By Janelle Nanos for The Boston Globe
The company is reinventing its stores to reflect the way many of us work. The floor-to-ceiling aisles of Post-its, pushpins, pencils, and printer ink? History. The endless rows of three-ring binders and hanging file folders? Gone.
Instead, there are light-filled co-working spaces with snack-stocked kitchens, digitally tricked-out meeting rooms, and podcasting studios. There are workshops on mindful organising and “finding your customer”.
Meet the new Staples: it’s not just an office supply superstore anymore. It is, as the company puts it, a “destination dedicated to continued curiosity, growth, and development.”
Staples built a leading national brand as the traditional stationery store on steroids. But in the three decades since the company’s conception, the workplace — and how we shop for it — have undergone transformational changes. Cloud-based computing, telecommuting, and the ease of one-click ordering have diminished the demand for big-box stores stocked with reams of paper. Now, in a dramatic effort to stay relevant, Staples is recasting itself as a place where you can co-work, record a podcast, stock up for your next Uber shift, or even get fingerprinted for a job.
“It’s not about product anymore. That’s something you can buy anywhere online,” Michael Motz, chief executive of the Staples US Retail group, said as he toured one of its newly renovated Staples Connect stores in Needham. “It’s about how can we provide solutions for you? It’s the connection to your everyday life.”
Whether the makeover will be enough to steer the company into better financial health remains to be seen.
Customer service and quick solutions — remember the Easy Button? — were once the calling cards of the beleaguered Framingham-based retailer, which was taken private after a failed attempt to merger with Office Depot. To compete with Amazon online, Staples’ new private equity owner, Sycamore Partners, split its e-commerce business from its US and Canadian retail operations and expanded business services for online corporate customers. Staples rebranded its digital operations last spring, emphasizing “worklife fulfillment.” Now it’s extending that same service-oriented model to its storefronts.
“It’s about us being more relevant and part of the community,” Motz said.
Suba Srinivasan, who chairs the marketing department at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, said Staples seems to be trying to reach freelancers, small entrepreneurs, and others who work outside of big corporations, including many young people who increasingly look to work — as opposed to religion or organized social groups — for community and affirmation.
It’s “a place for the millennials and the startup community and entrepreneurs to work, meet, and collaborate, and make it more about the services rather than pushing products,” Srinivasan said. Staples, he said, seems to be “moving away from the commodification of staplers and stacks of paper, toward a higher-level calling.”
That’s an extraordinarily “high bar” for the brand, she said, but it’s a smart way for the company to use its brick-and-mortar footprint. “They want someone to say: ‘I went to Staples and heard a really great talk on leadership,’ ” she said. ” ‘And I also bought my supplies for the month.’ ”
Staples has experimented with co-working before, partnering with Workbar to install shared workspaces in three of its stores in 2016. The companies parted ways last year because, Motz said, Staples “wanted to actually control all aspects of customer experience and make it seamless.” Staples has converted those stores in the Boston market to its new Staples Studio co-working model and now has rental desks in seven area locations.
Timing might be an issue. Boston is seeing a slowdown in new co-working leases since WeWork’s recent IPO implosion. And Staples’ largest competitor, Office Depot — which the company tried and failed to acquire in 2016, after the Federal Trade Commission blocked the merger — is experimenting with the onsite co-working concept and now offers rental desks in nine US locations.
But the trend toward more remote work, plus the region’s ongoing congestion woes, could make Staples a viable alternative for downtown employers who want to rent a few desks for their staffs in the suburbs, said Liz Berthelette, research director at the Newmark Knight Frank real estate firm. “I’m sure they’ll make more money renting hot desks to entrepreneurs than housing paper.”
Staples used to devote just 10 percent of a store’s footprint to services like printing and shipping, said Brian Coupland, vice president of retail merchandising. About half the redesigned Needham store’s layout is dedicated to services now, with desks renting for $299 a month, and private offices for $599 a month. (In downtown Boston, co-working desks rent for $499 a month and offices go for $999 monthly.)
Members and store customers can get free access to fancy AV-enabled meeting rooms that will also host seminars and workshops. And members can use podcast studios gratis (available to nonmembers for $60 an hour). Concierge services like legal, funding, or HR advice are available for small-business customers. And anyone can apply for a TSA PreCheck, a special state license, or a background check.
The store aisles feel less cluttered and more playful than they once did; in the pen section, doodle pads invite customers to try a drawing challenge, and a crafting section includes displays of paper cut into floral designs. Coupland said outside consultants helped them upend their traditional approach to office supplies, resulting in products like the new patented “squircle” highlighter markers. (They have square edges so they won’t roll off desks.) And kiosks offer gig-economy accoutrements: An Uber station has charging cords, candies, and bottled water; Airbnb hosts can find Nest thermometers, smart locks, and Wi-Fi hubs.
Whether the new approach will succeed depends on how well the enlightened Staples connects with its consumers. The company said it has more than 400 members across its various locations, but when a reporter toured the newly designed downtown space earlier this week, the co-working site was empty.
Peter Cohan, a business professor at Babson College, questions how the Connect stores will compete with other co-working spaces.
“Is it going to offer something that’s different from a WeWork or Cambridge Innovation Center?” he asked. Beyond sleek furnishings, the allure of most co-working spaces is in the community you’re joining, Cohan said. Offering services and formal coaching for small businesses might be “a more compelling proposition.”
But Charles Smith has been co-working at the Staples Brighton location since 2016 and now rents a dedicated office in the space. The cannabis consultant also regularly works at the Needham store and says he loves its flexibility: He can get downtown easily for meetings, parking is free, and he can get home to his three kids in Wellesley in minutes. “Having a commute that’s half of what the average person commutes is a big advantage,” he said.
He said he has found mentors onsite and regularly uses his discounts for printing and marketing tools, so he’s excited the company is expanding its offerings.
There are some adjustments that come with working inside a Staples, however. Smith stopped wearing red shirts, for example, to avoid being mistaken for a Staples employee. “I often think it would be a funny sitcom,” he said. “All these people working in the back of a big-box store.”