Office supply chains apply integrated ?strategies to stoke sluggish sales

Founded 1985
2,280 stores worldwide

Office Depot
Founded 1986
1,145 stores worldwide

Office supply chains Staples and Office Depot started the year in equally disappointing fashion. ?

Staples blamed January storms and weak e-commerce sales on its $24.5 billion revenue in fiscal 2010, which saw sales increase only 1% compared with fiscal year 2009. Office Depot’s interim CEO Neil Austrian said the company would “market [its] products and services as never before” to improve on the company’s $11.6 billion fiscal revenue for 2010, in which the company witnessed a 4% drop in sales compared with fiscal 2009. Austrian was named permanent chairman and CEO in May of this year.?

Other new top executives at the company include Bob Moore, its EVP and CMO, and Kevin Peters as president of North America, a new position. The retailer also combined its North American retail and business solutions divisions and split the role of EVP of e-commerce and direct marketing into two roles. ?

Like the delicate footing on which both companies began the year, Office Depot and Staples share a similar approach to integrated marketing. Both brands operate e-commerce pages, social media communities, loyalty programs, automated email programs and online catalogs. The channels are the same, but how each brand designs, structures and executes each channel separates the two merchants.

Staples’ weak e-commerce sales could be directly attributed to the presentation of its e-commerce page, which Paul Notzold, senior digital creative director at Aspen Marketing Services, criticizes for its cluttered appearance. Staples’ online sales channel, he says, “hits me with at least nine different offers right off the bat. A lot of times, these sites are designed by VPs who want to make sure the savings and offers are upfront. I think that leads to a lousy user experience to get to what I want.” ? presents a hodgepodge of offers. On Oct. 24, for example, visitors were greeted by 17 promotions, including “Plates and Cutlery as low as $1.99” and “15.99 Quilted Northern Bath Tissue.” Staples, Notzold argues, “makes it hard for me to even think of where to begin.”, on the other hand, featured only six offers at a time on Oct. 24. To avoid bombarding consumers with products, it applies a rotating advertisement, as opposed to cramming all its ads onto one stationary page. ?

Office Depot and Staples declined to comment.?

Notzold’s evaluation of both brands’ online catalogs was similar to his assessment of their e-commerce sites. “Both are fine,” he says. “But I feel like the Office Depot catalog has a direct interface and is much cleaner and straightforward about how it works. Staples has a lot of navigation at the top and it made me feel like I had to learn their navigation just to get through the catalog.” ?

Office Depot’s online catalog features nine buttons that allow consumers to navigate, share and print the digital booklet. On the other hand, Staples’ catalog features 16 buttons, including an unnecessary “Request a Catalog” button that brings consumers back to the page that originally brought them to the online catalog. ?

Kara Trivunovic, global director of strategy for the Agency Services division of StrongMail, a social media and email marketing technology services provider, says Staples’ catalog “feels very much sterile.” She praises Office Depot for “its colorful photography and its more structured layout.” ?

Trivunovic also prefers Office Depot’s approach to email marketing. Although she commends both companies for their simple subscription registration system, she elevated Office Depot’s approach because it collects user information. ?

Laura Saati, VP of strategic marketing services at integrated marketing agency 89 Degrees, prefers Staples’ email marketing approach. “I give Staples the gold star from a welcome message perspective,” she says. “I received an immediate plain text confirmation. I received a traditional welcome email 36 hours later.” She says the welcome email was designed in a “well laid-out HTML message that was very clean and compelling.” ?

Office Depot’s email, she explains, “was a little less product-?centric. It was like a large hero image of a woman at her laptop and it was too text-heavy.” ?

Saati also prefers Office Depot’s Worklife Rewards loyalty program to the Staples Rewards Program. The programs are similar in that they offer 10% off most purchases, unlimited rewards and online rewards redemption. However, Saati says she “felt a bit ?disconnected” from Staples because the retailer provided “no pointer from my online shopping account to my rewards program.” ?

Office Depot’s online shopping program, on the other hand, “asked if I had a loyalty account and prompted me to input my loyalty card number,” she says. ?

Staples may fall short of expectations on most channels, but the brand seems to understand the power of social media. The office supplies retailer boasts more than 186,000 Facebook fans and a Twitter following of 175,000. The retailer uses the social platforms to make offers and customer service and for general communications with consumers. “I found Staples’ social presence to be a bit more interactive and snazzy,” says Saati. “They had a deliberate sale on Facebook. You had to click the ‘like’ button to see their Facebook offers, which provides some intrigue.” ?

Staples forces consumers to “like” its Facebook page to view exclusive offers and weekly ads, a subtle technique that both Notzold and Saati commended. The salesmanlike approach to Staples’ social effort was a turnoff for Trivunovic. Although Office Depot has a Facebook community of 176,000 fans and only 16,000 Twitter followers, Trivunovic says the company uses social media effectively to “encourage fans and followers to engage.” ?

Conversely, Notzold and Saati agree that Office Depot’s engagements feel unfocused and superfluous. In response to several posts on Office Depot’s Facebook page touting its sponsorship of Nascar driver Tony Stewart, Notzold says, “They may find that Tony Stewart is a draw for consumers to ‘like’ them, but I’m not sure I want my Tony Stewart news coming from Office Depot.”?

“Though the conversational tone on Office Depot’s page is nicer than the tone on Staples’ page,” he adds, “Staples is a little bit more effective in touting their products.”?

Trivunovic says she doesn’t think social media should be used merely to push product, but she does appreciate Staples’ use of social for promotions. “Staples’ approach to e-commerce is more effective on their Facebook page than on their e-commerce page,” she says.

Brand Champion

If Staples applied the simplified and focused ?selling techniques it uses on Facebook and ?Twitter to other channels, the brand would be able to compete with the smaller, more efficient Office Depot. Staples’ catalog and e-commerce offerings are too complicated for the average consumer to use and its email marketing ?strategy is too simple. Fortunately for Staples, it effectively uses social media, or this head-to-head would have been a shutout.

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