Steelcase Tries MidMarket Chair

    GRAND RAPIDS — In bringing the new Think office chair to market, Steelcase Inc. seeks to fill a gap in its seating product line.

    Developed over two years at a cost of $10 million, the Think chair will compete in the mid-market price category.

    That puts it in competition with the Mirra chair of Herman Miller Inc. that launched a year ago and has exceeded sales expectations.

    In Think, Steelcase is taking the design principles behind its Leap chair introduced four years ago and bringing them into a product that sells at a lower price. Think, which made its debut last week at NeoCon, will sell for prices that start at $600 and go up to $1,000. The chair won an Editor’s Choice award in the 2004 Best of NeoCon design competition.

    Todd Memmelaar, an assistant product manager for seating at Steelcase, says Think is the result of demands from Steelcase customers for an office chair that offers many of the ergonomic benefits and functions of Leap but at a lower price.

    Memmelaar describes Think as a simplified version of Leap.

    “We think we have a great product in Leap. We feel we had a gap in our product portfolio that we wanted to bring a chair out at that level,” Memmelaar said. “What we sought to do is redefine that segment.”

    Steelcase anticipates selling 140,000 Think chairs during the first year of production and “several thousand” additional units in subsequent years, he said.

    Think, which Steelcase will produce in Grand Rapids, will go on sale in the United States in July, start shipping in August, move into the European market in October and into Asia during 2005.

    Driving customer demand for products in the mid-market segment is the U.S. economic and business climate of recent years that has companies looking for more value in capital purchases.

    In Think, Steelcase seeks to accommodate that trend and pick up business in a previously untapped market segment.

    “Without a doubt, the last three years of the economy have driven a lot of companies to do more with less, look for economy and make investments wisely,” said James Ludwig, the Steelcase director of design.

    “There’s a whole category there. There’s a whole market potential.”

    Beyond price, Think is Steelcase’s response to another market demand: environmentally friendly products that appeal to companies with sustainable business practices.

    Think is made of 99 percent recyclable materials and 41 percent recycled materials. The product uses no PVC.

    “Not only is it comfortable and beautiful but it has a great environmental solution,” said Frank Merlotti Jr., Steelcase North America president.

    Steelcase says that, functionally, the chair features intuitive controls that fluidly react to a user’s posture, weight and movements — hence the name, because the chair seems to “think” for you.

    “This is a chair with a brain and a conscience,” Merlotti said, linking Think’s functions with its environmentally friendly components.

    Think sports a backing that’s made of thin meal cables and a mesh material, known as “technical knit,” to support the user and allow airflow.

    The backing comes in six colors.

    Just like Herman Miller last year with Mirra, Steelcase doesn’t see the new mid-market seating product drawing attention or business away from its high-end chair.

    By offering a mid-market seating product, Steelcase believes it can generate new business and attract new customers, Merlotti said.

    “It’s at a price point all its own,” he said.

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