Retailers figuring out what women want in their work spaces

Monday, June 11, 2007
Jennifer Selby Long is photographed in her office in San Francisco, Friday, June 1, 2007. When business entrepreneur 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." (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

NEW YORK -- 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-6, 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.

In 2003, Office Depot Inc. teamed up with decorating guru Christopher Lowell to create items such as whitewash executive desks evoking beach house decor and hutches with antique finishes.

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 will be in stores in this month.

Meanwhile, Ikea has created decor displays aimed at female entrepreneurs, such as a book store and hair salon, at its U.S. stores.

"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.

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