Have you visited a Staples store lately?

Posted by Allan Steinmetz on 6 March 2020

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Have you visited a Staples lately? Expect a shock the next time you walk into a store

I haven’t visited a Staples store in quite some time. I knew they had been going through changes. For instance:

  • In 2017, the private equity group Sycamore Partners made a successful bid of $6.9 billion to purchase Staples. They immediately implemented a management makeover by appointing a new CEO, as well as many other senior staff members.
  • Soon after, they sold the Staples corporate headquarters for $165 million through a leaseback.
  • Next came store closings and layoffs across the entire retail network, including corporate headquarters.
  • Last April, they announced a major rebranding effort, which was accompanied by a flurry of new product offerings and affiliate marketing programs. At the front and center was a handsome new logo featuring a highly stylized staple that looks like a desk with a chair behind it.
  • They have been working on revitalizing their store format to improve the customer retail experience and better position themselves to compete with OfficeMax, Amazon, and Walmart.com.

Honestly, I didn’t think they were going to pull it off. I suspected they would eventually go out of business, just like Toys R Us, Payless Shoes, and Gymboree. I thought Staples would become another victim of consumer online shopping with free delivery.

The facts and research suggest this possibility. According to Coresight Research, over the course of one year, retail store closures jumped about 60%, from 5,844 in 2018 to over 9300 store closures in 2019. You think that's bad? As online shopping continues to grow, another 75,000 stores could be lost by 2026, according to investment bank UBS.

Yesterday, I casually walked into my local neighborhood Staples store to buy a case of copy paper as I was driving home from the office. I haven’t been in Staples in over three months, and I expected the same old format, overhead fluorescent lighting with office supplies stacked high on shelves in tight crowded aisles with office furniture and electronic equipment. I was ready to see the familiar red and white overhead signage, the copy center over on my right, and the service center over on my left. My local store was easy to navigate; I knew, generally, where everything was. I knew I could get help if it was needed it, just as their old slogan used to say, “that was easy”.

Boy was I surprised! Honestly, I wasn’t even sure I was at Staples; the place looked entirely different. I knew it would take some time to get used to. They changed the recognizable RED brand identity from the storefront to a new muted gray. They added the word CONNECT. The place looked more like a WeWork workspace for entrepreneurs, business owners, and freelancers than a place you go to buy office supplies.

I was greeted at the front door by a well-dressed individual (they ditched the red golf shirts) who was versed and knowledgeable about the changes and why they took place. He looked like a business entrepreneur himself. At first, I wasn’t sure if he was a customer, like me, or an employee. He explained that the store is now called “Staples Connect”.  It was a new, reimagined store. He said it was the first of six Boston-area stores redesigned to provide hands-on learning, including coworking, podcasting, and community spaces. He explained that this was the new direction Staples was taking in hopes of rolling out more stores nationally in the future.

As someone who knows a lot about retailing, I was “blown away” by this transformation, and also very impressed by the look, feel, tone, and manner of the entire footprint and staff I met. When I got back to my office, I visited their website and read their press release, and here is what I found:

  • Staples Connect is a reinvented store format with co-working, podcasting, and community event spaces where professionals, teachers, and students alike can connect and grow together. This new store concept is built around the ever-evolving needs of the retail customer, with a focus on community, hands-on learning, and solutions.
  • Staples Connect has come to life in six stores. More than just a place to make a transaction, Staples Connect is a destination dedicated to continued curiosity, growth, and development.
  • Research shows that much of what customers are seeking is real human interaction with members of their community and industry, which is key to productivity and growth. At Staples Connect, we do more than just supply your success through product offerings, we wholeheartedly support it.

Their press release further explained, “The new Staples Connect store illustrates a commitment to lifelong achievement at every stage”. New elements of each fully transformed store include:

  • SpotlightSpace: A free in-store event space designed as a platform for the personal and professional development of the community. In the nearly 500 square foot space, customers can connect and learn by hosting or attending events such as speaker sessions, workshops, seminars, meetings, and more. For a full list of events, visit StaplesConnect.com/events.
  • Podcast Studio: Through a collaboration with iHeartRadio, the Staples Connect Podcast Studio provides dedicated space for storytellers and small businesses to record and let their voices be heard. The space features a soundproof room with professional equipment for up to four people, with a dedicated specialist available in-store to help you along the way.
  • Staples Studio: A collaborative coworking space that provides entrepreneurs, small businesses, and students access to private or shared offices, community kitchens, meeting rooms, and brand-new technology. Staples Studio is currently available on a membership basis, and members have access to seven Studio locations and an on-site manager. Perks include: unlimited meeting room use, unlimited black, and white printing, TSA PreCheck™ enrollment, 10% off supplies and services, free parking (excludes Government Center location), free podcasting access, and a fully stocked breakroom.
  • SolutionShop: The store layout features a new way of shopping, focused on building solutions for home offices, small businesses, and classrooms. Every Staples Connect store features a variety of services to help achieve your goals as part of the SolutionShop, including:
    • Printing & Marketing Services (not new, but totally refreshed)
    • Tech Services (again, not new, but more prominent within the store)
    • TSA PreCheck enrollment
    • Professional services offered by selected partners including marketing, tax & finance, and legal

I was pleasantly surprised. I came away feeling that the store was indeed reimagined. It was entirely new and different. It reminded me of nothing that represented the old Staples. It didn’t feel like the past; it represented a leap forward. I felt as if they were responding to demand by launching an entirely new business and shopping experience for customers.

As a business owner, they created a reason for me to want to come into a store rather than rely on my online shopping experiences alone. Indeed, I can now come to their store to enhance my business community and network with businesspeople outside my own firm. That would be advantageous to me and to my company. Instead of renting space at hotels and meeting venues, which is commonplace for us, we can now have larger meetings at Staples Connect in their shared meeting spaces.

There are still going to be many challenges with this dramatic shift. For instance, the cost of this retail footprint renovation across the country will be considerable. The incremental revenue trade-off must offset the construction of reimagined stores. It seems that they have also reduced SKUs and inventory (there were several items that I was looking for that they have dropped from their stock). People are questioning whether the new solution offerings and shared workspace will offset the way people shop online. Also, I am not sure how students and parents will navigate this new format in September when they come to buy back-to-school supplies. Students, parents, and teachers may feel out of place in this new “business environment”.

In summary, I was impressed. I didn’t expect to be, but I was. Kudos to the management team, and kudos for getting it done under my nose. The shock value of walking into a new, clean store with an entirely new purpose was delightful and amazing.

If you would like to have a conversation on how you can attain a disruptive repositioning strategy or imagine your customer experience, please give me a call.

Give us a call at 617-558-9770 or reach out –  at asteinmetz@inwardconsulting.com.

Allan Steinmetz CEO