Home office remodellers fuelling surge in sales at Ottawa furniture suppliers

Bill Toutant
Bill Toutant, president of Advanced Business Interiors, says business is picking up at the Ottawa-based office furniture supplier. File photo

Remote workers looking to upgrade their home offices and employers reconfiguring commercial space to accommodate physical distancing are rekindling demand for an industry that suffered a huge setback during the COVID-19 lockdown, local office furniture suppliers say.

Bill Toutant, president of Advanced Business Interiors on St. Laurent Boulevard, says his company is delivering items such as adjustable desks and chairs to an average of 10 homes a day as more people embrace the idea of working remotely for the long haul during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve got one truck dedicated to doing that all day,” Toutant says, adding his crews generally prefer residential jobs because they don’t have to deal with hassles like waiting for elevators and clearing security. “That’s a part of the business we were not in at all. It’s easier than we thought it would be.”

While business hasn’t returned to the pre-COVID heights that saw ABI post record revenues last year, the veteran executive says he sees some light at the end of the tunnel. 

“People are starting to answer the phone now, which is good,” he says, adding that online sales have also jumped during the pandemic. 

“We’re getting some big proposals. It’s getting to the way it was a little bit. We’re starting to get people willing to come into the showroom. That didn’t happen for two or three months.”

ABI’s display area in Ottawa’s south end has been redesigned for the COVID era and now features wider corridors to allow for appropriate distancing as well as safety measures such as plexiglass panels between desks.

“That has been keeping us quite busy just educating customers,” Toutant says.

Robert Hill, a principal at Ottawa’s NUA Office, is also seeing an uptick in sales activity.

“The last two, three weeks have just been amazing,” he says. “We’re on a good little run here. Everyone seems to be starting to realize that something has to be done.” 

Fireproof panels a hot item

Hill says the recent surge has been fuelled by clients resuming office projects they’d put on hold during the lockdown as well as customers looking for products such as plexiglass screens and fireproof panels to separate newly redefined work spaces.

“That combination’s been good,” he says, adding the company’s frameless moveable glass walls are also generating a lot of interest. “We’re definitely seeing an uptick in inquiries.”

At ABI, where revenues plunged 90 per cent when the pandemic began, Toutant says his warehouse teams are working day and night trying to clear a backlog of orders that were shelved in April and May. 

A few government agencies are also starting to put out feelers about potential contracts for later this year or early next year, he adds.  

“It’ll be a slow build once they start coming back in,” he says. “That’s a big client of ours.”

Over at NUA, Hill says many of the firm’s customers, including the federal government, are still trying to figure out exactly what the office of the future is going to look like. He expects a good chunk of them will wait until the new year to pull the trigger on new purchases.

“Most clients, like everybody else, have no idea how to get through this because they’ve never done it before. We’re all learning together,” he explains.

“Revenues for 2020 are going to be down for sure, but I think we’ve got a very good chance of having our best year ever in 2021. We’re excited about what’s to come.”