Why are office chairs so damned expensive?

I’ve been meaning to look into buying a new chair to use at my computer desk as the chair I currently use is a freebie we got when we got together with Anne’s siblings and bought my father-in-law a new TV set a couple of years back. The chair is functional, but meant to be used for watching TV so it’s not the greatest computer chair I’ve ever owned. Plus it’s falling apart after several years of abuse during marathon Call of Duty and Counterstrike battles.

As a result I’ve been paying attention to the sales at places like Office Max or Staples whenever I happen into their confines and I’m amazed how much they want for a chair that looks like it’s ready to fall apart right there in the store. Granted I don’t do a lot of furniture shopping, but I’d have thought that for $69 you should get a fairly decent chair. Apparently I was wrong. To get a fairly decent chair you have to spend several hundred dollars it seems.

Listening to NPR as much as I do I often hear about an online shop called Sit4Less.com and so I checked them out. The cheapest chair they offer is one of those kneeling non-chair chairs and it costs $89.99. From there it jumps up to $249.99 for a standard office chair that doesn’t look all that different from what Office Max is selling for $69.99. Most expensive? This Herman Miller Eames Lounge Chair going for “only” $3,125. My couch didn’t cost that much money. Hell, I’ve bought cars for less than that. For that much money it better have a secret compartment filled with diamonds or crack cocaine.

After perusing what a good chair will cost I’m once again back to considering the cheap (in more ways than one) crap they peddle at the local Office Max, though I’m sure they don’t appreciate me describing it as such. Anne bought me an “executive style” chair from an office supply catalog— thus ensuring years of receiving catalogs from said company despite not buying a single other thing from them since—back when I first moved into the apartment we just vacated that cost around $79 or so and it worked pretty well until one of the arms decided to break, which is a problem mainly because the arms are the only thing holding the back of the chair on. Even then we continued to use it up until we moved out when we finally threw it into the trash. To tell the truth I didn’t really feel like we’d gotten the full $79 worth of it… until I started pricing a new chair.

This has made me very nostalgic for the computer room of my youth which had two official Michigan Bell Operator chairs my mother brought home one day when they were getting rid of them for newer furniture. They weren’t particularly special, your typical caster chairs with no arms on them, but they were comfortable enough for extended periods and they were built solid enough to commit murder with. My mother still owns at least one of them some 25 years later and it’s still working great. If I knew something I was going to buy now would be that comfortable and last that long I might be willing to invest a hundred, or perhaps even two hundred, dollars into it. Maybe. I’d feel guilty about it though. So I suppose I’ll have to wait until spring and start hounding garage sales to see what I can find.

26 thoughts on “Why are office chairs so damned expensive?

  1. Now, to be fair, the Eames Lounge Chair isn’t a desk chair – it’s a fall-asleep-watching-TV chair. As for the cost of a good chair, well, Uncle Herman (my noble employer) does make a heck of a better product than the Office Depot chairs, and they don’t do it in China, and the warranty is 12 years even if you use it 24/7 for multiple people. I can’t get you a discount on a new one, but if you’re ever in West MI, I can take you to the HMI Company Store, where they sell warranty returns and the like, and get you a proper chair there, at my discount. Your back will thank you…


  2. My chair was quite cheap – it’s from Ikea. Not that great but it lets you sit on it – surely you can’t ask a chair to do much more than that?

  3. I just bought a new chair.  Office Max had the better prices.  I got a leather for $130, sat in all their chairs, my big search was for something with a seat cushion that’ll last a while.  The ads are all big on lumbar and back support, but fuck lumbar, I can buy strap on lumbar.  Where’s the selection of ass cushoinry???  My old chair’s cushion is mush, and I have’nt found anything that looks like it’d make a decent lasting cushion.  At least, nothing that cost LESS than a new chair.  OTOH, a decent chair that I could change the cushion out of would be cool.  I did wonder if I could retrofit a zipper or buttons onto the seat cover.

    When I looked at Staples and Office Despot, their similar chairs were in the $200+ range.

    When I first got out of school, my computer chair was a metal folding one.  Yep, talk about limiting computer time.  I could pull maybe 3 hours max.  When I got my first padded office chair, I spent 6 hours in front of Dark Forces w/o realizing it.

    Good luck in the chair hunt.

  4. Buying a cheap office chair from an office store is a big no-no.  Trust me, I’ve wasted money on three chairs from office depot and office max in the last 10 years of my computing existence.  When we moved to Spokane and shopped for furniture, we found several furniture stores selling office chairs for very reasonable prices.  I have an adjustable, rocking-type chair, that is made of all metal, welded parts that is very comfy.  It only cost $45.  A similar chair at our local office depot had plastic parts and cost twice as much.  Check local furniture stores before making a purchase.

  5. Is there any place near your home where you can pick up a second-hand office chair?  Is there a nearby university that sells used office equipment (desks, monitors, old computers, etc…) to the public? 

    I agree that a cheap OfficeMax chair is not the way to go.  The first chair I bought from them broke within a year.  I gave in and dropped around $250 for one of the nicer office chairs and I have had good luck with it so far (2 years and counting).

  6. It’s definitely not for everybody, but the Swopper is my favorite work ‘chair’.  A few years ago I caught my boss in a ‘spend-funding-now’ mood and sold it as a handicap accomodation, which it is.  The Swopper has gone with me around campus as no one else quite knows what to make of it.

    I also built my own desk so my work surface is a matching 34” high – I work upright and move a lot.  I do wish I could afford one at home, though.

  7. I bought a chair from Staples for $89 ten years ago. I still have it, I use it daily (though, granted, I’m not a gamer so it doesn’t get as much of a workout), and my back loves it. (I decided on which chair to buy by testing them all when my back was just slightly sore.) I seem to be among the few, though. (And for the record, I really dislike the Aeron chairs and similar things. They don’t give my back the support it needs. I’m just built oddly, I guess.)

    You might also look at office surplus stores – I know that my area has lots of them, with all the computer company churn (especially from 2001-2003). If you find a chair that you loveloveLOVE and can’t find it in office supply / surplus stores around there, I can check some of the $ilicon Valley surplus warehouses. The cost of shipping would be up there, but combined you’d probably be spending a couple hundred dollars rather than a couple thousand.

  8. We’ve got a store here in Portland that buys up all of the failed dot-com office stuff and resells it on the cheap, like 25% of the cost.  Never buy anything new if you can help it.

    Businesses pay out the wang for this stuff for a number of reasons – looks business-like, cheaper than an ergonomics lawsuit, plus they get to write off the depreciation.

    When I was a student, my desk chair was two milk crates stacked up with a pillow on top so I didn’t get that diamond pattern stamped into my ass.  Did fuk-all for lumbar support, but the price couldn’t be beat.

  9. My original $100 chair from Staples lasted me through 6 years and as many domiciles.  It took almost as many trips in a pickup as I did, and it still came out tough.  It was definitely ageing, but still servicable, but I got rid of it because it had encouraged my bad habit of slouching.  I’m trying to kill that habit. 

    When I moved to Albuquerque, I replaced it with a pretty nifty Hon chair – when I lean back, the seat slopes and the armrests move with the back.  I got it at an auction for $50, assembled but no evidence of previous use.  I saw the same chair at a store a couple weeks later for $650.  Its nice, but not $650 nice unless you can afford to throw money out of a window for a pastime.  I think it’s actually worth about $200.  Probably one of the best bits of bargain shopping I’ve ever done, though, and it doesn’t encourage me to slouch as much.

  10. Dad turned the said chair from my Bell days upside down to check for a name.  Alas it was made by Western Electric which is long gone from this world.  Sorry son!

  11. Thanks for all the suggestions. I’d considered trying to track down a local office surplus store to see what I could see, but haven’t done so yet. Ikea will be a possibility before too much longer as the store in Canton is about half-way done now.

    Did, where abouts in Western Michigan are you speaking? It may be worth the trip to check it out. grin

    Mom, Western Electric made chairs?!?

  12. Well, the company store is in the Christian Conservative Center of the Universe, AKA Zeeland. There may be a force field that won’t allow you do get in to the town. I think I only get in to the city limits because I’ve got family and employment there, otherwise I’d burst into flames or something.


  13. Zeeland? Wow, been awhile since I’ve heard that name. I’m pretty sure I could get in. I’ve stepped in a large number of churches over the years without some much as a singeing so far.

  14. I’d never heard of FreeCycle before. That’s pretty damned cool. Thanks for letting me know about that, Miri.

  15. My brother got me a gift two years back which was a Herman Miller Mirra chair, and it’s holding true to this day.  The expensive chair I sat in previously for only a year had been so worn out that I needed to put pillows on it before I sat down because my ass wore away the padding and leather from sitting on it all day (and I only weigh 160 pounds).  It’s a pretty comfortable chair, but I think it’s a bit pricey.

  16. The summer of 1991, I bought MY office chair at a professional office furniture store that was moving across town into a newer, bigger building.  They wanted to get rid of all the inventory.
    Even then, I paid $149 plus tax for this chair.  It is made by The HON Furniture Company of Muscatine, Iowa.
    It fits all my expectations—once adjusted to my short height—it stays strong; there are curved arms; the back hits me just right for lumbar support.
    It is almost too good, I don’t leave it often enough.

    The chair over by my study table I got at the thrift store and is holding up quite well for the $10 I paid for it.  Although the fabric itches when I am wearing shorts, so I put a cotton towel over the seat.

    You are on a tight budget, but please do not scrimp on a sturdy and comfy chair.

  17. It’s definitely not for everybody, but the Swopper is my favorite work ‘chair’.  A few years ago I caught my boss in a ‘spend-funding-now’ mood and sold it as a handicap accomodation, which it is.  The Swopper has gone with me around campus as no one else quite knows what to make of it.

    DOF, how does the thing work, and whats the advantage of it? The website isn’t all that helpful. Probably would need to see a video…

    I have had some nice experiences with ‘kneeling’ chairs, having had one where you could really fold into it (it wasn’t just a knee bar).

    Now that I have moved to NZ, I got myself a cheap and amazingly durable chinese-made office chair. Simple steel (or cast iron?) covered with plastic for the armrests that hold the leather parts together. Feels like I could drop it from the top of the building without breaking it.

  18. DOF, how does the thing work, and whats the advantage of it?

    Hard to describe but you get the idea immediately when you sit on one.  It swivels frictionlessly, tilts in any direction, and can bounce up and down.

    The advantage is movement.  Any regular chair, no matter how well designed, severely limits movement.  I have fibromyalgia and it’s really not too big problem as long as I keep moving.  But an hour in a regular chair can be very uncomfortable, and two hours (such as a movie house) can be downright painful.  Needless to say this causes problems in auto trips, plane flights, and long staff meetings.  It also makes sleep difficult as one doesn’t move much during sleep.  By 3: am, even with a very fancy mattress, I am often up and moving around because of pain.

    I exercise a lot because a muscle specialist told me; ‘with this syndrome you have a choice of weak muscles that hurt or strong muscles that hurt.’

    You can’t ‘Swop’ unless you have pretty good upper-abdominal strength.  Most fancy chairs boast advanced ‘back support’ but I realized a while ago that the best back support is the muscles attached to your bones, not the foam rubber attached to the chair.  So I’m at the gym 3 or 4 times a week doing cardio and strength training.

    I believe the Swopper is made in Germany.

  19. I believe the Swopper is made in Germany.

    Which I just left for work reasons. So I probably won’t be checking Swopper out soon anyways, what with the heavy import taxes here.

    Having some growing back problems as well, I SHOULD look into doing some working out, though…

  20. I know this may be obvious advice to some … but I spend a lot of time in front of the computer … and I make a point of stretching regularly. Ever since I started doing that my back and neck problems have disappeared, literally overnight. I also stretch if I’m playing piano or guitar for long periods, and I also do it before bed and in the morning, usually in the shower.

    I usually don’t go more than an hour on any repetitive task without standing up and *slowly* moving my shoulders, neck and lower back around to the limits of their extension … just straightening my posture out basically … for at least a couple minutes at a time. Beats dropping $70 on a hastily booked massage to soothe debilitating work stopping cramps brought on by hours of data entry/gaming/writing/music practise. Also I’ve never found that muscle pain meds (over the counter kind) work well.

    If your sitting posture sucks like mine does and you’re doing repetive tasks with your hands and arms, no amount of money spent on a chair can save you from back and neck pain in the long run. A while back I realized that literally everything I do in my life (music, computer work, extended car/air travel, mastur…er…ah…never mind) contributes to my bad posture and/or neck/shoulder/lower back pain. Regular stretching did the trick for me. (That and one of those blow-up neck pillows for flying.) Anyway, thought I’d “toss” that out there for anyone who doesn’t already know the joys of a good scheduled stretch …

  21. “We’ve been stretching for half an hour now!  When does the Yoga start?”
    – Hank Hill, to his Yoga instructor, in the episode where he had back pain.  LOL

    Excellent advice, rgip.  It reminded me of the Hank Hill quote.

  22. It does pay to invest in a good chair. The Aeron for example or the Dauphin Viper Chair are in the expensive but affordable bracket and it pays for itself when you can get work done for 8 hours straight with no back pain. Check out gorillasite.com

  23. You are absolutely right. It seems awfully suspicious that an all metal patio set cost less than 1 metal-framed office chair. It is quite obviously a scam. They build this stuff as cheaply as they can, sacrificing quality and function for asthetics. It doesnt take a genius to figure out that the arm isn’t supposed to support the back. While this looks just fine, it isn’t functional…and they know it. I’ve owned 3 or 4 chairs in 2 years and every one of them had this design…and every one of them broke in the same spot. I’m 6ft 3in and 240lbs so of course I am not the average size person but I am convinced that the materials used to make a chair with even a 1000lbs weight capacity would not cost $3000. I can but a set of ramps for my car for $20. It isn’t anything to do with being made in China either. Yes China makes junk but so does the good ol USA. I’m afraid we are stuck on this one. I am currently looking for a chair with a 500lbs+ weight capacity that is full metal-framed and warranted for life. I can either pay crazy high prices for high quality or keep these criminal companies alive by buying their junk. Hmmm….let me think….

  24. Yeah bro I feel ya. I just use a dining room woven chair for my computer because they are too expense for PLASTIC chairs.

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