” Deignan says.
Aileen Pendleton, CBRE senior furniture advisor in Chicago says, “The furniture industry has dealers that are distributors of certain products—they provide the service and the pricing—then there are the manufacturers who actually make the furniture. In order for us to be successful in delivering a better overall client experience, we have to have relationships with both parties.”
The biggest client pain point is, unsurprisingly, that furnishing an entire office costs a lot of money, and often the invoices contain hundreds of individual line items, making them difficult to understand.
Furniture manufacturers vary in terms of quality and offer different kinds of warranties, and dealers can offer different buying experiences.
“The industry as a whole does things in a way that oftentimes can be confusing to clients,” says Mary Anne Wilson, a senior furniture advisor with CBRE. “Clients will get a proposal for all their furniture needs that can be hundreds of pages with every part, piece and component itemized individually. From the client’s perspective, they can’t verify if they’re paying what they’re supposed to be paying. That’s why we’re here, to add the transparency and pricing and discounting verification so the client buys with confidence.”
But does it always come down to price alone? Furniture manufacturers vary in terms of quality and offer different kinds of warranties, and dealers can offer different buying experiences. For Deignan and her team, taking price off the table is the main goal. By setting up a competitive landscape, the dealers will ideally come back with bids within “striking distance” of each other (within $1 per square foot) that allow the client to choose based on other factors like quality, experience and overall chemistry. That’s the objective—to have a client select a furniture dealer and manufacturer based on how much they like the product and how good they feel about the relationship, not merely on which bid came in the lowest.
As for companies that want to add in a few specialty designer pieces and not necessarily stick to the budget, Pendleton says that’s all part of the process:
“If they choose to have that special designer chair in their lobby or CEO’s office, that’s great! What we’ve done is educate them on the overall pricing so they know that if they do choose that, they may have to sacrifice something else in the budget. As long as they know what the special piece is going to cost, they feel more in control of making that purchase, and we’ve done our job correctly.”