Office supply superstores vie for position in printing marketplace

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Office Max, Office Depot and Staples have each introduced programs intended to build market share of printing sales, and are putting the might of national marketing campaigns behind these new services.

Associates with printing know-how, business cards in 30 minutes and document customization are some of the new benefits these office supply superstores have debuted as they compete against one another, independent mom-and-pop copy shops and another national chain with its eye on the printing needs of small businesses: FedEx Kinko's.

A sizeable marketing campaign is but one strategy that Office Depot is putting behind its new program to provide its staff with special training in digital imaging and printing. Store associates and employees at the chain's print facilities, who have been through the training program, developed with Xerox Corp., will be certified as print experts.

Because printing "is a growth area" for Office Depot, the company is "increasing the marketing efforts accordingly" in support of printing-related programs, said Randy Pianin, SVP of its design, print and ship division. Office Depot, Delray Beach, FL, will support the new program with the marketing vehicles that the company uses, such as inserts, e-mail, radio and potentially TV.

"Traditionally, office supply superstores have focused on product," Pianin said. However, as these multichannel merchants have started to explore offering services to existing customers, printing fits their positioning well, he continued. "Right now, there are customers that aren't buying print from us and we want them to buy it from us," Pianin said.

Representatives from Office Max and Staples also indicated that the chains will be putting the full array of a typical marketing campaign behind their recently announced printing initiatives.

While there are several similarities between the new printing offerings from office supply superstores, each is also trying to differentiate its service.

For Office Depot, it's the special training that its associates are receiving. Based on customer research done by Office Depot, reliability was a key decision factor for print customers according to Pianin. So, customers will be able to identify store associates who have undergone the special training by badges reading, "Xerox Certified Print Specialists."

For Office Max, the point of differentiation is customization. Office Max recently partnered with VistaPrint to provide customers with customized printing at an affordable price as part of its "aggressive growth plan to expand services in print marketing," said Jennifer Rook, manager of public relations and sponsorships at Office Max.

The program - tested in two markets before being rolled out nationally - replaces a bound catalog that customers had to flip through when ordering business cards and letterhead. Working alone or with Office Max Impress staff, customers now use existing templates or create a customized design.

"We learned that customers need to see their creation come to life and that human interaction is necessary because customers no longer want to pick a static design out of a book," Rook said.

VistaPrint also enables Office Max, Naperville, IL, to easily offer customers a array of printing solutions, said Mike Ewing, SVP of global partnerships at VistaPrint.

"It was very hard for Office Max associates to take orders for anything where more copy or design elements are involved, such as a brochure or postcard," Ewing said.

With the new countertop kiosk, however, the ability to cross-merchandise and up-sell customers is built in.

Staples is partnering with HP to increase its share of this market by offering consumers speed, said Robert Schlacter, VP of business services at Staples, Framingham, MA.

Staples' research shows a plurality of customers who come in for business cards don't want to wait. So, the company "made a significant investment in exclusive technology" and is now the only national retailer that allows customers to design, proof and print professional-quality business cards in 30 minutes, Schlacter said. Typically, turnaround for cards takes up to seven business days.

Using a countertop kiosk, customers can choose from a large database of categorized logos, upload a custom logo or scan an existing business card to be reprinted.

Schlacter said Staples is seeing demand for the business cards not only from small businesses, but also from individuals who want "social cards" for sharing personal and online information.

Memphis, TN-based FedEx Kinko's and San Jose, CA-based Adobe made noise in the print world in June when they announced that users of Adobe Reader and Acrobat softwares would soon click on an icon on the main toolbar and send documents directly to FedEx Kinko locations for printing. But, after the printing industry reacted negatively to this news due to the impact on smaller printers, Adobe said that it will remove the link to FedEx Kinko's on its new software.

With the three largest office supply superstores all talking up their own printing partnerships soon after, it's possible smaller printers weren't the only ones to notice the FedEx Kinko's-Adobe deal, some say.

"It wouldn't surprise me if the FedEx Kinko's-Adobe deal accelerated some announcements," said Bill Lamparter, chief consultant at PrintCom Consulting Group, Waxhaw, NC. However, these kinds of deals take too long to put into action for them to have been a knee-jerk reaction, he noted.

The bigger question among printers is whether these big retail chains are a part of the printing industry or are interlopers, Lamparter said. Printers are competing against each other every day, he continued, but the likes of Staples and FedEx Kinko's can bring a lot to the table that small, regional operators can't, such as national marketing, brand recognition and convenience.

It's also possible that these chains are better able to negotiate on cost with printing suppliers thanks to their size.

"By striking these deals, [these chains] are leveraging their volume against the cost of the equipment and the toner," Lamparter said, while cautioning that he doesn't have any direct knowledge that this is the case.

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