Office supply merchants’ back-to-school mobile efforts incomplete

Posted on August 6, 2010


I like this overview of this business sector and the comparison of approach to mobile for back to school. I also think that ABI Research’s conclusion that the mindset for some companies towards mobile is an experimental one is not exactly on target, more so that the client has a scattered approach to a mobile strategy is more accurate.

Mobile Commerce Daily-Few office supply retailers or manufacturers have implemented fully realized mcommerce strategies on their mobile-optimized Web sites this back-to-school season.

Merchants are gearing for a rush of back-to-school shopping as students prepare to head back into classrooms in the coming weeks. While several office supply retailers and manufacturers boast mobile-optimized Web sites, not many of their strategies involve fully realized mcommerce initiatives to drive sales and awareness – and the root could be the business environment.

“If you’re selling pencils and paper, they aren’t quite commodities, but if they’re fairly commoditized items – staplers, desk chairs and that sort of thing – you’re not necessarily dealing with a lot of margin,” said Neil Strother, Kirkland, WA-based mobile practice director at ABI Research. “These companies may not have the experimental budget.

“I can see the mindset being, ‘We’re reaching these clients because they’re in our database through various traditional touch points,’ and wanting to stick to that,” he said. “To suggest adding mobile, when there isn’t a lot of private sector expansion, might not happen right now.”

Some retailers, such as JCPenney (see story) have already embraced mobile commerce as a way to drive sales during back-to-school season.

In addition, a number of mobile developers have harped on the importance of the mobile medium for seasonal sales such as back-to-school campaigns (see story).

Still, of the four major office supply retailers surveyed – including Dell, OfficeMax, Staples and Office Depot – only one (Dell) presented mobile users with a clear back-to-school sales proposition and gave those customers the tools to make purchases right from their devices.

It is hard to say why the sector has not fostered more complete mobile commerce experiences, though there are some possibilities.

“[These retailers] are part way there,” Mr. Strother said. “They do things part way and then don’t follow up.

“They either don’t have the in-house team to track and follow the process through and make recommendations to do the job better, or their agency isn’t up to speed, or they’re used to doing things through online or email or traditional channels like TV,” he said. “Maybe it’s a missed opportunity, and it’s time for someone to take the lead.”

Here is a round-up of the mobile commerce back-to-school offerings from the aforementioned office supply retailers:

Computer manufacturer Dell lets mobile users search for back-to-school sales and purchase products directly from its mobile-optimized Web site.

A Campus Ready Lighter Sale currently listed under the Weekly Deals section on the home page lists a number of discounted laptops geared towards students.

Users can add laptops to their mobile shopping cart and purchase the items from their handsets, or click to call an 800-number where they can place orders.

Additionally, a quick search for “Back to School” on the mobile Web site’s home page brings up a link for more back-to-school offers that users can browse.

OfficeMax has a mobile-optimized Web site where handheld users can search for, research and buy supplies, locate stores and click to call a customer service representative for help with a purchase inquiry.

“We’re striving to bring all the functionality of the Web to shoppers on the go on their mobile devices,” said Bill Bonner, senior director of external relations at OfficeMax, Naperville, IL.

“And, with recent predictions from Morgan Stanley analysts who believe the mobile web will be bigger than desktop Internet by 2015, we seek to continue to evolve and develop OfficeMax’s mobile website and related applications that will better serve our growing audience of mobile customers,” he said.

“With back-to-school being one of OfficeMax’s busiest times of year, it’s even more important that we offer customers the best possible information and access to products at all communication points including mobile, as they stock up for the approaching school year.”

The mobile site includes a Weekly Ad feature where users can enter their ZIP codes to find discount offers at a nearby Office Max location.

Here is a screen grab of back-to-school supplies offered on OfficeMax’s mobile Web site:

Deals available vary by location, but could include back-to-school offers.

However, the Web site does not include a central hub for back-to-school shoppers to find deals.

Staples has a mobile-optimized Web site that includes featured weekly deals.

However, the company does not have any concrete plans to tie its mobile Web site into its major back-to-school sales thrust.

The office-supply retailer does plan to use mobile to raise donations for its back-to-school supply-drive charity, Do Something 101.

This is the third year Staples has partnered with Do Something, a non-profit youth organization that supports charitable causes, to encourage Staples customers to donate school supplies  or small amounts of money to help buy the supplies for students who could not otherwise afford them.

The campaign includes a SMS component that encourages consumers to donate $5 to the cause by texting the keyword NOTEBOOK to the short code 20222.

Here is a screen grab of a call-to-action on a Staples-affiliated Web site located at

Staples said that it did not intend for this campaign to directly aid in driving sales or customer awareness of the retailer’s back-to-school offerings.

“I think the text to donate campaign is just another  great element to our overall Do Something 101 campaign and a way to drive awareness and buzz and to get people more involved in the cause,” said Karen Pevenstein, spokeswoman at Staples, Framingham, MA.

“Staples always likes to make it ‘easy,’ and this text-to-donate portion is another way to help people get involved in Do Something 101,” she said.

Office Depot
Office Depot’s mobile Web site includes a number of features such as product search, detailed product information and the ability to check nearby stores and the Office Depot Web store for availability, although users cannot purchase products directly from the mobile Web site.

The site also includes a Special Offers section that includes a number of back-to-school sales categories.

Here is a screen grab of some of Office Depot’s back-to-school offers in the mobile Web site’s Special Offers section:

However, once users click on the links, they are directed to the standard Office Depot Web site, which is not mobile-optimized.

Office Depot did not comment by press time.

Mobile is a necessity for supporting seasonal campaigns such as back-to-school sales, according to ABI’s Mr. Strother.

“I would say, not only for back-to-school, should clearly have a mobile-optimized site that, when possible, carries the prospective customer through to conversion,” Mr. Strother said. “They should make it easy for users to look up products, research and complete that purchase or at least drive them to the store.

“A really good mobile experience is important,” he said.

Mr. Strother suggested two tactics these retailers could implement to improve their mobile commerce initiatives for future back-to-school seasons.

“One: Notice how many people are going to the online site from mobile devices, and try to attract those people with either an application or mobile Web site,” he said. “Then, over time, have some program or programs in place where you can start to capture mobile phone numbers, create a database and drive people from their mobile devices.

“Two: Look at your audience,” he said. “Maybe they’re not on iPhone and Android, but moreso on BlackBerry and Palm.

“Figure out your audience, and build campaigns and programs that can leverage that touch point.”

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