At Staples, building omnichannel means breaking down walls

For office supply retailer Staples (NASDAQ:SPLS), building out omnichannel operations means breaking down walls between digital and physical, mobile and desktop. It's about empowering a workforce to be channel agnostic to accommodate a rapidly changing customer.

The office supply chain launched online in 1999, but newly redesigned websites have immediately yielded "massive improvements," according to Faisal Masud, executive VP of global commerce. Conversions were up 10 percent; revenue per visit, a key metric, was up 9 percent; and load time improved by 50 percent in the six months since the launch.

Staples has optimized mobile and tablet in different ways and to great success. Both conversions and revenue per visitor are up significantly. A new tablet app, launched Tuesday, increased sales in that channel by 98 percent during the test period.

Staples customers are largely ordering for businesses and access the site on a desktop. Even so, mobile traffic is way up, especially for individual consumers. But as business users become more mobile and tablets more widely adopted among enterprises, this segment is expected grow.

To serve this growing user base, Staples has redesigned its mobile site to feature product images and information more prominently, paring back extraneous information and displays found on the desktop version of its website.

"We have a specific strategy around content," Masud said. "Our goal is to have proprietary content around what we serve up to our customers." Product descriptions are no longer supplied by vendors and even specifications are being written in a more streamlined and proprietary way.
There's also a redesigned tablet app, launched Tuesday. Sales made through the app increased 98 percent during the test period, according to Masud.

Staples is busy creating an omnichannel experience, adding kiosks in stores, letting shoppers buy online and ship to stores, and is testing a program to buy online for in-store pickup within a two hour window for certain store inventory.

"The ability to buy online and ship to the store is not only a better experience, it's a better cost structure," said Masud. "You can utilize the existing labor structure in the store to pick and pack. (Really) it's a very small number of transactions."

The kiosk program is a growing business for Staples, the success of which Masud credits to store associates who assist with these sales. "We do have a reward structure for managers for encouraging sales at kiosks, and we are not concerned with cannibalization," he said. "It's all about keeping the customer loyal to Staples. This notion of online vs. offline doesn't exist. The P&L requires all business to succeed."

Staples announced last week the opening of a test lab, dubbed the Development Center, in Seattle to test e-commerce, search and personalized shopping initiatives. But digital initiatives aren't Staples' only new endeavors: The retailer is testing a 3-D printing series in New York City and Los Angeles and is about to launch a new virtual storefront featuring high-end office furnishings by Steelcase.

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