Staples’ new partnership angers UK dealers
Chamber of commerce deal seen as threat to local suppliers
Staples raised more than a few eyebrows in the UK recently when it announced that it was "joining forces" with the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), the national body which oversees the extensive network of local chambers of commerce throughout the UK.
According to Staples, the office supplier would "work with the Chamber at a national and local level, providing exclusive discounts to the 135,000 members, who represent 5.2 million employees".
"This new relationship will allow us to work with Chamber members, ensuring they benefit from exclusive deals as well as have access to a whole range of bespoke services," announced Staples’ Head of Marketing Yetunde Ige in the statement.
This news provoked a strong reaction from the British independent dealer channel, which was upset that the BCC – one of whose main aims is to promote British businesses – had seemingly reached an exclusive deal for the provision of office supplies with a US-based multinational.
One prominent member of the UK dealer community wrote to BCC Chairman David Frost, claiming that the partnership would be seen as a "body blow by the thousands of small and medium-sized independently owned businesses who compete with Staples in the UK".
However, when contacted by OPI, the BCC was a little surprised by all the fuss being made, and it turned out that Staples’ PR agency had neglected to include some important information regarding the true nature of the partnership.
Staples’ Account Manager at the BCC, Victoria Speakman, confirmed that Staples had signed a national membership agreement with the BCC, meaning that all of Staples’ 138 UK stores are now members of the local chambers, but denied that any agreement regarding the supply of office products to BCC members had been discussed or that a special Staples-BCC catalogue was in the pipeline.
"Staples approached us at the BCC as some of their stores had already joined the Chamber network and they wanted all their stores to link to the chamber as support to their store managers with regards to training support and events," said Ms Speakman.
"This approach is available to anyone with multi-store or sites who want their membership centrally managed," she added.
As to the "exclusive deals" to be offered by Staples to BCC members, it turns out that from time to time Staples will offer discounts and incentives to holders of the BCC’s Connect membership card – just as any business in the UK can do.
So, can the UK independents now breathe a collective sigh of relief?
Well, not really. While the prospect of the Staples-BCC tie-up has disappeared, Staples is clearly targeting UK small businesses and is positioning itself as a crucial part of local business communities.
A Staples spokesperson told OPI that "Staples stores are run very much like small businesses, with store managers at the helm" and that corporate membership would provide "great networking opportunities and ways to promote business".
Staples will also be promoting itself via the chambers of commerce by making key stores available for certain events, sponsoring national awards and providing input and funding for business research and government reports.
As the UK OP market enters a key period, with all indicators pointing to a recession before the end of the year, competition for business is likely to be even fiercer. And if Staples starts flexing its muscles even more at a local level, independent dealers will need to ensure they can respond with their own initiatives.