Interview: Staples MD Amee Chande explains why the retailer is much more than a showroom

A look at what lies ahead for Staples and the retail business generally
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Retailer Staples is a huge global business, with more than 2,000 stores in 26 countries. But while it is perhaps best known for its general office offering, it also stocks a growing number of technology products, from laptops to ereaders and more.

PCR talks to Amee Chande, MD UK Retail and Direct, about the brand's technology business and its determination to provide good service to its customers.

Staples is very well known for office products, but who makes up your customer base?

Staples, the broader corporation, has customers ranging from everyday consumers, mums with kids getting ready for back-to-school, all the way up to large corporate customers.

I would say that our stores have a really good mix of consumers and small businesses or sole entrepreneurs. And then we tend to serve the slightly larger businesses out of our website. The larger you get, we also have managed accounts through our websites and call centres and then when you get much larger than that we have a mid-market sales force in the corporate end of our sales team. 

When you look at the technology market, and where Staples sits next to specialists, how do you find the right strategy that works well broadly but is also competitive?

The strategy that we’ve focused on is saying let’s start with our core customer, that small business customer. Then you look at two different elements. One is about the range of products and slowly orientating the range so that it’s more business focused. But the second is the environment in which you’re buying in.

Our research tells us that in the US competing with Best Buy and in the UK competing with the PC World, the environment is more frenzied than a typical business buyer is comfortable with. Differentiating on that dimension is where we think we can carve out a niche for our customer base, showing that Staples is the best place to go.

What lies ahead for the business over the next few months?

We think that the combination of aging hardware and new software such as Windows 8 in the market will encourage more customers to come in and make that purchase that they might have otherwise been delaying.

On the business side, we’ve strengthened our value proposition, bringing in new brands or including more of the higher spec products within brands we already carry. Also, we’ve been partnering more closely with the likes of Sony and Samsung, as they too want to be talking to that business customer who’s a little bit less price sensitive and a little bit more focused on the product spec and the service and sales that go along with that.

What technology products have been doing well for you in recent times?

Other than software, e-readers have been doing incredibly well. Not just Kindle but we’ve had a lot of success with Kobo as well. That category has captured consumers’ imaginations.

Peripherals and accessories is doing really well given the consumerisation of technology means that your smartphone cover is virtually your new handbag and it needs to change style every month.

Our networking and hard drives are seeing strong sales too, as people start to move more towards cloud or setting up home offices. Those two categories are becoming much more mainstream – it’s not just professionals engaging in them.

It’s been a tough year across retail. What active steps has Staples taken to try and fight against that?

For us, there’s two big pushes. One is making sure everybody understands why somebody would come to a store. Our research suggests people come to our store either for the advise, or to look and touch and feel the product, and get a complete solution. So we’ve been making sure that our associates are well trained in terms of product knowledge and then have that customer service and sales orientation. When I say sales, it’s not about ‘I get an incentive to sell to you’, but sales in a sense of understanding that customer need and taking them through the journey.

The other part of it is recognising how much of customer research, whether you’re a business or a consumer, starts on the web, and then investing in our website and developing content that allows that customer to have that zigzag journey through a variety of channels and even retailers, before they ultimately make a purchase.

We don’t want to become simply the showroom for other retailers. We need to make sure that we are providing the right experience online and then for customers that prefer or feel more comfortable purchasing after they’ve touched it themselves or talking to somebody, that we get that customer within the Staples environment. 

I believe you personally visited all the UK Staples stores this year. That must've been a huge challenge.

I’m probably the only person in the UK that’ll say this but I love the British rail network. I travel everywhere by train. For me, it’s fantastic because when I get to the other end it gives me an opportunity to meet with and get picked up by my operations director or district manager or store manager. That way, I get to travel with them and it becomes an opportunity for us to spend time together.

You’re also a strong advocate for women in business.

Whether you consciously mentor and support other women or you simply do your own role with competence, as a female executive or a senior female in the workplace, you are going to be a role model for women in the workplace because there’s a dearth of role models to start with.

There’s a huge amount of value in actively supporting one another. I run a programme called ‘Tea with the MD’ that’s essentially open to anybody and everybody in our organisation. But separate from that, I host lunches with senior women in our organisation where I invite them for lunch, anybody that’s a general manager of a store or more senior than that, so it goes pretty far down in our organisation. I make a point of talking about what their experiences have been within Staples. We talk about who they’re supporting in the Staples environment. It heightens awareness of the fact that nobody gets anywhere alone and we all need to do our part to make sure that we are all mentoring the next level down.

You've worked with organisations across the globe. What differences do you see?

There are two things that stand out for me in the UK vs. the US specifically. One was how much more retailers sell based on promotion sales in the UK. When I first got here last year in back-to-school season for instance, our big headline was 80 per cent off. I was thinking to myself, what are you normally selling it at if it’s 80 per cent off? It’s engrained in the customer now.

The other one is how much more advanced the British consumer is in multichannel shopping and in shopping online. There’s an expectation that a retailer will have click and collect and even reserve and collect.

On the flipside though, in the US I’ve seen more evidence of format innovation – using technology to reach people is more innovative. There’s just a lot more of ‘well we’ve got this app so you can do this, or this research tool or the one click purchase.’

What changes are we going to see in the retail space, do you think?

I think there will still always be some role for the relationship and interaction element. There’s a segment of customers that that will always want that reassurance of another human being and some that will still want to touch and feel stuff. So it’s about orienting that physical space to serve those needs but it’s going to be much more around the products that require those aspects like big products or a complicated purchase; the transactional stuff is going to move pretty quickly out of high street locations.

In the US software sales in the retail format are declining well into the double digits yet online is growing. Any customer who’s conscious of packaging will wonder why you’re going to give them a big box with a number on it.

I encourage my team to say don’t try and figure out how you can hold onto the past, look to the future.

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