Household Products

They've Got That

Posted: September 27, 2009 by
Ron Romanik

Any shopper who wanders into a Staples store to buy staples will likely leave with the Staples brand of staples. This is not an accident. Staples ' well-organized store shelves and pegboards promote store-branded products as much—if not more—than their competitors on shelf.

A visit to the paper section of the store, usually visible as one enters the store, exposes the shopper to a virtual wall of Staples branded reams of paper. The current package design of their standard printer and copier paper grades features a bright yellow "sunburst" color field with a playful origami-like image in the center. Depending on the variety, that image could be a folded paper star, hat, snowflake, tree, or leaf, among others.

In less than 22 years, Staples has grown from one store to over 2000 stores worldwide, making it the largest retailer of office supplies in the world. The Staples brand, carefully tended to at the Framingham, MA, headquarters, is so strong that a button whose only function is to say "That was easy" has sold 2.5 million units since the fall of 2005. The "easy" button transitioned from a fictional prop in Staples television ads into a ubiquitous cultural icon, now available in three languages.

A touchy feely approach

Currently, Staples has about 2,400 store brand products that represent about 20% of total Staples sales. The core store brand products offer a value proposition and feature straightforward designs and color schemes. The bold Helvetica type of the Staples logo is carried down to product names, which are usually concisely descriptive.

In recent years, product developers, brand managers, and package designers at Staples have introduced new store brand strategies that impress with style and flair. Staples Business Essentials, for instance, is a fun collection of binder clips, paper clips, magnets, and push pins in a variety of patterns and colors introduced for the recent holiday season.

The Staples Innovation products, on the other hand, are office tools developed by Staples to make office chores easier. The two One-Touch products—a line of staplers and a hole punch—illustrate some important characteristics of Staples branded products and packages. Most importantly, the products and packages must emphasize that buying and using the product will make the user 's office life easier.

Michael Kent, director, product design/innovation at Staples, points out the importance of letting the customer hold, inspect, or test out the product. If that is not practical, in cases such as binder clips or pens, they try to use clear packages so the consumer knows exactly what they are purchasing as far as color, quantity, and features. The One-Touch Stapler is the ultimate in product visibility, housed in a very "open" clamshell package that allows it to be secure, displayed standing or on a peg, and still interactive so that the customer can try the effort-saving mechanism.

Jeff Sugarman, design manager, Staples Brand Products, likes how the One-Touch logo conveys strength, how the benefits are clearly delineated, and how the product is "outside" the package. "We intentionally made them stand out more," says Sugarman, with strong branding, a unified presentation, and pastel hues. An inset picture shows the staple being operated with just one finger beside the tagline: "Super Easy, Super Powerful."

Jenn Richard, corporate brand manager, emphasizes that the merchandising and packaging work together to inform consumers about innovative products. Many new Staples brand products are launched with a custom display like the stand-alone in-store One-Touch displays. Richard explains that Staples in-store merchandising for a new product can proudly showcase that it is a new Staples brand product. Bold colors, dynamic product photography, and concise copy engage the shopper and clearly communicate benefits, and actual product is often available to "test drive."

Consumer-centric design

M by Staples is a new, unique collection of office products, available only at Staples and marketed last year as "Gifts for the 'Fashionably' Organized." The collection includes classic quilted and soft-leather journals and office supplies with hound 's-tooth, striped, and plaid patterns. The products are made of higher quality materials and design, and the packaging is understated.

Richard points out that, for every new product idea, Staples performs extensive consumer research upfront to gauge potential consumer interest. The Staples product and package design teams only start designing to fill a clearly identified consumer need. In the past, for instance, Staples has researched small business owner working habits thoroughly and even asked their customers for new office product innovations through a program called Invention Quest.

For the stylish M by Staples line, the team investigated their store brand's essence, versatility, and extendability. "We learned that the brand would allow us to play in that space," says Richard. Consumers told Staples that they wanted better quality products that could convey a little self expression or surprise the user. The Staples team felt they could take the existing strong equities of Staples store brands and simply add to them. They elicited the help of the Desgrippes Gobé design firm in New York City to work with them on defining the M by Staples brand identity.

"We kind of look at M by Staples as freedom from the mundane," says Richard. "The use of neutral, spare packaging lets the product be the hero." And the merchandising, if one could call it that, is uniquely low-key in Staples stores to keep the product out front.

The M by Staples brand is typically displayed in a 360° views on an unadorned wooden table near the front of the store, with other M by Staples products only. The two-tiered table is a stand-alone display with the products propped up on clear plastic holders, with simple price list sheets also in plastic holders. The presentation and packaging encourages shoppers to pick up the products and inspect them, which is always a goal at Staples.

"We intentionally kept the packaging to a minimum to really emphasize the quality of the product, " explains Sugarman. The packaging encourages product interaction as shoppers discover the products. The wraparound bands are designed to be durable enough for handling by multiple shoppers, with a sturdy 250 gsm weight stock, matte finish, and extra laminate coating that adds strength and resists fingerprints.

"I think it sends a good quality message," says Sugarman. The four spot colors achieve greater consistency of color, and the matte finish conveys sophistication. Sugarman believes the minimal packaging epitomizes the brand ideal, because the M by Staples products themselves are really the brand.

Touching more consumers

Staples' Kent believes that asking Staples customers what new products they would like to see is a fruitful way to address consumer needs. When a new product gets to the shelf, however, product, packaging, and merchandising must all work together. Sugarman likes to repeatedly ask the rhetorical questions: "How do we make it easier? How do we make it intuitive to shop?"

Another recent product introduction is the Staples Better Binder series. "People told us what they wanted, and durability is what they told us," explains Kent. Staples merchandises their new Better Binder series with packaging that states benefits clearly and in-store "testing" stations. "We're trying to educate the consumer," says Kent.

In the M by Staples collection, Kent says that the product and packaging encourage the consumer to experience and interact with the products while still giving the proper information and providing a "family look" to the package. The products have the personality Staples customers desire while establishing a cohesive line presentation essential for a global brand like M by Staples.

In an unusual partnership, Staples branded products have penetrated another retail outlet by partnering with Ahold USA supermarket chains. The agreement installed a Staples branded store-within-store section in every Stop & Shop supermarket and Giant Food store throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic U.S. regions. The products found in the Staples store-in-store locations are the best of Staples-branded and OEM-branded products targeted at the casual consumer.

According to Jason Rome, director of new retail channels at Staples, this required a shift in strategy to focus on the type of customer shopping at a supermarket. In a Staples store, their focus is on the small business and the home office shopper. The merchandising strategy in a supermarket, however, provides smaller package sizes, fashion-oriented products, and seasonally relevant promotional opportunities.

For this past holiday season, Staples took its Easy Button to another level, tying in a cause marketing and holiday message with a new design. A limited-edition button was designed by a 14-year-old Boys & Girls Clubs of America member specifically for the holidays. Staples promised to donate up to $100,000 beyond its current $1 million contribution each year to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America based on sales of the limited-edition Easy Button, which still says, of course, "That was easy."