By John W. Verity
All I wanted, all I needed, was a decent chair--a good, solid chair--in which I might sit comfortably and do my work at the computer. But what I got . . . well, it was just one big pain in the you-know-what.
I'd been working from home for about a year when I decided to treat myself to a better chair. Friends called me crazy, but I decided to go the mail order route. A folksy catalog offered about 25 "task chairs" at seemingly reasonable prices; I went for a $300 model that supposedly tilted and adjusted this way and that, was "deliverable in three days," and came with a money-back guarantee. Most alluring of all, the catalog touted this "ergonomic, orthopedic" wonder as "one of the 10 best chairs in the world," according to the company president--a man who'd "testified before Congress" about spines and chair design.
I thought it only slightly suspicious that such an expert as this was left unnamed. But three weeks and several phone calls later when my chair finally arrived, I understood perfectly his desire for anonymity. This, I now realized, was The Chair from Hell.
The assembly instructions, for instance, arrived in the form of a one-page, 10th generation photocopy that actually referred to an entirely different product. It took a long half-hour and a call to the product's Midwest manufacturer for me and my girlfriend to get my chair's many pieces together. One look, though, and we could see that the whole thing was misaligned, from its miserably crooked back panel to its visibly lopsided seat. Sitting on this chair was painful after barely a minute.
That night, I faxed Dealer X a long letter explaining my disappointment. I got no response, and when I called two days later, some executive, feigning surprise, mumbled something about how many of these items they've sold and how "nobody ever complained before." There was no offer of a new or better chair, no attempt whatsoever to keep me as a customer. Even my refund arrived two weeks late.
Since then, I've had little time to shop for another chair beyond scanning the Web. There, I've learned a good deal about the office furniture business: The maker of my chair, for instance, went bankrupt last year. What's more, I discovered a huge marketplace dealing in generic, no-name office furniture. Manufacturers and downsized corporations sell chairs and desks in bulk to various dealers who refurbish them as needed and relabel them. Which means, of course, that the chair I first saw in that catalog has never really existed. The dealer just fills orders with any chair he can find that more or less matches the description in the catalog and earns the company a good profit.
Perhaps there's nothing wrong with all this. Perhaps I shouldn't have shopped by phone for something as important as an office chair. In the end, all I can offer is this one piece of advice: Try before you buy. Your back, your butt and your brain will thank you.
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