The office chair industry is in transition. Today’s office workers spend their days using computers, tablets, and smartphones. Those tools have changed the way people sit and move at a desk. While gaming chairs support modern computer users, traditional office chairs do not. As a result, chairs with limited adjustability are out. New ergonomic solutions are emerging. This report summarizes the challenges facing the office chair industry in 2020.
In 2017, market experts valued the office chair industry at around $10.69 billion dollars. Year-by-year growth was pegged at around 6%.
Only a small fraction of that comes from consumer sales — the industry operates as a B2B service. Enterprise sales make up 64.5% of the total, followed by sales to government offices and schools.
Experts predicted a few different reasons for expected growth:
- Industrialization in emerging economies drives demand for bulk office furnishings (source).
- A growing number of startups and tech parks in America also need furnishings. There is also a Canadian surge in retail and office space construction (source).
- Rising demand for ergonomic, healthy solutions to replace outdated office chairs (source).
Office chair industry in decline
In Q1 2020, the global pandemic caused major disruption in the office space market. Occupancy dropped by 14 million square feet. Gross leasing dropped by 53.4%.
This year, over 30 million Americans have requested unemployment insurance. The U.S. jobless rate in April reached 14.7%, an all-time high. In Canada, the construction business was down by 9% in Q1 2020.
Worldwide, ongoing social distancing ensures low traffic in retail spaces. Schools are switching to distance learning models. Offices are empty. A recent MIT study found that around half of American office workers are now working from home.
With schools closed and millions now working from home, projected demand has evaporated. For instance, Steelcase (one of the world’s largest office furniture companies) laid off most of its production staff in April 2020. Despite these new realities, most industry projections you will find online still predict massive industry growth. That’s because most were written in 2018.
Statista is one of the few with updated projections. They now predict a deep slump in 2020, followed by a slow recovery.
Luckily for the industry, while enterprise demand has slowed, demand for ergonomic office furniture is on the rise.
Office chairs are obsolete
Traditional office chairs are out of fashion. Those models have limited features that force users into fixed sitting positions. That has become a problem.
Computers first became part of the workplace in the mid-1990s. Around the same time, many scholars began to point out the limits of traditional office chairs. For instance, a 1994 study by Hoekstra et al. noted that “nonadjustable furniture universally promoted undesirable postures.”
Today, most leading ergonomic chair guidelines have similar recommendations. Office chairs should have an adjustable lumbar, adjustable armrests, and a reclining backrest.
Even OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) rejects traditional office chairs. Their office chair standards demand adjustable armrests, lumbar support, and a reclining backrest.
Despite these realities, the multi-billion-dollar office chair industry is just starting to transition to ergonomic designs. What took them so long?
For one thing, the industry sells B2B, serving schools, corporations, and government offices. Those types of buyers tend to focus on price, style, and durability. Ergonomics isn’t a priority. For another thing, this business model worked very well. There was no incentive for change.
That is no longer the case.
Increased demand for ergonomic chairs
The demand for ergonomic furniture has been growing for a few years. For instance, in 2015, ergonomic furniture marker Humanscale saw sales in China double in 2015. J.S. Gan, Humanscale’s Asia Director, said his team had visited enterprise clients around the world. “Nearly every employee is unsatisfied with their work environments. People prefer smart furniture that is comfortable and functional.”
Over the past few years, the rising popularity of gaming chairs also had an effect. These chairs are popular among gamers and non-gamers alike. As a result, ergonomic concepts like adjustable armrests and lumbar support have gone mainstream.
In 2020, ergonomic demand reached a tipping point. As tens of millions switched to working from home, many discovered their homes ill-equipped for office work. Instead of having to rely on corporate buyers for their furnishings, people were free to choose their own. Predictably, the demand for ergonomic office chairs skyrocketed.
It’s about time! Back pain is the sixth most costly condition in the United States. Health care costs and indirect costs for back pain are over $12 billion per year. American companies lose around 83 million workdays each year because of back pain.
These factors explain why many industry reports tout a rising demand for ergonomic office chairs as a key driver of growth.
Ergonomic chairs cost a bit more upfront but yield many long-term benefits for enterprise businesses. Those include improved worker health, better productivity, and reduced business costs.
History of ergonomic chairs
Ergonomic awareness in America has been crude. Before the nineteenth century, most of the global workforce worked as farmers. Then came the railroad, and then the Industrial Revolution. As farming jobs dwindled, administrative jobs increased. The concept of the office worker was born.
In the 1920s, the common belief was that sitting comfortably made for laziness. Workers in factories often labored in factories on backless benches. As staff health issues surged, a few improved designs emerged. For instance, the Do/More chair added a backrest. It promised to prevent hemorrhoids, kidney trouble, and other issues caused by slouching.
Meanwhile, in the education system, harsh posture practices were the norm until around the 1950s. After that, ergonomics became a non-factor.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that the office chair industry began to take notice of human-centered design concepts. Then, a series of factors led to the emergence of the world’s first ergonomic chair.
- 1950: Dr. George Phelan began spreading awareness about Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.
- 1955: Industrial designer Niels Diffrient helped popularize the concept of ergonomic seating.
- 1970: President Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Act (OSHA). That penalized companies who failed to provide safe work environments.
These factors led to the release of the world’s first ergonomic chair in 1976.
1976: world’s first ergonomic chair
Bill Stumpf spent the 1960s studying environmental design at the University of Wisconsin. In 1974, Herman Miller asked him to apply his research on developing a chair. The result of this collaboration was the Ergon chair, released in 1976. That was the first chair designed to improve comfort while sustaining physical health.
Molded foam padding was its radical new feature. Along with a more supportive backrest, it provided comfort and critical posture support. The Ergon chair also had a gas lift, with levers to adjust height and tilt. On the bottom, a 5-star base with easy-glide castors allowed for easy movement.
1994: Herman Miller Aeron released
In the late 1980s, Bill Stumpf teamed with Don Chadwick to take ergonomic seating to a higher level. In 1994, the groundbreaking Herman Miller Aeron chair launched. That carried the principles of the Ergon chair forward with exciting new features. Those included a reclining backrest, adjustable armrests, and a really cool feature called “synchro-tilt”.
The Aeron was a smashing success, but only for high rollers. Priced at over $1,000, it was a chair for CEOs and the super-rich.
Four years after the Aeron’s release, Blizzard Entertainment released Starcraft. Starcraft exploded in popularity. In Korea, the game was a smash hit. Within a few years, big companies like Samsung and SK Telecom began to put money into pro esports teams.
At the time, gamers had a choice between traditional office chairs and Aeron chairs. Since Aeron chairs were too expensive, the rising esports industry powered forward on cheap office chairs.
2006: world’s first gaming chair
In 2001, a luxury car seat company called DXRacer set up shop in America. Shortly after, a crippling recession set in. Over the next decade, America lost 33% of its manufacturing jobs. DXRacer was stuck with a warehouse full of exotic car seats that were never going to sell.
In a stroke of desperate genius, somebody at DXRacer thought about Starcraft. Millions of gamers were suffering sore backs. Herman Miller chairs were too expensive. Office chairs were inadequate. Racing games like Need for Speed were hot.
That warehouse filled with racing car seats suddenly had a new purpose. DXRacer engineers slapped on a rolling base and some armrests. Then they added some ergonomic features. The modern gaming chair had arrived.
The craziest part of this story is that the scheme worked. The simple ergonomic concepts proved effective by meeting contemporary ergonomic chair standards. A tall gaming chair backrest supports the back. Head and lumbar support pillows attach to the backrest to keep the spine in proper alignment. Adjustable armrests and reclining features let your body move while sitting.
Because they work so well, gaming chairs evolved into a thriving global industry and an essential part of pro esports.
Read the full story about the rise of the gaming chair. It involves Starcraft-crazed Koreans, a pair of economic crashes, and some savvy DXRacer mad lads.
2019: ergonomic office chairs emerge
Most major office chair brands only sell chairs to enterprise clients. Consumers can only buy office chairs through third-party suppliers like Amazon. In 2018, a new class of ergonomic office chairs began to emerge on third-party sites. These models start with traditional office chair features (swivel, rocking, seat height adjustment).
The new style of ergonomic office chairs add two key functions to the feature set:
- Adjustable lumbar support
- Adjustable armrests
A few models go beyond these features by adding a reclining backrest. These let you recline the backrest and lock it at different angles. Position the backrest to around 100° for upright working. Angle back to 135° or deeper for reading or relaxing.
At present, there are still only a handful of ‘ergonomic office chairs’ on the market. Check out our detailed review of the best current options:
Types of ergonomic chairs in 2020
Contemporary guidelines define ergonomic chairs as having three essential features. Those are adjustable lumbar support, adjustable armrests, and a reclining backrest. In 2020, there are three types of office chairs that meet ergonomic office chair guidelines:
Ergonomic task chairs
The first ergonomic task chair came out in 1976. The Herman Miller Aeron was the first mainstream release, back in 1996. In those days, computers were still emerging in workplaces. As a result, these were called “task chairs”, as they support all types of desk-bound tasks.
There are two classes of ergonomic task chairs:
- Synchro-tilt chairs: these are the most expensive chairs, mainly because of the synchro-tilt feature. That angles the backrest at a 2:1 ratio to the seat. So when you recline ten degrees, the seat will angle up by five degrees. ($450 to $1600)
- Traditional tilt chairs: these task chairs have fixed seats, but otherwise the same rich features as synchro-tilt chairs. Features include adjustable lumbar support, a reclining backrest, adjustable armrests, and more.
Gaming chairs cost between $120 to around $500. These models take the complex features of high-end task chairs and simplify them to meet modern ergonomic requirements.
A tall padded backrest with reclining functionality is the key ergonomic feature. Attached to the backrest are a height-adjustable lumbar pillow and headrest. The backrest supports the spine, while the pillows keep it in optimal alignment.
Gaming chairs also come with adjustable armrests. Pricier models also have a multifunction tilt-lock. That lets you tilt and lock the seat at different angles.
Beyond those ergonomic features, you also get standard office chair ones. Those are 360° swivel, seat height adjustment, rolling casters, and a chair rocking function.
Types of gaming chairs
The gaming chair industry is well-developed, with a range of products to suit everyone. You can choose between pricey pro esports chairs or basic models that cost less than $200. Because the backrest and pillows provide crucial support, it’s also important to choose the right size chair.
Thus, there are plenty of specialty models. Small gaming chairs are for kids and slim, short adults. Big and tall gaming chairs have extra-wide seats and support for 400 pounds. There’s even a class of pink gaming chairs catering to lovers of that color.
Ergonomic office chairs
The office chair industry finally snapped out of inertia in 2018. They continued peddling billions worth of cheap, back-crippling traditional office chairs. But they also released a few traditional office chairs with ergonomic features. Today, there are still only a handful of models available for consumers.
Curiously, only a few meet contemporary ergonomic chair requirements. Those demand adjustable armrests and lumbar support, plus a reclining backrest.
All of 2020’s top models come with adjustable lumbar support and adjustable armrests. But only a few also offer a reclining backrest. On the bright side, all models cost less than $250. It’s a good sign of industry progress, but a clumsy effort. Expect rapid improvement in this genre over the next 12 months.
Gaming chair industry vs office chair industry
The global office chair industry was valued at $10.6 billion in 2017. In contrast, the gaming chair industry had a market size of less than $10 million in 2018. Gaming chair analysts predict annual growth of 5%. By 2024, the gaming chair industry is predicted to have a market size of around $70 million.
From this perspective, the gaming chair industry poses no threat to the office chair industry.
However, despite the massive difference in market sizes, Google trends show a narrower gap in consumer search interest. That gap is because the tiny-by-comparison gaming chair industry has several advantages in the consumer market.
Challenges facing the office chair industry
The office chair industry operates as a B2B service. Most top brands sell to enterprises, schools, and government offices are the key drivers. Consumer sales make up only a fraction of annual revenue.
With office and schools closed, B2B demand has evaporated. But with millions now working and studying from home, consumer demand for ergonomic products has skyrocketed. This new reality poses several challenges for the massive, slow-moving multi-billion-dollar office chair industry.
Global shift to working from home
Around 42% of the American labor force is now working from home. Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom believes that this trend is here to stay. “Once the COVID-19 pandemic passes, rates of people working from home will explode.”
Working from home disrupts the office chair industry business model. Office chair industry sales focus on generating B2B leads. But in the work-from-home era, it’s not corporate buyers driving demand, but rather consumers. In that arena, the gaming chair industry has a massive advantage.
Lack of consumer relationships
The commercial office chair industry sells to schools, enterprises and government offices. E-commerce sales to consumers have never been a major factor. But with the mass switch to working from home, commercial sales have dried up. Some analysts now predict 2-3 years of hard times for the office furniture industry.
As a result, the whole industry is now forced to switch from a B2B focus to e-commerce consumer sales. This will take time.
When B2B companies target consumers, they face several challenges. The first is driving consumer traffic to their products. Second, they need an internal digital team to process customer orders. Third, they need a fulfillment process with warehouses and shipping providers.
While the office chair industry will need time to adjust, the gaming chair industry is already zooming. Most top gaming chair brands have all of those processes running with precision. For instance, Singapore-based Secretlab makes some of the most popular gaming chairs in the world. They maintain warehouses across America, Canada, Europe, and Oceania. They also have a robust online ordering and customer support system. Customers need only visit their website, order a chair, and wait for delivery. It’s a simple, effective process.
After-care is also robust. If you have problems with chairs from any leading brand, you can get fast support. Reach out on the brand’s website or any of its social media channels.
The gaming chair industry has a marketing reach that even the juggernaut office chair industry can’t match. For several years, most top brands marketed their chairs by sponsoring streamers, esports teams, and esports tournaments.
For instance, celebrity streamers like Ninja and Pewdiepie have gaming chair sponsors. Each has millions of followers. During each and every stream, their gaming chairs are on display.
Gaming chairs are also on display at all of the world’s top esports tournaments. As an example, Secretlab is the official partner for the League of Legends championships. In 2019, that tournament drew in a massive audience.
Some analysts predict that by 2021, pro esports will have more viewers than all major league sports (except the NFL).
As millions around the world tune in to these events, they watch their favorite players competing while sitting in gaming chairs.
Against that massive exposure, the office chair industry is far behind. They can compete with billions of dollars and traditional marketing channels. That means TV spots, radio jingles, and newspaper ads.
Outdated user relationships
Office chair industry relationships are with big enterprises. On the other side, top gaming chair brands have established direct relationships with their customers. Those customers include famous streamers, pro esports teams, and run-of-the-mill consumers.
There’s an organic connection. Many top brands like Secretlab, Maxnomic, and GTRacing are all “made by gamers for gamers”. These brands share a passion for esports, which demands long periods of sitting with peak cognitive performance. They also share a passion for global business, which demands also demands long periods of seated brain-work.
Thus, the people designing the chairs are familiar with the challenges of seated computing. As a result, evolution happens fast. For instance, Secretlab’s original Titan chair got a big revamp into the Titan 2020 Series, largely based on customer feedback.
In contrast, one of the designers of the Herman Miller Aeron is 84 years old. The other passed away. The “old guard” has little experience with the realities of modern computing.
Conclusion: ergonomic seating is the new normal
For the past thirty years, office workers had no choice over their hours, location of work, or workstation furniture. Decades of documented health hazards caused by traditional office chairs were blown off. The office chair industry kept selling billions of dollars worth of back-crippling chairs each year.
In 2006, gamers took control of their wellness by switching to ergonomic gaming chairs. Fast-forward to 2020 and the facts are clear:
- Working from home is a new reality that’s likely here to stay.
- For full-time work at a computer, an ergonomic chair is very necessary.
- Moving forward, office chair providers must cater to consumers, not corporations.
To conclude, here are some facts. First, office chairs are bad for your back. Second, ergonomic chairs are good for your back. Third, a good chair on its own is not enough. healthy lifestyle habits are also needed for the best results.
Moving forward, look for waves of new ergonomic chairs to flood the market. Over time, features will likely improve while prices go down. In the end, consumers win. A proper ergonomic chair can make a massive difference. Expect excellent support at great value for your health, wellness, and computing productivity.