Office Supplies

Sharp sites for the productivity set,

Amy Dusto

Hot 100 retailers that sell office supplies are working hard to wow customers with expanded product lines and personalized web shopping features.

Staples Inc., for one, has said it plans to offer 1 million SKUs on its e-commerce site by mid-2015, up from 200,000 today. In preparation for that expanded catalog, the retail chain redesigned its site this fall so that shoppers can find what they're seeking twice as quickly as before. The retailer also added more personalization to help customers get to checkout in fewer clicks. For example, as soon as a shopper logs into the site, he can see his past orders and with one click reorder any of them. He can also go to any of his previously saved product lists with a single click.

Meanwhile, LakeshoreLearning.com, which sells educational materials and school supplies, also expanded its catalog this year and upgraded its site navigation accordingly. It added a "Learning at home" product line aimed at parents, and added the ability for teachers to shop by grade level and parents by their child's age. Those changes have increased both the time shoppers spend on the site and its conversion rate, vice president of e-commerce Sam Sarullo says.

Other Hot 100 office supply web sites cater to more niche audiences. At UrbanGirl.com, shoppers can browse office supplies by their fashion-inspired style, such as a chevron-patterned collection or a set of products fitting an "urban loft" theme. Overnight Prints International, which prints custom projects in—as the name implies—one night, attracts environmentally conscious shoppers, touting its sustainable, waterless printing methods. For those not immediately convinced, the retailer offers a free sample by mail, which shoppers may request on the web site.

Incentives such as having a wide selection, speed and samples are important for office supplies retailers because Internet technology is reducing demand for items like pens and paper. In fact, total U.S. office supplies sales were 1.7% lower in 2012 than 2003. Meanwhile, top e-retailers like Amazon.com Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. have gotten more aggressive in selling office supplies online, stepping up competition. To meet that challenge, Staples in October 2013 announced it will match Amazon.com's prices for identical products, at least through the holiday season. Altogether, the 17 office supplies retailers in the 2013 Top 500 Guide collectively grew their global web sales by 3.73% year over year, the second-lowest growth level of the 15 product categories measured. Mass merchants, by way of comparison, grew 23.6%.

That's contributed to a slip in what office supplies represent in total web sales. In 2011, Top 500 retailers of office supplies accounted for 11.93% of total Top 500 sales; in 2012 they accounted for 10.53%. The recent merger of Office Depot Inc. and OfficeMax Inc., with a combined $7.26 billion in 2012 web sales, is sure to further rock the category.

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2013 December magazine, 2013 Hot 100, e-commerce, LakeshoreLearning.com, Office Depot Inc., office supplies retailers, Overnight Prints International, Staples Inc., UrbanGirl.com