As he walked around the sales floor, JP Liesenfeld pointed to a group of sleek, modern chairs with a butterflylike design: the Herman Miller Aerons.
“They’re the Mercedes of office chairs,” he said.
They retail for $1,400 new. But here, at Furnish Office and Home, a nonprofit store in northeast Minneapolis that is like a Goodwill for office furniture, used models go for $399. And it has a bunch of them, as well as the slightly cheaper Mirra and Mirra 2 that companies have offloaded.
Some people drive from Wisconsin or Iowa to buy them, added Liesenfeld, the store’s general manager.
As companies shift to hybrid and remote work, they are downsizing office space or remodeling what’s left to lure employees into the office. That means a lot of abandoned office furniture.
Think floors full of empty rolling, swiveling chairs with ergonomic designs. Desks — the kinds that move up and down and the more old-school stationary ones — as well as conference tables, filing cabinets and lots and lots of cubicles.
Some of it is being recycled, especially if it contains metal. At worst, it could end up in the landfill with millions of tons of other furniture each year. For cubicles, it’s often a mix of both. The aluminum and steel inside them go to a scrap yard, and the rest ends up in a dumpster.
But for newer items from sit-to-stand desks to small filing cabinets, there’s a bustling market with an overflow of inventory as brokers and secondhand shops hustle to find a second life for the stuff.
At Furnish Office and Home, furniture donations from companies around the Twin Cities — and sales — are booming.
“Our No. 1-selling product is our clearance chairs at $10,” said Kevin Engdahl, a vice president for Emerge Community Development, which runs the business and pours its profits into job training programs. “We don’t make any money at it. But they don’t go to the landfill, and it serves a purpose.”
The store sells at least a couple hundred of those older and less resale-valuable office chairs a month. In the fall, University of Minnesota students often swing by to snap one up for their dorm rooms. Other times it can be anyone from artists to nonprofits or even hunters looking for chairs for deer stands.
With plentiful supply and better marketing, Furnish Office and Home’s sales have increased about 30% over the last two years, said Engdahl.
Eyeing an opportunity given how many offices are downsizing and relocating as their leases come up, the organization also spun out a related business in 2022 doing office cleanouts where it helps companies resell, recycle and in some cases dispose of their furniture. It’s now doing about 20 of them a month, about double the volume from a year ago, he said.
It’s hard to know how much office furniture ends up in landfills because it isn’t tracked by the state, said Melissa Wenzel, environment sustainability administrator for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
A 2018 study from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded that 17 billion pounds of office furniture goes to landfills each year, she said. But that was before the pandemic when offices were still fairly full.
Still, Wenzel said she sees more reuse happening. “There’s a lot of innovation going on,” she said.
After shuttering its City Center offices in downtown Minneapolis due to its shift to hybrid work, Target Corp. has been holding a series of auctions to find new homes for its cubicles, office chairs, couches and filing cabinets.
Wells Fargo is in the process of exiting its large home mortgage campus south of downtown Minneapolis. A company spokeswoman said the bank is waiting to see if the future buyer of the building may be interested in the office furniture.
Developer Sherman Associates is converting the nearly empty 13-story Northstar Center East office building in downtown Minneapolis and the Landmark Towers office building in downtown St. Paul into apartments. Valerie Doleman, a company senior vice president, said the company looked for ways to first reuse some of the furniture left in the building in its other properties.
“Simultaneously, we reached out to our network of not-for-profits and invited them to walk through the buildings and identify anything they need,” she wrote in an email.
Joe Pedersen, owner of TJ Office Furniture in Plymouth, gets a few calls a day from individuals with home offices or small to medium-sized businesses asking him to come look at their stuff and see if he’s interested in buying any of it to sell in his store that sells used items.
“We have probably three times the amount of furniture that we had probably two, three years ago,” he said. “The quality and quantity of furniture that we have is better than it’s ever been.”
His sales are up, too, by more than 25% in each of the last two years. His core customers are small businesses such as insurance agencies or real estate offices.
But there’s not a lot of demand for furniture that’s been around awhile, especially older desks and cubicles, he said. So he also helps businesses — including a lot of attorneys’ offices — recycle their furniture if there’s any metal in it and takes the rest to an incinerator in Minneapolis.
Jesus Omana — president of Emerald Blue, a Minneapolis-based company that specializes in furniture installation, storage and disposition — said there is a surplus of secondhand office furniture on the market right now so companies cannot always get as much money for their furniture as they would have in the past.
“There’s more furniture than can be sold,” he said, so more companies are trying to donate items to nonprofits.
There’s such an overflow in the market that it’s mostly only the newer, name-brand items from makers like Herman Miller, Steelcase and Haworth that have resale value, said Robbie Hildebrand, vice president for used office furniture seller OEB (Office Environment Brokers) Inc. in Coon Rapids.
“We’ll throw away the old wood stuff,” he said. “Nobody wants it. People are giving the stuff away on Facebook Marketplace, and they can’t get anybody to take it.”
But one thing that he’s starting to see make a bit of a comeback is cubicles.
“I’m getting calls for cubicles like crazy all of a sudden,” he said. But not for the low-walled ones that had become popular before the pandemic.
As more small- and medium-size business owners are bringing workers back to the office, companies are asking him for taller walls as workers have become accustomed to having their own space in their home offices.
“People want privacy,” said Hildebrand. “They don’t want to be so exposed in the office.”
Desks, chairs see second life
At Furnish Office and Home, customers include everyone from people outfitting home offices to small businesses — many of them owned by immigrants. Nonprofits, schools and government agencies also are shopping there.
Minnesota State Fair representatives came by the other day to pick up a bunch of chairs for training rooms, said Liesenfeld. Buyers from Minneapolis Public Schools often come by to look for desks and tables. And the University of Minnesota recently snapped up a bunch of gray and gold chairs that had been donated from T-Mobile.
“We got 170 of those benches, and now we’re down to 40 right now,” he said, pointing to colorful, padded seating that came from Cargill’s corporate offices due to a remodel.
The benches are now sprinkled all over town in nightclubs and coffee shops as well as a new in-patient treatment center, he said.
The store also had workstations for sale from Target’s office space that it purchased at a deep discount from some of the earlier auctions.
Liesenfeld chuckled that some of the people most interested in them have been Target employees who want them for their home offices.
“I had a lady the other days who was like, ‘I just want my desk and my chair back,'” he said.