Give Consumers What They Want: Cardboard Furniture
I recently met with Dara Schaier, a soon-to-be graduate of Goizueta Business School at Emory University who is starting a company that builds furniture out of cardboard (called, appropriately enough, Built Out Of Paper). I’m writing about this not because the business itself has been impactful since it hasn’t even started. I’m writing about it because what it means is important.
Schaier explains that corrugated cardboard (if you don’t know the term, the picture below will remind you that you’ve seen it millions of times) has fantastic strength. The corrugation structure makes the cardboard strong in the same way that forming steel into an I-beam or a bridge truss enhances the strength of the material. Except for when it comes in contact with water, corrugated cardboard is very durable. Schaier’s first product will be the bookshelf in the picture above.
Schaier is targeting her product at recent college graduates, setting up their first home, getting their first job, seeking to establish themselves on an independent path, developing their adult lives. She is addressing the market of younger millennials, people ages 2126.
Defining An Important Demographic Group
Michael Parrish DuDell, Chief Strategy Officer of Coupon Follow, has been studying that group extensively for the last 10 years. He cites the work of Psychology Professor Jeffrey Arnett who identified people between the ages of 18 and 25 as emerging adults. They are physically adults but they are not truly independent. They are not ready
to make the commitments that full adults make to relationships, careers, homes and their own identity. Schaier is using what Arnett calls the in-betweenness of that group to offer them a product that works well for the transient nature of their lives. Parrish says that when boomers were young, they were eager to make their first, enduring purchases of furniture and establish heirlooms and traditions. Emerging adults aren’t ready for that. They want to live comfortable lives without making the kinds commitments their parents made when they were in their early 20s. Where boomers wanted products that lasted, their emerging adult children know that what they do and what they buy now will not be permanent.
Cardboard furniture has other attributes that appeal to millennial and Gen-Z consumers. It’s not just suited to their outlook and lifestyle, it’s environmentally responsible. Cardboard is made of 70% recycled materials and the entire product can be dropped in the recycle bin when it’s no longer wanted. It’s lightweight so an Emerging Adult doesn’t have to borrow a car to bring it home. It can be assembled easily without any tools, giving the consumer a positive, relatable experience with the product.
Establishing a brand based on cardboard furniture allows for interesting brand expansion. If the product and the brand gain acceptance, the business can expand into other types of environmentally-friendly products for the home beyond cardboard furniture.
What’s interesting about the idea of cardboard furniture isn’t so much the furniture itself. It’s the idea that the product is in alignment with the life stage and value system of a certain kind of consumer that is only now being recognized. When the alignment between a person’s life and a product works, the consumer sees value and doesn’t need discounts or liquidation sales to be motivated to buy.
Where New Ideas Come From
With all the turmoil going on in retail, you’d think the world of legacy retailers and brands would be experimenting like crazy. But the only major retailers we see creating drastic experiments are Amazon and Walmart. Walmart has come late to the game of radical change but they are hard at it now following their purchase of Jet.com and the multiple acquisitions that have followed. Amazon’s most profitable business, Amazon Web Services, had previously been an internal division providing services only to Amazon. Amazon had the silly idea to offer it to customers and in 2016 that generated over $4 billion in operating income and supported all of Amazon’s other experimentation in retail.
Thinking radically has gone out of retail in the last 20 years. As financial pressure has mounted, retailers and fashion brands have done what they can to reduce risk, not to increase it. With the change in consumer tastes happening so fast now, the approach of reducing risk is limiting retailers to tinkering while calamity hovers above their heads.
Change always comes from the outside, we keep seeing that over and over. The person who invented wheeled luggage wasn’t in the luggage business, he was a pilot. Albert Einstein was a patent office clerk when he developed his most impactful theories. Now a newly-minted MBA student is coming up with radical ideas for the furniture business. I’m not saying that cardboard furniture will be successful, I don’t know. I’m saying that now is the time to turn retail on its head and try everything new that might resonate with consumers. The alternative isn’t reduced risk, it’s the end of many established businesses.