The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

October 24, 2012

I’m Not Going to Take This Sitting Down: Making the Case for a High-End Office Chair

Filed under: Random Stuff — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 12:08 am

As seems to happen a lot more often than I’d like, I should apologize for being somewhat slow to post here lately.  Nothing all that unusual going on here, just the usual shortage of interesting things to write about.  I will say that I’ve been watching with interest what’s been going on with all the new tablets coming out lately (with the new iPad Mini being the latest to make its debut just today) and I could quite easily get a few thousand words out of just talking about that and making a few predictions.  Unfortunately, my current employment puts me just a little bit too close to the subject right now, to the point that I’m under a non-disclosure agreement that could get me into trouble if I was to say the wrong things about this.  Therefore, as interesting as the choices we have now are, I think I should probably leave that one alone for now. 

On the other hand, one thing I can probably talk about without getting into too much trouble is chairs.  Specifically office chairs.  If you are reading this Blog, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re sitting on one of these right now.  And, if my experience is anything to go on, there’s also a good chance that your chair manages to annoy you on a regular basis.  Perhaps you just can’t ever seem to get it adjusted quite right.  Perhaps the pneumatic cylinder keeps leaking pressure, causing the chair to slowly lower itself and need to be readjusted constantly.  Perhaps the thing is just plain falling apart.  Really, none of it would surprise me, because all the various office chairs I’ve had over the years have eventually developed some annoying problem or have just plain fallen apart.  If you do use an office chair either at home or at work, for better or for worse there’s a good chance that you’re going to be using that particular chair a lot.  If you have a chair that either doesn’t fit you well or does something to annoy you, you’re going to be spending a lot of time being annoyed by that chair.

Of course, good intentions rule the day when you’re out looking for a new office chair, most likely to replace something you’ve either used up or gotten sick of.  If you walk into your friendly neighborhood office supply store, you’ll probably find at least two dozen different models being sold, most likely with floor models for each one.  This gives you a good chance to try things out, but it also reveals a couple of things about the whole process:  The overall hierarchy of office chairs seems to be based less on quality and ergonomics than it is on how important your chair makes you look.  Granted, a big leather executive chair is obviously going to be more costly to produce and to buy than a more plebian fabric task chair would be, but it’s not like the former is being produced by highly trained artisans while the latter is being stamped out by a giant machine or anything like that.  This means that the price differences seem to be disproportionate to the material costs (presumably to keep the cubicle drones from getting chairs intended for people above their level) and seems to end up being mostly arbitrary.  One thing you do start to notice about a lot of the stuff at the more expensive side of the spectrum is that most of them seem to be trying to impersonate something even more costly.  In particular, it seems like just about everyone these days is trying to make something vaguely resembling the famous (possibly for the wrong reasons) Herman Miller Aeron chair at half the cost (which is still expensive by most people’s standards,) albeit with just enough differentiation to keep the lawyers off their backs.  Others opt for more “traditional” designs that all basically look identical except for the pattern of the stitching on the seat back, and occasionally someone goes completely off the wall with something that most sane people find impossible to sit in for more than five seconds, but at least six people on the Internet swear is the most comfortable thing they’ve ever sat on.  Oh, and there’s also the actual high-end stuff that a lot of the previous examples, but that’s another story entirely, and there’s a good chance you won’t find much in the “stuff you’ve actually heard of” category at the local office store.  We’ll get to these in a bit.

Ultimately after much deliberation and trying out basically everything in the store, eventually you settle on something, bring it home, and use it until it either annoys you endlessly or it breaks, at which point the whole cycle starts all over again.  By now, I’ve lost count of how many office chairs I’ve bought and eventually had to replace over the years.  My most recent one was perhaps the most egregious example of this vicious cycle, and the one that inspired me to do something to break out of it.  Those readers with keen memories and/or nothing better to do may recall this post on this Blog, written last July back when I was getting sick of my previous chair, an IKEA model that did pretty much what was expected of it.  That is to say, it looked vaguely stylish for some indeterminate period of time while it provided a not particularly comfortable place to sit and slowly self-destructed.  In spite of this, I managed to get nearly another six months out of the thing after I wrote that Blog post before I finally got around to replacing it.  At the time, I was in the process of being spoiled by having one of the fancy $800 chairs at my desk at work, and even though it squeaked when I leaned back in it (something I believe I complained about in the above Blog post) I still liked the chair quite a bit better than any of the other chairs I had used over the years, but wasn’t ready to fork over the big bucks to buy one.  Instead, when I did finally get around to buying a new chair, I opted for something that was a somewhat close approximation of my high-end chair at work (mistake #1) and which was on closeout at Sam’s Club (mistake #2) so I got what seemed to be a pretty good price on it.  It was one of these, and it allegedly came with a five-year warranty, so what could possibly go wrong?  Anyway,  I took it home, assembled it, and it worked great… for about three days.  At that point, the plastic back started developing cracks, and within less than a month, I was already gettingthe back of the chair replaced under warranty.  The replacement back appeared to come with some additional reinforcement over the one that came in the box, and indeed it did hold up better, but within six months, it too had begun to develop the same cracking problem. 

It was at about this point that I decided I was thoroughly sick and tired of dealing with cheap junky office chairs, and suddenly that $800 office chair at my (now former) job didn’t seem quite so farfetched.  Yes, it’s true that the main problem with a high-end office chair for most people is the fact that it comes with a high-end pricetag, but think of it this way:

  • As noted above, if you work in an office environment, the chances are good that you also spend a lot of time in an office chair, probably at least 8 hours a day. 
  • I suspect that when they’re furnishing their houses, most people probably wouldn’t give a second thought to spending $1,000 or more on a sofa that they probably won’t be using for more than 1-2 hours a day, if that.
  • An office chair with bad ergonomics can lead to all sorts of long-term problems, and leave you uncomfortable while you’re getting there.
  • A lot of the high-end office chairs are built a lot better than the cheap ones at the office supply store, and will last a lot longer.  They also come with warranties to match.

Taking these factors into account, the value proposition for one of the high-end chairs starts to look a lot more attractive than it did previously.  Given my past experience with office chairs as (partially) outlined above, if I continued with my current habits I would probably find myself having to replace my chair roughly once every 12-18 months on average, and probably spending around $100 each time on the replacement (I’m just using ballpark figures here, it’s hard to say what the actual costs might be.)  The new chair I ended up buying (a Herman Miller Mirra with all the adjustment options included) ended up costing around $750 with tax from a local Herman Miller dealer that conveniently happened to be located two blocks away from my workplace, and comes with a 12 year parts and labor warranty from the factory that should ensure that I won’t need to replace my chair again for at least that long.  Going by the ballpark figures above, I could expect to be spending anywhere from $800-1200 on replacement office chairs during that same time period, which would put me somewhere between roughly even and a couple hundred dollars ahead on the pricing by going with the higher-end chair.  In addition to the cost savings, I’d also have the advantage of not having to deal with cheap junky office chairs during that time.  In other words, it’s a textbook example of the Samuel Vimes Boots Theory of Socio-Economic Unfairness (read the passage in blue) at work, as highlighted by Terry Pratchett in his Discworld books.

So to make a long story short, I have a new office chair, and I spent a whole heck of a lot more money on it than I ever expected to spend on an office chair.  With any luck, I won’t be buying another one anytime soon.  Anyway, now that I’ve got the fancy chair, all I need is a questionable business plan and some venture capital funding, and I will be well on my way to starting the next big doomed-to-fail dot-com.  Let’s see…  I wonder what the market for 24-hour door-to-door spongecake delivery looks like these days?

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