CHICAGO — Before COVID-19 sent most workers home in March, office-furniture resellers took orders for dozens, hundreds or even thousands of items at a time.
But in recent months, many of these businesses instead have been besieged by the weary work-from-home masses who are snapping up one refurbished desk and chair at a time, wrestling the goods into their cars and dragging them home.
It's one of many examples of business models changing because of the public health crisis, and it's an indication that office workers are hunkering down for a much longer stint at home than they initially expected when the office market all but shut down eight months ago.
Rework Office Furniture in Chicago has seen noncorporate walk-in and online orders increase to about $100,000 per month, from a pre-pandemic monthly average of $3,000, said Mark Knepper, one of the company's owners. Business has picked up significantly since August.
"It took that long for people's backs to hurt, and for people to realize they could be sitting in the kitchen for a long time to come," Knepper said. "That's when a lot of companies started offering stipends."
Adding to the demand are students learning from home, furniture sellers say.
In normal times, companies such as Wurkwel Ventures, Office Furniture Center's parent, provide a range of services — such as decommissioning offices, relocation services, refurbishing, and selling new and used office furnishings — that accompany office relocations.
With no clear date for the widespread return of workers to their offices, many tenants are opting to stay in place on short-term renewals, or even do without an office location for now, as leases expire.
Direct-to-consumer sales are creating a new source of revenue for office-furniture sellers. But for most industry players, home-office business isn't enough to offset the loss of revenue from huge corporate deals.
The sprawling showroom has seen walk-in business triple and its online business soared to 962 orders in September — compared with 40 sales in the same month last year. Some corporations are creating accounts that allow their workers to choose a desk and chair and have it billed directly to their employer, said Mason Awtry, CEO of Chicago-based Wurkwel.
"We have seen walk-in traffic increase dramatically during the course of the pandemic," Awtry said. "A lot of that is the need for people to set up a home office. This is the used furniture economy."
Chris Farrar, a marketing director for software firm CDK Global, already was planning to build a home office in his Batavia, Ill., basement before the pandemic. He accelerated those plans after months working from home, with four sons learning remotely during part of the school week.
"I was working from the couch in the living room," Farrar said. "It sucked. It got to where I had to go outside for calls."
Farrar, who has been to his company's headquarters twice since mid-March, recently completed an enclosed office in his basement. He ordered a desk, chair and mat from suburban office-furniture seller Arthur P. O'Hara Inc.
By eliminating his commute and chitchat with co-workers and making lunch at home, Farrar said his productivity has increased.
Marketing freelancer Mariam Staunton ordered two sit-to-stand desks and a Herman Miller chair from Rework delivered to her Chicago home in the spring.
Although she primarily works from an office in her house, Staunton said the pandemic took away the option of working from clients' offices.
"I worked on a long-term engagement with a client based out of the Mart, and it was a great setup with a height-adjustable desk," Staunton said. "Being at home full time made me realize I wanted something similar."