SoHo attractions

A quiet revolution is taking place. The shift from a manufacturing-based economy to the tertiary or service industry means that now more than ever, workers are trying to achieve the illusive work-life balance. Gone are the days of the traditional Monday to Friday, nine to five working week. And with that comes a whole new market for office products companies to target.
Across the world, homeworking is becoming commonplace as consumers exploit all that modern technology has to offer. Broadband, WiFi, BlackBerry and Bluetooth are words that have become synonymous with today’s mobile working environment and all facilitate the quick and easy spread of information. As a result, workers are no longer chained to their desks. Instead, workers of this day and age can keep up to date with clients and projects while on the move, at home or on the beach!
According to US-based SoHo expert Jeff Zbar: "Employees are demanding greater flexibility and control in work-life balance and employers have realised that not serving this desire resulted in greater staff turnover and absenteeism as well as decreased satisfaction and productivity. A William Mercer study of 800 employers noted that work-life initiatives and flexible work arrangements cut absenteeism by 50 percent, boosted morale by 64 percent and improved productivity by 47 percent."
It is estimated by the Office for National Statistics that, as of 2004, more than 8.3 million people in the UK spend some part of their working week based at home. And, of that number, 2.7 million are mainly based at home. Meanwhile, in the US, The Telework Coalition puts the number of people who work from home at least one day a week at close to 40 million.
In the US, Zbar says that "among the strongest areas of growth in the home-business sector are contractors (plumbers, electricians, etc), home-based call agents and telephone customer service representatives as well as white-collar employees/knowledge workers who have taken their former corporate jobs home".
Explaining how the OP industry needs to court this growing sector, Anna Wright, commissioning editor of UK-based SoHo magazine In-House Executive, says: "Home- office workers are interested in, and driven by, much more than low pricing and free delivery. It’s an increasingly sophisticated market with its own unique issues, from physical space to the multi-purpose use of products for both home and work.
"As a result, workers are attracted by size and design as well as functionality and are often looking for products that will not only improve business operations and reduce operational costs, but even tackle issues related to the psychology of working from home, like curbing isolation, boosting motivation and improving networking opportunities.
"Reaching this highly lucrative, niche market is a challenge inherent in any strategic marketing campaign." 
Matching demand
And this is exactly what companies like Brother and Samsung have been trying to do. Brother is currently embarking on a large advertising campaign for its multi-function peripherals (MFPs), aimed specifically at people who work from home.
"SoHo is a huge area of interest for us," says the company’s UK sales and marketing manager Phil Jones. "We’ve done a vast amount of research in this area, specifically to do with teleworking. In the UK at the moment, it’s estimated that nine percent of the working population telework (work from home at least one day a week). And in Germany and France, the figure is approximately 8.5 percent."
The tremendous demand for home-use office products has brought about change for many OP manufacturers. One of the biggest impacts has been on the importance of product size. Home offices, by their very nature, tend to be confined spaces and so the size of a product is often the most important factor a consumer takes into consideration when making a buying decision.
Brother’s Jones says: "We have been making our products smaller. In particular, we have done a lot of work on reducing the profile of our inkjet printers so that rather than having a great big box on your desk, our machines will be no higher than 15cm. Products for the home office are definitely getting smaller."
Samsung has also responded to the needs of SoHo consumers by developing the world’s smallest colour laser printer, the CLP 300, which is the size of an A4 piece of paper as well as the world’s smallest laser MFP, the SCX 4200.
Another big change being brought about by the growing SoHo market is the importance of design. Market researcher Martin Wilde explains: "Working from home you have complete control of your working environment and so you may be more interested in the design of a product."
But it’s not just about meeting the demands of a consumer group that is more receptive to the look of a product. According to Wilde: "Design is often a way to differentiate a standardised product and is one method of sticking your head out in what is a much commoditised market. In a market that doesn’t want to compete on price and one in which you often can’t substantially change what the product does, the only alternative is to change the way your product looks."
Whatever the reason, OP companies are now giving much more consideration to design. Jones says that Brother believes product design, as well as quality, to be vital to the SoHo audience: "We’ve been quite deliberate in making cool and sexy-looking products, which have got an impressive business engine inside them."
Retail threat
Previously, a big problem for SoHo end-users was actually getting hold of products. If you weren’t aware of Viking or didn’t have a Staples store nearby, you would have to go to Dixons or PC World. Now in the UK, the big retailers are aware of the significance of the SoHo market and products are more easily available – at better prices.
UK retail giant Tesco targets the SoHo consumer by stocking office products in store and online via its Tesco Direct delivery service. Mass-market retailers have also recognised the opportunity created by providing cheap private-label compatibles to the consumer group.
They have reconsidered pack size, too. The SoHo worker is much more likely to want to buy a pack of 50 envelopes than they would a pack of 1,000. Wilde points out: "I think that retail distributors have caught on to the fact that there is a market that they hadn’t previously acknowledged."
The SoHo worker may have different priorities from the traditional office consumer, but carefully pitched products are a new source of revenue for OP companies.