Final Word from Christa Furter

No time like the present – act now.

When I started in the office products sector in 2005 at Swiss reseller iba, I was asked by one member of the company’s advisory board: “Christa, you worked in fashion before. How will you bring the sexiness of that industry into our business? Won’t you be bored?” My answer was: “I’ve always loved working with people, developing a business together and bringing joy to customers. This is the same everywhere, whether it’s fashion or business supplies. Apart from that, I’ve always liked office products.”

My beliefs haven’t changed over the past 13 years, but, of course, there have been significant shifts in the purchasing behaviour of consumers as well as in the type of products used. And I’m convinced this evolution will continue as millennials become a big part of our working economy, and digital migrants are discovering the convenience of e-commerce, home office working and social media.

As a result of all this, it is necessary that we speed up the implementation of new products, solutions and business processes. As another year draws to a close and 2019 is upon us, I have some observations for our industry. These are made from the vantage point of the time I spent at Office World and iba, and my new position as owner and CEO of the CF Synergie consultancy:

  • Important categories are declining – archiving & filing, copy paper, ink & toner. In the meantime, digital services are substituting physical products.
  • Artificial intelligence (IoT, bots, robotics) will seriously affect processes and organisations.
  • Customer expectations – the notion of “I want it now, in the place and hour I decide” is growing.
  • Worldwide competition – Amazon Business (and also Amazon Prime) and Alibaba are fast-moving and growing.
  • B2B retail shifts strongly over to e-commerce and the profitability of stores is a challenge.
  • Price sensibility of consumers is increasing.
  • The attention of management to change and implement new business models is limited and often too slow.

Omnichannel essential

Several of the above topics are particularly prevalent. None more so than digitisation and e-commerce. Today, a user-friendly online shop with all the processes that are taken for granted is vital. What is really important to note in my opinion is that the notion of e-commerce means online-only. It’s simply not a case of on- or offline anymore; it’s not enough – a combination of both and a true omnichannel approach is essential.

Experience has taught me that the most successful way to engage small- and medium-sized companies is still with printed catalogues and mailshots. Or take Digitec-Galaxus in Switzerland: it’s the biggest online retailer in the country, but it’s also still going strong offline with advertising and several stores.

As digitisation progresses, e-commerce competition becomes more ferocious, with price wars on tenders continuing. As such, it’s very important to establish a clear positioning and to find your USPs. On that note, sometimes it is also necessary to step back from services that are no longer required by customers.

Keeping up with Amazon

Talking of clear positioning, this brings me to another point: Amazon. As a starting point, as entrepreneurs, we have to look at Amazon in the same way we looked at other competitors in the past. Will the online giant ‘eat’ our business model or is it still possible to grow our companies sustainably in the future? I firmly believe in the latter, but I am also very impressed with Amazon for a number of reasons.

Its total customer focus is one of them. As stated by CEO Jeff Bezos: “Start with the customer and work backwards.” Many will remember when, about 20 years ago, Viking was the king of customer service, with “fanatical customer service” at its very heart. Now it’s Amazon’s turn. And even after 24 years in business, this operator still has the same ‘Day One’ culture.

The most important advice I can offer, however, is this: just do it! Looking ahead, here are my top five tips for businesses in our space to remain successful:

  1. Anticipate customer needs
  2. Go beyond mobile first
  3. Join the conversation to build relationships
  4. Seize social commerce
  5. Focus on emotions – this is our chance to differentiate ourselves from global platforms