November 16, 2011, 10:24 AM

Staples upgrades its B2B site

The office supplies chain unveils a new site for larger businesses and government agencies.

Lead Photo

Laura Brooks

Everyone is a consumer, even procurement personnel at the kind of larger companies and government agencies that shop at Staples Inc.’s business-to-business site, StaplesAdvantage.com. That’s why the office supplies retail chain built many of the features typical of consumer-facing e-retail sites into its new B2B site, officially launched today.

Staples had been continually upgrading StaplesAdvantage.com since its launch in 2000, says Laura Brooks, vice president of business-to-business e-commerce at Staples. “But this is very different in that it’s really a full-scale redesign of an experience that blends the two worlds together, a robust procurement solution with the experience of a world-class B2C site,” Brooks says.

The new site includes sub-category listings that pop up when a visitor hovers over a main navigation link and allows client companies to brand the pages their employees’ see with their logos. The password-protected site welcomes the shopper by name and company ID.

Besides offering these consumer-like touches, the new site also allows Staples to merchandise its assortment as many retail web sites do, recommending accessories that go with items the buyer is considering, promoting sale items and touting Staples’ offerings beyond office products, such as in facilities and break room supplies.

“What we’re seeing is the B2C-ifying of B2B,” says Andy Hoar, a Forrester Research Inc. senior analyst who was briefed on the new Staples Advantage site. “Not everything will work, but a lot of what works in B2C around merchandising, search and customer care will work in B2B.” He says that’s particularly true of companies like Staples, Office Depot Inc. and maintenance products supplier W. W. Grainger Inc. that have many SKUs and sell to a wide range of buyers, making them much like online retailers that sell to consumers. It’s less likely to work for a defense contractor that sells relatively few complex items to a handful of customers, he says.

Staples spent two years developing the new Staples Advantage site, conducting interviews and focus groups with customers and surveying them on what they wanted from the site. The retailer began rolling out the new site 16 weeks ago to a small number of customers, then gradually moved the rest over to the new Staples Advantage in advance of today’s launch. Staples says its B2B web site is used by 4 million individuals who generate 25 million annual transactions.

The Staples Advantage site has been redesigned in several areas, including:

  • Navigation. The product catalog is accessible from every page. And product categories are broken down into greater detail; hovering over the primary navigation tab Coffee/Water/Snacks pops up a subcategory list that includes such items as beverage carts, coffee makers and paper towels. Products can be filtered by attributes, and Brooks says Staples incorporated feedback from customers about the product attributes most important to them.
  • Customization. In addition to clients branding pages with their logos they also can use a message board on top of the home page to remind procurement employees of company policies, such as avoiding placing small orders to minimize unnecessary shipping costs.
  • Compliance. Clients can build in rules that, for example, require a certain percentage of purchases to come from minority-owned businesses or to be environmentally friendly products. As buyers view items, Staples Advantage will present alternatives that meet these client objectives. Manager can get reports from Staples on individual employee adherence to these company programs.
  • Budgeting. Clients can provide spending limits for employees, specify an approval process and obtain reports that compare spending with budgets. Managers can consolidate orders across departments to reduce shipping costs, and allocate the expense of a single order among departments.
  • Personalization. A My Orders tab on the top navigation bar lets a buyer see his previous orders for fast reordering, see order status and search for previous orders. A manager with order approval can see any orders awaiting her OK.

The Staples Advantage site, which the company says is designed for organizations of 20 employees or more, represents a significant portion of the $10.2 billion in online sales reported in 2010 by Staples, No. 2 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide. Staples Advantage generates more than $6 billion in annual revenue, and 90% of its business is conducted online, the company says. The company’s other major e-commerce site, Staples.com, caters to consumers and small businesses.

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