The Staples of on-line shopping

The Business Depot brings its in-store shopping experience on-line, so customers can shop any time from any place.

By Antonio Tedesco

Network World Canada

On the heels of recent Forrester Research Inc. estimates that Web sales of paper and office supplies in Canada will reach $756 million this year and grow to $6.5 billion over the next three years, Canada’s largest national provider of office supplies and services, Markham, Ont.-based The Business Depot Ltd., recently launched its on-line shopping site.

The site brings together the various Business Depot operating names – Staples, Staples/Business Depot, Business Depot and Bureau En Gros – onto one, centralized site. Available in both English and French, the new e-commerce site offers more than 5,000 products and, unlike the company’s brick and morter stores, is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In addition to merchandise, one of the site’s highlights is a wide variety of time-saving options for businesses and individuals to increase efficiency.

“We’ve built our business by delivering quality and convenience to our customers,” said Ed Harsant, president of The Business Depot Ltd. “Now we’re bringing that philosophy and expertise on-line. The site is designed to meet the unique needs of the small- to mid-sized business and SOHO (Small Office Home Office) markets.”

Addressing the fact that all businesses require office supplies to run efficiently, but that time and money is wasted on purchases management and tracking, the features available on the site can streamline a business’s purchase procedures and save time and money. “In short, in addition to being able to purchase office supplies, it’s like having your own on-line office manager,” said Harsant.

The site’s “Group Accounts” feature streamlines the purchasing process for small businesses, helping reduce hidden purchases adminstration costs by putting the power of on-line ordering directly at employees’ desktops, but also making it easy for managers to quickly review all orders before they are placed, said Alex Kozjak, manager, Merchandising Information and Analysis, The Business Depot Ltd.

“One of the features that’s really important to the average small business and to our key core customers is a feature such as ‘Group Accounts,'” he said. “We enable people who are running a small business to allow multiple employees to order supplies and place their orders, but not have the ability to force them [the orders] through the system.”

An administrator or account executive would get an e-mail telling them that an employee had placed an order on the site and when that executive went into the system they could see all items their employees have ordered, they can add or delete anything to the order and go through the regular ordering process to confirm the order, said Kozjak.

Leveraging many of the Web initiatives of its U.S. parent company, Staples Inc., the Canadian subsidiary’s database-driven site was built on a Microsoft (SiteServer Commerce Edition) platform, with customer service software on the back end to manage the flow of information from the site into the system, helping with things like e-mail and customer service, said Kozjak.

“We had done some investigations to see whether we should pursue our own initiative or whether we should leverage their existing infrastructure,” he said. “What we’ve done is we’ve made sure that the business logic behind the site is entirely Canadian, but we’ve tried to leverage their work as much as possible.”

The site’s security features have been well-tested, have high-level encryption and are up to industry standard, according to Kozjak. “The site has been designed with security as top-of-mind. We actually, unlike some other sites, don’t store the credit card numbers on the Web server where you’re conducting your transactions. We prompt you for the credit card number every time you order.”

Kozjak understands that some people may find this a bit of an inconvenience, “but that one of the reasons we did that is to just build more security into the site. We keep your profile – shipping address and your billing address – but for security reasons we clear off those credit card numbers from that server.”

The site’s main focus is to bring the customer the same privileges of shopping in-store, without leaving the office – the only hassle being the next-day delivery if the supplies are needed immediately. The on-line operation features free delivery on all orders over $50, in most markets nationwide, and Business Depot’s hassle-free return policy. And the Dividend$ loyality points on all on-line purchases will keep customers loyal to the site, said Kozjak.

Other features include “E-mail Reminders” that automatically let customers know when it is time to re-order frequently purchased supplies, and the “Personalized Shopping Lists” and the “Favourite Aisles” feature save the customer time by bringing them to their most visited product categories and remembering their past purchases.

Kozjak stressed that the personalization features are entirely up to the customer, that the entire shopping experience is left in the customers’ hands. “We don’t do suggestive selling as part of the ‘Group Accounts,'” said Kozjak. “Those kind of things may happen throughout the site if you’re buying a printer and you forget to buy a printer cable. We will recommend some items if they’re necessary for the purchase of the product, but once you’ve made a purchase decision and it’s sitting on the site for approval, there’s no additional suggestive selling that takes place.”

The “Product Comparison Charts” offer detailed side-by-side feature and price comparisons of technology products, while the the “Product Matchmaker” feature takes the guess work out of matching product-specific items with a company’s on-site business machines.

“In the end, what will drive the Web site is the added value it brings to the customers,” said Harsant. “By adding the site to our large retail and catalogue operations, we are better positioned to give our customers another convenient way to shop with us.”

Echoing Harsant’s words, Kozjak said, “We want to make sure that our customers’ experience is seemless. The important thing is offering customers whatever channel they want and have the same kind of benefits. Any programs that are in-store are migrated over to the Web, that’s the same reason why we also keep the same return policies, the same price protection policies, et cetera. We just want to make sure that it’s the same experience for the customer no matter what channel they shop, and that’s a benefit that we feel we owe to our online customers as well.”