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The growing ranks of "telecom muters" are providing mar keting opportunities to com panies that sell everything from computer systems to fancy-colored paper clips.

An estimated 7.6 million company employees work from home, up 15% from 1992, according to Link Resources, a technology researcher. There also are 24.3 million self-employed home-based workers, and 9.2 million after-hours home-workers, bringing the total number of work-at-home U.S. residents to 41.1 million.

That's 33% of the adult workforce, Link says, and the number has grown an average of 8.9% annually from 1989 through 1993.

Telecommuters account for $4.7 billion in annual spending for personal computers, fax machines and phone products and services, the researcher says. Home-workers spend about $25 billion annually on home-office electronics and phone services.

"For a long time, computer and software companies were focused on Fortune 1000 companies," says Bernadette Grey, editor-in-chief of Home Office Computing.

Computer marketers have begun to recognize the home market, introducing "home-friendly" computers for business, educational or entertainment purposes. But advertising by the three largest computer companies tends to focus more on the benefits a home computer brings to the entire family rather than on home-office workers.

Recent print ads for IBM Personal Computer Co.'s PS/1, created by former agency Lintas:New York, focus on specific features of the computer, and run in such magazines as Inc., Entrepreneur and Home Office Computing.

Apple Computer is trying to lure home-based businesses with the Macintosh Performa, which, like the PS/1, includes a fax modem and software. But, again, Apple is positioning it as a computer for the entire family with a print and TV campaign, says Kevin McDonald, manager for consumer marketing, Apple USA.

Apple ran four print ads for Performa and 12 Mac TV commercials during the holidays, from BBDO Worldwide, Los Angeles, although some of the spots were geared to business uses of the computers.

Compaq Computer Corp. also has courted the general home market, with some added attention to telecommuters, through an estimated $15 million fourth-quarter 1993 print and TV campaign that presented the computer as the easy-to-use PC for the home or small office.

"We created the Presario advertising knowing the product would be appealing to people who either take work home or who work at revenue-generating businesses based in the home," says Mark Rosen, director of advertising for Compaq. One Compaq spot, created by Ammirati & Puris, New York, discusses how Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed from midnight to 7 a.m., Ernest Hemingway was at his best before noon, and Thomas Alva Edison was inspired by the dark. Then a contemporary woman is shown walking past her sleeping children to her home office, while voiceover says: "At Compaq, we understand that ideas aren't governed by a clock."

Like computer marketers, copy shops are tailoring their services to home-based workers.

"We work as a branch office for those whose equipment goes down, or who can't afford a lot of equipment, and overflow work for large businesses," says Tammy Gentry, a spokeswoman for Kinko's Service Corp. "Our business has been absolutely impacted by the work-at-home trend."

Sears, Roebuck & Co. is also tapping into the trend, with "home-office centers" that specialize in equipment for telecommuters in 250 of its stores.

"We're seeing strong sales in home office equipment," says Perry Chlan, a spokesman for Sears Merchandise Group.

"Our customers are mainly telecommuters, people who are spending less time in the office, as well as people affected by corporate downsizing who are starting consultancies from the home."

About 30% of OfficeMax's sales are to people whose addresses aren't business addresses, says Michael Feuer, president, ceo and founder of the retail chain that operates 325 office-supply stores in 38 states.

"The technology available, along with the declining prices of equipment, makes it easy to work from home," Mr. Feuer says.

Although computers and fax machines are big sellers at OfficeMax, growing in popularity is furniture designed for home offices. The furniture is more functional while taking up less space.

Also big sellers are what Mr. Feuer calls "fashion merchandise," such as file folders in vibrant colors and colorful paperclips.

"People tend to care more about how their home office looks. They're more concerned about their working environment, since they also have to live there," he says.

The number of telecommuters is likely to continue to grow, given advances in technology and trends in society and business. Even those people who still work in offices may be doing more work at home.

Ad agency Chiat/Day recently kicked off an ambitious pilot program, popularly referred to as the "virtual office," in its Venice, Calif., headquarters.

The plan seeks to do away with traditional walled-off or partitioned work spaces, to make people more team oriented.

But employees are outfitted with portable laptops, modems and telephones that allow them to work at home-or in airports, hotels and cars.

The plan gives employees more flexibility in their work schedules but it's too soon to determine its overall effect.

While real estate costs aren't a factor in Chiat's virtual office-the agency owns its building-escalating rents could move more agencies and companies to allow workers to telecommute.M

Kinko's Service Corp. "has been absolutely impacted by the work-at-home trend. We work as a branch office."

Apple Computer pitches its Performa as as a serious business computer that's fun to use.

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