|Buying office supplies used to be a pretty casual affair; the length of time it took often depended not so much on the distance from the office, as on how much else could be crammed into the trip. If the delegated purchaser got excited about cute new pens or the latest desk accessories, it could have become a pricey little outing for the company, in more ways than one. Time is money, and, there’s a cost involved in having even the most junior staff member away from the workplace.
But as business owners and managers become more focused on how those costs add up, purchasing office supplies frequently bypasses the high street and goes straight to the computer. Just go online with the supplier of choice, click on the necessary boxes, and look forward to delivery the following day. Easy as.
“More than half our business is done electronically and that’s grown consistently over the last ten years. There are potentially less people available in small businesses to do that kind of running around,” says Kevin Obern, MD, OfficeMax NZ. “Ordering online makes good use of their time.”
Obern says they actively promote purchasing online; “the convenience, how it saves time and ultimately money.”
At Corporate Express approximately 75 percent of transactions are online and growing across the board, says executive general manager Brian Rosenberg. “Our 24/7 NetXpress service is particularly suited to smaller enterprises, where admin work is often done during the weekend.”
And at Warehouse Stationery, Des Flynn, GM marketing and business development, says online ordering has grown around 20 percent in the past four years with recent developments making it even easier for customers to buy online.
“We’ve recently installed a new and improved search functionality, and have been focusing on the response speed of each page.”
Online ordering is not new, it’s been available for a number of years – but they’ve seen real growth over the past decade, says Dianne McAteer, CEO at Office Products Depot. However, she says, there is still a large chunk of their customer base that prefers personal contact and help sourcing specific requirements, which shopping online will never be able to deliver. “We continue to encourage our customers to use the online functionality for general orders but will never demand it; the personal touch is one of our greatest strengths.”
It’s not all about price
The growth in online ordering would suggest a move towards greater use of single source suppliers and a consequent opportunity to save both time and money. But while online is obviously the speedier option, opinion seems to be divided on whether or not it’s also the most cost-effective. Rosenberg believes price is not the decider. “Customers will use a single source when that source is able to meet their product requirements. It’s the ease of buying, the service and the price. Probably in that order.”
Savings can be made in a number of ways, says Obern. “You can consolidate across a number of categories when you buy – it’s no longer just about office products. Our business is about pretty much anything that gets used in an office; all the things that are used in the cafeteria, all the cleaning products.”
Customers today want value, says McAteer. “That doesn’t just mean price. In this hectic business world owners and managers are looking for a solution from their provider.” This means offering more than just great prices, she says. “When you’re pushed for time and need office supplies delivered yesterday, having fast reliable service is vital.”
She also cites the importance of a comprehensive range of options and having a supplier who’s prepared to go that extra mile to source something they may not carry.
While the ease of online ordering and dealing with a single supplier obviously has its advantages, Flynn says multi-channel shopping is being carried out with increasing frequency by some customers. “With others, finding the lowest price is balanced off with the convenience of shopping at one place.” Indeed, anecdotal reports suggest that while many SMEs do in fact appreciate the convenience of invoicing products, the fact that they’re able to get a better price elsewhere (often on the recommendation of equipment suppliers) has them dealing with multiple suppliers. The onus appears to be on suppliers to keep those customers satisfied and coming back.
Engaging with customers via email so that they’re aware of special offers and promotions is important, says Kevin Obern, and, as a supplier, they’re becoming more sophisticated about the type of offers they put to customers within different business segments. “There are vertical markets within the business sector. What appeals to a small accountant or solicitor’s office is not what would appeal to an undertaker or manufacturer.”
There’s also a move towards loyalty programmes within the office supplies sector. Warehouse Stationery recently launched their BlueBiz Rewards programme for account customers and while neither OfficeMax nor Office Products Depot currently offer similar programmes, they’re looking at the possibility. McAteer says as their brand continues to evolve and their dealers recognise the benefit standing tall together brings to their operation, the opportunity to provide a loyalty programme is now becoming a reality. “Watch this space,” she says.
Reducing the amount of paper used in an office environment (see box) and looking at strategies for re-using and recycling has become increasingly important for many businesses. “Customers want options. Supporting the environment is one of them,” says Rosenberg at Corporate Express, where their EarthSaver brand has been available for a number of years. “There was a demand and we anticipated that it would grow. The market has moved in that direction and we’re expanding the range all the time.”
The big problem has been that choosing to go green wasn’t a cheap option. Products have commanded a premium price and that’s been something of a deterrent, particularly over the past couple of years. Suppliers say the recession saw business owners back off spending that little bit extra for environmentally sustainable products. “It’s been about staying in business and optimising outcomes and the sustainability focus has wavered,” says OfficeMax’s Obern.
However, as McAteer points out, as demand increases, production costs are reducing and many green products are now a more viable alternative. As for reusing and recycling, it appears less wasteful habits are developing; both sides of a sheet of paper are being used where possible and there’s an expectation that recycle programmes will be available, says Des Flynn. (Through Hewlett-Packard, Warehouse Stationery recycles products such as toner cartridges, regardless of the brand, and they’re supporters of the discarded cellphone programme.)
Recycled material is finding its way back into the office in a range of guises. Drink bottles and newsprint are two of the products finding new life as pens – and bamboo pens, from sustainable sources, are also giving a green tint to office desks.