When Jennifer Selby Long relocated from an office with leased furniture to an unfurnished one in February, her decorating problems began.
After shopping at different stores, all that the 43-year-old San Francisco resident could find was furniture made with a “5-feet-10-inch man in mind.” Long, who is 5-feet-six, ended up doing a lot of improvising, buying bookcases from Crate & Barrel and inheriting a reddish gold wood desk from the last office tenant.
“Everything is too masculine, edgy, too modern, and heavy on the metal,” said Long, who runs a management consulting business.
With women-owned small businesses growing almost twice as fast as all small business nationwide, retailers — from Swedish furniture store Ikea to OfficeMax Inc. — are just starting to wake up to the demands of female entrepreneurs like Long. These include office chairs and desks scaled to women’s smaller frames, as well as furniture that has more storage to hold purses and other personal items — a top priority for women.
While women’s design preferences can’t be lumped together, experts say they have definite tastes and unlike their male counterparts, look at their furniture as an extension of their image.
“Women really want to personalize their space. Men are looking for more functionality,” said Kim Roffey, a strategist at Kurt Salmon Associates. When men buy an office chair, they focus on whether it rolls under the desk and provides good back support, Roffey said. Women look at those factors, but at the top of their mind is how it fits with the look of the room, she said.
Office Depot Inc., the nation’s second largest office supplies retailer, is considered the pioneer in staking out the women entrepreneur market. It teamed up in 2003 with decorating guru Christopher Lowell to create items such as whitewash executive desks evoking beach house decor and hutches with antique finishes. Earlier this year, it introduced decorative shelving.
Rival OfficeMax recently struck exclusive partnerships with Sharper Image Corp. to make a line of modern office furniture and Broyhill Furniture Industries Inc. to create a traditional furniture line with details such as antique pewter ring hardware. Sharper Image designs just hit the stores, while the Broyhill collection, which has writing desks priced at $399.99 and small hutches retailing for $199.99, will be in stores in June.
Meanwhile, Ikea has created decor displays aimed at female entrepreneurs, such as a book store and hair salon, at its 29 U.S. stores. Ikea, which operates U.S. headquarters in suburban Conshohocken, Pa., plans to eventually expand the program overseas.
“I think we have just scratched the surface. This is one of our growth engines of the future,” said Pernille Lopez, president of Ikea North America. Lopez expects that small business owners, particularly females, could eventually account for 10 percent to 15 percent of Ikea’s U.S. business.
Lopez wants Ikea to be a source of networking for women, who make up about 70 percent of its customers. Ikea launched an informational Website called business.ikea.com where entrepreneurs can share design ideas and discuss topics such as handling finances. It’s also holding events at its stores featuring topics from decorating tips to human resource issues.
Store executives are staking out a booming market. According to the Center for Women’s Business Research, a nonprofit organization that focuses on the estimated 10.4 million businesses owned by women, the number of privately held firms where women owned at least a 51 percent stake grew 42.3 percent from 1997 to 2006. That’s almost twice the 23.8 percent growth for all private businesses during that same time period. The figures are projections based on the 2002 Census Bureau data.
“The products (women) use, the desk they sit at represents what their brand stands for,” said Ryan Vero, executive vice president of merchandising at OfficeMax. Females account for the majority of the small business owners who make up half of the company’s customers.
OfficeMax worked with female focus groups to get input on the new furniture lines’ design. A Broyhill credenza, for example, offers more storage than the average computer/printer stand.
OfficeMax found that based on consumer research, women had more interest in the Sharper Image brand than men. The entire Sharper Image collection for OfficeMax retails for $600, Vero said.
Vero noted that some of OfficeMax’s work with its manufacturing partners involved re-education. In the case of an office chair, it had to convince manufacturers that bulkier doesn’t necessarily mean better quality. The end result was a sleeker chair style with seat height adjustments that fits women.
As for Christopher Lowell line for Office Depot, the designer is already on the next trend: Furniture set on wheels that morphs into laptop stations. It will include tables that sit behind the back of sofas, wardrobe pieces and credenzas that flip into home office stations that feature retractable cords and storage.
“Even though women have dedicated home offices, they just don’t want to be stuck in their offices,” said Lowell.