June 8, 2012, 11:33 AM

IRCE 2012 Report: How Staples uses mobile

Staples reaches small business owners via their mobile devices.

Lead Photo

Brian Tilzer

Meet Dave. Dave is a small business owner. That means Dave is involved in everything—from signing off on every key decision, to fixing the printer, to ordering snacks for the office. Dave is very busy.

Dave is Staples’ target customer. And Staples knows the last thing Dave wants to spend time on is buying office supplies. And so Staples is using its mobile app, m-commerce site and tablets to save Dave time in doing that very task, Brian Tilzer, vice president of global e-commerce at Staples, told attendees today at the Internet Retailer Conference and Exhibition 2012 in Chicago during a session entitled “Why Staples is investing big in mobile commerce”

“When you’re a small business owner, it’s all you,” Tilzer said. “Mobile is a new playground for us to make our customers’ lives easier.”

Staples’ mission to make small business owners’ lives easier is apparent in the retailer’s mobile strategy. For example, Staples’ mobile app features an ink-and-toner finder so the business owner who runs to a store to get ink to print a proposal due that day and realizes he forgot to write down his printer model need only look in the app to see the cartridge he has ordered before.  The app also lets shoppers access their rewards points.

The app saves shoppers time when ordering office supplies by enabling users to scan a bar code on a product and order the item right away or access frequently purchased items and add them to a cart in one tap. “We are trying to solve pain points,” Tilzer said. “We are trying to help with the tasks that take time but shouldn’t take time.”'

Staples also operates a mobile site and Tilzer said his company took a different approach with the site than it did with the app.

The site, which Staples’ relaunched less than a year ago, is designed for cross-channel shopping. Staples, Tilzer said, believes many customers use mobile sites for information such as store locations and ratings and reviews. Customers using the site can check in-store availability and ratings and reviews before adding the product to her cart.

As more consumers buy tablet computers, Staples was driven to develop two tablet outlets: Its tablet site at t.staples.com and an in-store tablet app for sales associates that the retail chain is testing.

The tablet site makes use of all the features available via a tablet, Tilzer said. “Think of it as an app-like web site,” Tilzer said. “We tried to take advantage of the medium.”

The site offers big, sharp images, and drop-down widgets to reduce the number of pages a user needs to load; the site also gets shoppers to product pages in just a couple of touches. Tilzer said consumers will purchase more through the tablet site than the chain’s mobile site.

He added that it is unclear whether the site will prove to be a successful sales tool. But he says part of making mobile a priority means taking some bets.

Another bet the retailer is taking is arming store associates with tablets in order to provide better customer service.

Associates can use the app to help a customer see if a product that is out of stock in one store is available at another nearby store, and to access a customer’s order history to help her find the right product for her. It offers many of the same features as the app, and could prove helpful for shoppers without smartphones or who do not have the Staples app, Tilzer said. “We feel like we are on to something here,” he said of the in store tablet strategy. “And the only way we will know is if we go out and do it.”

Indeed, Staples wants to keep trying new mobile and e-commerce ideas. The company is looking to triple the size of its e-commerce team by 2014—and that includes mobile commerce staff.  It’s also built a new Velocity Lab— a Cambridge, MA-based office that will house all technology teams under one roof. Staples hopes this will foster collaboration and ideas between mobile and e-commerce teams.

But before Staples goes out and tries any new technology, it will pause and consider how it will help the customer.  “The focus is always on the customer, not the technology,” Tilzer said. “Every small business may be different, but every small business loves easy.”

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