How Herman Miller Inserted Itself between Knoll and Knoll’s Customers

Retail companies track customer data. This is old news.

Now, clever manufacturers are also meeting customers. In real life. Including their competitor’s customers.

Manufacturers are disintermediating and physically coming closer to their customers. This pattern is emerging from both quick-growth companies like Warby Parker and well-established brands like Herman Miller. Building out storefronts, manufacturers can now interact with customers in real life and without intermediaries.

Warby Parker started as an exclusively-online prescription glasses retailer in 2010. Controlling their products from design to delivery, they smashed the existing expectation that prescription glasses required in-person shopping. They shipped five pairs of frames for consumers to try at home through their Home-Try-On program. As of 2013, they opened their first brick-and-mortar stores and showrooms. In 2015, they opened a national retail partnership with Nordstrom as pop-up shops.

Design Within Reach Storefront
Design Within Reach Storefront

Herman Miller ups the ante on this direct-to-consumer tactic. They move closer to customers by opening a direct-to-consumer path, but also move closer to their competitor’s shoppers too.

Herman Miller primarily manufactures premium office furniture. Their signature product for almost 30 years is the Herman Miller Aeron chair, which retails for about $1,200. Aside from DWR, Herman Miller’s primary distribution is through a global network of office furniture dealers.

Design Within Reach is a high-end home and office furniture direct-to-consumer retailer, housing dozens of brands. Dotted with instantly recognizable products like Knoll Saarinen tables, Herman Miller Eames chairs, and Fritz Hansen Egg Chairs, their showrooms look like a Danish design museum — that invites everyone to touch, feel, and lounge.

Before DWR opened in 1998, retail customers lacked direct access to these high-end manufacturers and designers. They would have had to enlist intermediaries or cross the pond to source from Europe directly and wait weeks for delivery. DWR brings high-end design to metro areas across 42 North American locations.

In 2014, the Herman Miller Company acquired DWR. The acquisition of DWR brought Herman Miller closer to customers through vertical integration. What is mind-twisting about this acquisition is that DWR carries Herman Miller’s competitors too, like Knoll. Herman Miller and Knoll are direct competitors. It would be like if Tesla retailers sold Porsches alongside Model Xs. Imagine if the Warby Parker pop-up shops also sold Ray-Ban and Burberry frames.

Herman Miller embraced DWR’s well-established consumer-focused infrastructure. The direct-to-consumer platform has higher margins than operating behind the curtain of architects and interior designers, who often get discounted or bulk rates.

Herman Miller mines DWR’s sales, shopper, and display data across both Herman Miller and competitor information, which they feed back into their understanding. Digesting this intelligence about customer preferences, the DWR acquisition affords Herman Miller a stronger relationship with Knoll’s buyers than Knoll has. Further, when sales traverse through intermediaries like dealers and designers, less direct customer feedback loops back to Herman Miller.


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