CPSC Investigates the Chair Office Depot Tried to Forget

Last month, The Safety Record Blog wrote about the Gibson Office Chair, a product sold exclusively by Office Depot, and plagued with a bad weld that often broke as occupants leaned backwards.

The Gibson was, structurally, a clone of the Biella leather desk chair, which Office Depot recalled in April. Both shared the same product registration number, were manufactured by the Wonderful Year Furniture Company in China and imported by an outfit called the Swinton Avenue Trading Company, of Boca Raton, Fla. If a slew of Internet commenters can be believed, the Office Depot staff routinely told disgruntled consumers with broken chairs to seek recompense from the importer, which was conveniently inaccessible to the public.

In April, the retail giant was silent on the fate of the Gibson model. Today, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission told SRS that the agency had opened a new investigation into the Gibson to determine if it “poses a similar risk to consumers.”

Further, Office Depot took pains to inform the CPSC that “there was an error in the identity of the importer of the Biella brand leather desk chairs. Office Depot® is the correct importer for the Biella brand leather desk chairs and also for the chairs that are the subject of the new investigation,” CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson said  

Office Depot had recalled 307,000 Biella chairs, retailing at $55. In October, Attorney Paula Wyatt informed the CPSC of the similarities between the Gibson and the Biella. Wyatt represented Nancy Losey in a civil lawsuit against Swinton Avenue Trading. The San Antonio, Texas woman needed a hip replacement after the seat weld in her Gibson Office chair snapped, sending her to the floor. The biggest differences between the Biella and the Gibson were price and have been how many complaints Office Depot got about the two. The Gibson, retailing at about $40 attracted 18 complaints, compared to the 11 complaints that got the $55 Biella recalled.

In late November, The Safety Record Blog published a story about the problem and sought a response from the CPSC about the existence of an investigation. After following the strictures of the Consumer Product Safety Act’s rule 6B, which allows a manufacturer or importer to object to negative statements about their products, the CPSC today issued its response.

The news was sweet for Florida-based blogger Jessica Clackum Herman. In late 2006, her 14-month-old Swinton Avenue Trading Company chair collapsed, after the weld at the base of the chair failed. She detailed her profoundly frustrating attempt to get satisfaction from Office Depot in a January 2007 mini-rant on her blog, Waiting for the other shoe to drop…

Like many consumers, Clackum Herman was directed to take her complaints directly to Swinton Avenue Trading Company, which had no published phone number that she could find. After getting no response from Office Depot, Clackum Herman threw out her chair. But even six years after the event, she was elated to see that something was being done.

“This is fantastic!” Clackum Herman said of the investigation. “When people think that what they say doesn’t matter, well, it does matter. You just got to get it out there and pound it home!”

Her original post attracted 300 comments full of similar stories of broken chairs, indifference from Office Depot and an untraceable manufacturer. Earlier this month, readers were still posting their reactions:

“Well, here it is December 2012 and your 2006 blog post about Swinton Ave. Trading Ltd. continues to help people. In my case, I nearly considered buying a Big and Tall chair from OD. Distributed by Swinton with a “maufacturer’s warranty”. It’s the same trap, still going after 6 years.

I have concluded that when it comes to office chairs, you either have to shell out a lot of money for a quality chair with a real warranty or you just get the kind of crap sold by OD and expect that it will last a year. It really is sad, because there was a time when chairs were made in this country by real manufacturers with real addresses. These chair makers would take pride in their work and you could count on a chair from a reputable store lasting many years.

Clearly this is not the case with OD and their alter ego, Swinton.”

Today, Clackum Herman feels like she scaled Brokeback Chair Mountain.

“The people rule!” she said.