Customers Help Bring a Customer Experience Promise to Life

June 8, 2006

Staples, the office supplies retailer, has outpaced its competition by deeply understanding what its target customers—small business office supplies buyers—really care about. Staples has used a variety of approaches to study customers, to engage with customers, to co-design with customers, and to co-design with suppliers to streamline customer-impacting processes.

Many companies have focused on “making it easy for customers to do business with us.” Staples® has taken “easy” to the next level. Staples focuses on making it easy for customers to buy office supplies, on making it easy for customers to do their jobs, and on making it easy for its associates to do their jobs. Over the past five years, in particular, Staples has been increasingly involving its small business customers in co-designing easier ways for those customers to get things done. The company’s tag line, “Staples: that was easy®” and the now-ubiquitous red Easy ButtonSM, that has become a brand icon, are great examples of customer-led innovation in designing and continuously refining Staples’ Easy brand promise.

Making It Easy for Small Business Customers to Buy Office Supplies

Tom Stemberg, a former supermarket chain executive turned entrepreneur, was working on a business plan over the Fourth of July weekend in 1985, when his printer ribbon broke. His regular stationery store was closed for the weekend. Tom spent several fruitless hours driving around in search of a replacement ribbon. He decided then and there that what the United States needed was an office supplies supermarket—a place that small businesspeople could count on to be open and to provide everything they’d need to run their businesses. Stemberg co-founded Staples with Leo Kahn, opening the first office supplies superstore in Brighton, Massachusetts, on May 1, 1986.

Staples’ office superstore formula filled such an obvious need that 20 competitors sprang into being within a couple of years. But through natural selection and consolidation, by early 2000, there were only three major discount office supply superstore chains in North America—Staples, OfficeMax, and Office Depot. (U.S. antitrust regulators had blocked further consolidation when Staples attempted to merge with rival Office Depot in 1997.) Staples also expanded into international markets. By 2005, Staples’ revenues topped $16 billion. The company had 69,000 employees, 1,491 stores in North America, a delivery business (for small business orders placed online and by phone), a booming contract business (for medium and large enterprises), and was serving markets in 21 countries, through acquisitions and joint ventures. North American retail accounted for 56 percent of revenues and North American Delivery accounted for 31 percent of total revenues in 2005. Although Staples organizes its business operations and financial reporting by channel—delivery vs. retail—most of Staples’ small business customers shop alternately across channels: calling in delivery orders by phone, placing delivery orders using the Web site, and popping into the nearest retail store.

Executive Summary:

Staples invented the office superstore concept in 1986 and today is the world’s leading office products company, operating 1,491 retail centers in the United States and Canada, along with more than 250 stores in Europe. It also sells products via joint ventures in Asia. Staples also serves customers through mail order catalog, ecommerce, and contract business.

Case Study Focus:

1) How to redesign processes and policies to make it easy for customers to buy office supplies—the Easy Rebates program.

2) How to align your corporate culture around your customers’ issues and your brand promise.

3) How to use deep ethnographic research to identify key customer concerns.

Target Customers:

- Small business office managers.
- Home office customers.

Customers’ Issues:

Customers want it to be easy to shop cross channel, finding the right stuff. They also want easy rebates.

Key Customer Scenarios:

Customer: I want to replenish my office supplies.

Customer: I want to get my rebate check quickly and easily. Customers’ Results:

Customers are finding the new store layouts so appealing, that the customer satisfaction level has skyrocketed to an all-time high.

Time from submitting a rebate request to receiving a check has been reduced by two-thirds.

Business Results:

At the end of its 2005 fiscal year, Staples reported that worldwide ecommerce sales had reached a record high of $3.8 billion, a 27 percent increase over 2004. Total company sales for 2005 reached $16.1 billion, an 11 percent increase over the previous year.


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