Surprise in store
by Tom Phillips
While the big boxes spend millions redesigning their stores to satisfy every need, it’s important for dealers to look over their neighbour’s fence or face being left behind.
Long, dark aisles; cold, steel boxes; ugly, unwelcoming buildings…
Remind you of anything? Independent OP dealers are hoping that the memory of the OP superstores of the 90s still lingers in the mind of the customer. This would ideally give them the decorative high-ground over their rivals and boost their chances of stealing footfall away from those big, unforgiving out-of-town stores.
The welcoming, friendly shop concept used by small dealers has for years complemented the notion of a more personal approach to selling office supplies – one that dealers routinely promote to their advantage. However, in recent years it has been the big-box retailers and large dealers that have tried to create a haven for shoppers, leaving the smaller guys in their wake.
Elaine Hoekstra, owner of Retail Store Concepts in Michigan, a company that helps small stores redesign their interiors, says dealers have to make the most of what they’ve got to compete with large superstores.
"The independent dealer’s strength is in the design of most of the large retailers. The big boxes tend to have shelves that are laid out in straight rows with a cold, unwelcoming appearance. The products are there but there’s nothing warm and friendly about their stores. They don’t welcome you in and make you want to sit down and take your time. To me that’s the biggest advantage small dealers have.
"Without a doubt, having a small lounge area with nice tables and comfortable seating is a real bonus. Anything that would make the customer come in, sit down and have a coffee, or in summer something cool, will make that customer feel welcome and give the independent dealer an advantage over the big box store. Customers tend to go to a Staples or Office Depot to grab their products and get out."
It’s a familiar perception that large superstores have been battling against over the past few years. Not that it’s done them any harm of course, the tills haven’t stopped ringing in all that time. But still, the image of gloomy warehouses isn’t one that the OP giants want to promote.
One big box that has been determined to fight back against this perception is OfficeMax.
The retail giant recently announced the opening of 30 new stores across the US, with the store formats a far cry from the company’s traditional warehouse layout. The stores themselves are smaller, have softer lighting and lower aisles, and offer other features such as print services, free Wi-Fi access and a café.
"We are excited to introduce the community to a new type of friendly and accessible store that goes beyond the typical warehouse office supply store," said Ryan Vero, executive vice president and chief merchandising officer for OfficeMax. "Our store layout is designed to help customers accomplish more in one trip – from buying office supplies to taking care of their printing needs. We want to be the preferred destination for everyone in the area."
This self-conscious attitude follows a general consensus in retail that a store should be a destination for customers, that a customer should be given a shopping ‘experience’.
Indeed, OfficeMax’s latest new multi-purpose store layout is designed to offer customers just that, with the blurb proudly aiming for a "better shopping experience" for its visitors. This includes a current popular feature of in-store print and document services, where customers can download and print documents at OfficeMax ImPress, allowing for digital printing and copying, binding, finishing and laminating – a path well-lit by the success of FedEx Kinko’s over recent years.
But this focus on customer enjoyment is nothing new to ‘Max. It’s worth taking a look back to 2005 to see how far the big boxes have come. Back then, the firm introduced a new store concept and received praise and prizes along the way. The company picked up a first-place award in Chain Store Age’s 24th annual Retail Store of the Year design competition for its then groundbreaking, customer-centric Advantage store format. The new store concept was honoured by a panel of retailers, designers and architects for its project characteristics and special design elements and materials.
Chain Store Age, a retail industry trade publication, lauded the project, saying the design: "transforms the traditional, warehouse-styled office-supplies model into a colourful and engaging environment."
"Building on OfficeMax’s customer-focused approach, we not only talked with customers, but watched them shop in order to create this new store concept," said Ryan Vero, OfficeMax chief merchandising officer following the launch in Ohio. The idea of watching people shop sounds a bit creepy, but the plan was to understand today’s "busy mobile professionals". This all led to the creation of a new community area, called OfficeMax Café (which Chain Store Age declared a "welcome amenity"). At the cafe, customers could enjoy a cup of free gourmet coffee, check their email or download reports using Wi-Fi, browse a local networking bulletin board or watch cable TV news.
‘Max pioneered a central technology "hub" to create a striking focal point and help customers orientate themselves (gone were the days of wandering up and down aisles trying to find a ruler). Whimsical photographic banners directed shoppers to their destinations and "improved sight lines" made other shopping categories visible from across the store.
Lifestyle graphics and warm colours and materials hoped to bring a "residential feel" to the space and make an "emotional connection" with customers while reinforcing the brand. At least that’s what Chain Store Age said about the new design.
Most people would agree that all this effort, and the added touches to the latest stores, all helps to promote a more enjoyable experience at the big boxes. Where does this leave the independent dealers? Well for most, with work to do. It’s not enough to simply rely on a comfortable experience as a winning formula any more. Coffee, Wi-Fi, seating, books… today’s new wave of stores resemble a living room and workspace with a store tacked on the side.
How much of a fad this move towards an ‘experience’ is, remains to be seen. It may need more time before hanging around an office products store to do work or have a coffee fully enters the customer psyche. The effort and distance that they’ve come however cannot be ignored. The trick for independent dealers is not to get left behind with the concepts that become successful (a marketing person would say, "it’s stationery, not stationary!" A marketing person, not me). Or else it could be the smaller stores that conjure up images of pleasant but old-fashioned stores, lacking the amenities of their bigger rivals: short, bright aisles, stuffy atmosphere, over-friendly staff. And would you believe it, no coffee… It could happen.