Staples Workbar won’t fix the overall problem

Oh boy. As Staples (and its failed merger partner, Office Depot) tries to recover from disappointing sales, it has partnered with Workbar to set up office spaces for customers in a few stores around Boston.

Staples Workbar
The Staples Workbar space is nice, but who cares?

The space is far back from the retail area where customers can work without having their own real office. Said Evin Charles Anderson, whose video production company has been using the space, “On the weekends when we’re here, we see people peering in through the windows.”

Yeah. They’re wondering what the hell Staples is doing. The office supplies stores are in a free fall with Office Depot closing stores and regulators ending the proposed merger between Staples and Office Depot.

Staples Workbar is a tactic, not a strategy

Both supply stores, in fact, are looking for new CEOs to lead the retailers into a new era where all retailers are becoming more and more irrelevant. The Workbar additions, just in beta stage at this point, won’t hurt but it won’t fix the problem either.

For one thing, who wants to work in the back of a Staples store? FedEx, off its successful merger with Kinko’s, has something similar that has now existed for nearly a decade.

More importantly, however, the working world is no longer dependent on having a traditional office or even one that resembles one, such as the Staples Workbar situation.

As many employees at very large companies will tell you, working from home is the new normal. (The sheer number of them doesn’t even consider freelancers.) You may go to FedEx Office for shipping but you can buy just about anything off the internet. There’s no need to go to a Staples store to work.

That is, unless Staples had a brand that compelled you to seek it out.

But there’s no emotional reason to go to Staples or even the Staples Workbar space, which is the only reason to create preference. As Napoleon said, “You must speak to the soul to electrify men.”

That’s what the office supplies stores are missing. They believe they can out-tactic their way out of their dilemmas, rather than looking at a complete overhaul of what they provide and what they mean.

I’ve been thinking recently that the entire brick and mortar retail market is in serious trouble. Malls are becoming a thing of the past and the industry as a whole is losing their shirts to Amazon.

So, there’s now Staples Workbar. OK. So what?

Office Depot, Staples and new CEOs

What the future CEOs of Office Depot and Staples should know

Changes are afoot among the office supply chains with both Office Depot and Staples looking for new CEOs. This comes on the heels of the expected merger between the two retailers coming to an end over antitrust concerns.

That leaves both of them in a quagmire. What to do now? What do the future CEOs of these chains have to look forward to when they take office?

Office DepotFor one, they both will find declining sales and profitability. Office Depot will close hundreds of stores, including an exit out of Europe. Staples is doing much the same with sales declining 5% in the last quarter.

Both retailers have blamed the rise of internet spending for the kinds of products they both offer, and they are right about that. Amazon has become the go-to retail space and threatens the entire retail industry, not just the office supply chains.

From the perspective of consumers, why buy from office supply stores – especially in bulk – when shopping online is believed to be more convenient?

Where Office Depot, Staples stand now

The proposed Office Depot Staples merger was irrelevant anyway. Consumers never saw a true difference between them, so a Office Depot Staples merger would have largely gone unnoticed among them. (That is, until prices went up.)

Now that a federal judge has nixed the merger, both must think of the other as the enemy, not a potential partner. Stealing market share from Amazon is possible, but it’s impossible if target audiences cannot distinguish between the two suppliers. Consumers can’t choose either Home Depot or Staples when they cannot tell why they should choose one over the other. Audiences couldn’t tell you which is which.

Closing stores will mean nothing if consumers have no compelling reason to choose one of them over the competition. In fact, if Office Depot and Staples don’t uncover those reasons for choice, they will become the next Circuit City and Radio Shack.

Right now, neither has a brand claim that makes them relevant. The theme line for Staples is “Make More Happen.” Office Depot claims you shop there to “Gear Up for Great.”

StaplesWhat do those mean? Is either of them emotional enough to create preference? Both themes are used in current back to school advertising, but neither are emotional or say anything truly meaningful about who their individual customers are.

Taken at its word, the definition of a Staples customer is some one who wants to make more happen. The definition of an Office Depot customer is that they gear up for great.

Does either of these retailers truly believe these are the most emotionally intensive triggers for target audiences when buying office supplies?

What the CEOs of Office Depot and Staples should do

Let’s take one step back. Retail as a whole is an industry in crisis. Amazon has taken a big bite out of the market share of brick and mortar brands, and retailers have been late to respond. It’s not too late, but audiences prefer Amazon in greater and increasing numbers, thanks largely to its Prime membership.

But there are larger issues involved. Retailers have long taken for granted that the shopping experience will draw customers. Therefore, there is an entire science devoted to making the experience more fulfilling and enticing.

What if shoppers don’t want to experience a store at all? What if they would rather do something else and leave the shopping chores (such buying back to school supplies) to Amazon for the convenience or Walmart for the prices?

Office DepotThe answer to those questions is simple, but difficult to achieve. You must create preference for your brand.

Strangely, retailers invest very little in their brands. Instead, most focus on products, sales and sub-brands. The problem with that strategy is that you train audiences to shop based on convenience – which store is closer – and that means opening more stores, not closing them. Convenience becomes the rational trigger because all retailers sell similar products, hold sales and promote sub-brands. Customers can get them anywhere (even online).

Instead, investing in the parent brand as the reason for preference gives the meaning to why those products, sales and sub-brands are important. It demonstrates the difference between you and your competition to offer a true choice.

It’s the reason why Nike has rarely talked about the advantages of its shoes, instead saying the Nike user will “Just Do It.” The Nike wearer is a winner, who does not have time for indecision.

For the new CEOs of Office Depot and Staples, there is also no time for indecision. There is a future where both chains could close and the new executives will wonder why they couldn’t prevent it. Don’t be that CEO.

Staples will buy Office Depot. Who cares?

Today it was announced that Staples will buy Office Depot for about $6.3 billion. As a small business owner, this purchase will mean that Stealing Share will likely be forced to spend a little extra in office supplies because there will be only one major store now.

But, as a brand guy, I could really care less.

I find neither brand has any compelling reason to be preferred. I never have. We use Staples here in the office but I can’t tell you why. I know we get deliveries from Staples from time to time and our printer paper packaging has its logo on it. But we use it simply because that is what we have always done.

But come on, it’s office supplies. Does it really matter?

Looks just like Office Depot to me.
Looks just like Office Depot to me.

You could argue that this is simply a case of survival of the fittest and the stronger brand won the day. Staples after all has the “easy button” to remember.

But if you have ever set foot into a Staples or any other office supply store, it becomes clear very quickly that it is anything but easy. There is too much stuff on too few shelves and never where I think it should be.

Because we use a lot of index cards at Stealing Share, a trip that should take five minutes ends up taking 15 because the cards are never in the same place from one store to the other. “Easy?” I think not.

So if regulators approve this transaction, prices will go up and consumers will have less choice – even though I don’t believe consumers had much choice before. The two stores are nearly identical and, frankly, we all probably choose based on location.

For most of us, the sign will change and no one will notice. Seems to me that if Staples had $6 billion laying around it could have taken the tiniest fraction of it to invest in its brand, build some real preference and then buy Office Depot in a fire sale.

Office Depot’s new promise: Stamps

Have you heard the latest radio sponsorship from Office Depot? I noticed it the other day on NPR and the voice over went something like this: ”Office Depot now sells postage stamps.”

Now I have written before about the terrible category of office supply stores and how I can never remember which one I shopped in because of the similarity of offering, similarity of layout, and similarity in color palate. All this is bad enough. But what on Earth is going on when your lead message is that you now sell postage stamps?

This feels a lot like an automobile dealership in an age of internal combustion engines advertising the latest steam engine as a way to entice would-be car buyers into their showrooms. All that, considering that the US Postal Service is cutting back on delivery days and culling the number of post offices as a cost saving measure in a shrinking market.

Stamps?

If I am going to shop at Office Depot as apposed to Staples or whomever, I need a compelling reason to choose and that reason ALWAYS starts with an understanding of the shopper. An aspirational promise as to who I am when I choose that brand and supported by offerings makes all the difference.

Stamps?

I guess that is too much to ask. So why not just sell stamps.

OfficeMax has little to say and its market share reflects that

Human beings look for meaning. In the absence of meaning, they will create their own. If a brand has meaning that aligns itself with the most emotionally intensive beliefs of the target audience, then it becomes a success. If not, the brand fails. Simple as that.

With that in mind, let’s consider the office supply stores.

Staples, the market leader, positions itself with an intensity concerning ease of use (“that was easy”), a name that is relevant and a logo that feels effectively designed. Office Depot, the number two, has a bland brand name and a brand themeline (“taking care of business”) that is non-emotional and rarely used consistently enough.

Lastly there is Office Max, in third place, with a bland brand name, a themeline that is about OfficeMax rather than its customer and is almost pleading in its emotional intensity (“work with us”) and a logo that seems counterintuitive to working (it suggests “fun”).

When you look at the category and the brand position each has taken, it’s no wonder Staples is the market leader, Office Depot is second and OfficeMax brings up the rear.

The question OfficeMax needs to ask itself is why would a customer choose it? Staples is chosen because it makes everything simple for the customer. Use Staples if you need a simple solution. Office Depot, while providing no value explicitly, has associated itself – however lackluster – with the business category.

OfficeMax not only lacks value, but it has added further complexity by giving its brand a themeline that says nothing about who the customers are when they choose it. Consumers have to fill in the meaning.

OfficeMax needs to rebrand to make a dent in market share. The opportunity for OfficeMax is that Staples often does not use its intensity of “easy” very effectively. Even if it did, there are greater intensities in the market that OfficeMax could claim. If OfficeMax does not act urgently, however, it will continue to bring up the rear of the pack.