From the August 2000 issue of Startups

When HomeOfficeMag.com asked if I would be interested in writing a feature about buying office products online from my SOHO office, I almost lost the chance by virtue of my curt response. In essence, I told the editors it was painfully obvious that they worked in a "real" office because, for the solo homebased entrepreneur, going to the office supply store was one of the great opportunities to actually leave the nest. Permit me to explain.

Let Me Out Of Here

One of the great delights of working from my home office is the occasional time that I happen to tune into the traffic report. News of hopeless delays and 18-wheelers that have lost their load reassure me that my decision to defect from the rat race was a wise one. As a SOHO, I can sit in my temple and reflect on all the poor souls who waste a good part of their day on the cusp of a road-rage incident. However, like the inmate in solitary confinement, the home office can keep you away from humanity for inhumane periods of time. You can offset this feeling by scheduling lunches with your clients, but after a while, that practice can be a little expensive and worst of all, you have to change out of your gym shorts and four-day-old shirt to make the occasion. Sometimes, the solitude can be broken by a run to the local mailbox store, but this outing rarely lasts longer than a few minutes and in short order, I'm sitting in front of the computer again. In my view, going to the neighborhood superstore to shop for office supplies not only provides a mild form of entertainment, but it also permits me to handle all the new gadgets and stay abreast of technology. So why buy office products through the Internet?

Saving money. That's the first assumption we make about buying over the Internet, isn't it? Because the dotcoms have worked so feverishly to grab our ears and eyeballs with free offers, discounted fares and reverse auctions, it's my personal opinion that the average surfer expects to find some pretty good online deals compared to the brick-and-mortar alternatives. Convenience has been the other promise of online shopping, and with these factors in mind, I set out to do a little shopping.

I approached this subject by putting together a small list of supplies I could really use. The idea was to buy the same goods from a number of sites and compare every attribute of the experience. In addition, I wanted to compare dedicated office product companies with each other, compare the best of these to manufacturer's Web sites, and then see if I could grab a super bargain from an auction site. My market basket of goods included sticky notes, gel pens, an electric stapler, a Hewlett Packard all-in-one office machine and some antiviral software. I also compared prices for Microsoft productivity software just to see if a real bargain was out there. My goals were to see if the promises of Internet shopping were true and to save you time in sorting through the offers.


Todd D. Maddocks is a franchise attorney and small-business consultant. You can reach him at TMaddocks@aol.com.

Comparing The Big Boys--Shopping At Office Depot, Staples And Office Max

Using AOL as my portal, I commenced my quest by entering the phrase "office supplies" into the resident search engine. The query resulted in 9,706 matches, and in lieu of dealing with a plethora of opportunities, I immediately focused on the big three: namely, Office Max, Office Depot and Staples. I followed this strategy on the premise that this group should certainly be prepared for some heady competition and thus have large budgets for e-commerce development. Each of the Big Three have nearly identical policies relating to returns, refunds and shipping. For example, if your order adds up to more than $50, shipping is free. For smaller orders, expect to pay up to $5 per order for shipping. Even the product prices at the Big Three are almost identical, and the Web prices are the same as those found in the stores. So much for saving money via the Internet on this product category. The only distinguishing consideration left to ponder was convenience, and this is where the Big Three differ.

I Need It Now Ironically, while in the midst of all this shopping, I was suddenly overcome with a strange desire that strikes me only occasionally-the desire to do some filing. Now when that rare motivation comes to organize my workspace, I must act immediately or the feeling will quickly pass. Even though I had bookmarked the Web sites that could supply me with the storage boxes and file folders I needed, I wanted to file now, not tomorrow. So I made a quick run up the hill to Office Depot and 22 minutes later, I was happily getting things organized. Now that's convenience.

OfficeDepot.com: I have always had trouble distinguishing Office Depot and Office Max stores. In my view, they carry nearly identical merchandise and their big red exterior signs even look alike. When I shop at each, the clerks equally ignore me. But when it comes to the Web, Office Depot is a sorry example of an Internet shopping experience. The site operates slowly and is difficult to navigate. For example, I had to scroll through 17 individual Web pages just to shop for my sticky notes, and worse yet, there were no graphics. To find a gel pen, I had to endure nine Web pages, and when I finally started to order, the shopping cart failed to pick up my selection. With all these pages, you would expect to find information regarding the bigger ticket items, but when I searched for "all-in-one machines," no data was delivered. In all, I spent 51 minutes shopping with no results. Since the prices were nearly identical to those offered by Office Max and Staples, I suggest you bypass the Office Depot site altogether until they mend their fences.

OfficeMax.com Vs. Staples.com: Both of these sites offer an easy-to-use interface that includes graphics. The Staples site has a nice feel to it and they will suggest add-on sales whenever you make your order. Do you need some staples for that new stapler? No problem as Staples automatically brings up that page when you make your selection. I ordered identical products from both sites at nearly the same time, and the Office Max products were delivered as promised while Staples took a few days longer. When returning the products, I was advised by Staples customer service e-mails to leave the box outside for the next two to five days and someone would pick it up. During that time, it rained frequently and I moved the box in and out, accordingly creating a lot of frustration. Eventually UPS did pick up the box, but I couldn't imagine leaving anything of value on the front steps for five days. Returning your order directly to the store, which is a very handy attribute, will eliminate this concern.

The Truth About Low Price Guarantees And Internet Auctions

Low Price Guarantees

The highly competitive nature of this industry has led the Big Three to make very similar low price guarantees. In essence, each of the Big Three promises if you find the same item advertised for less by another office superstore within seven days of your purchase--and you jump through the appropriate verification process--the store in question will give you the lower price plus 55 percent (up to about $50) of the difference. I really worked to try to take advantage of this offer. I searched for hours trying to find a big price difference and finally found a Hewlett Packard Scanner for $49 less. However, when I read the fine print, I learned most of the expensive goodies such as printers and laptops were excluded from this offer. Furthermore, auction sites didn't apply. Since most of us are unwilling to spend a few hours trying to save a dime on sticky notes, I would humbly suggest you disregard these lures.

Shopping An Internet Auction

Internet auctions are intriguing for a number of reasons. Like all auctions, they can be quite exciting when you beat out the other bidders and there's a tendency to become emotionally involved. The difficulty with Internet auctions, however, is it's impossible to inspect the goods before you buy. Maybe this is why the Federal Trade Commission has noted consumer fraud is rampart in this domain. When shopping for my antivirus software, I visited Egghead.com and entered an auction. I bid on some Norton Antivirus software I had seen advertised at the Big Three for about $29. The Egghead site said this was new software and little else, except that Egghead recommended the high bid not exceed $45. I thought this was misleading when the software could be had for considerably less elsewhere. I won the auction for a little less than retail, and to my surprise, I didn't receive a boxed version of the software. Rather, I received an OEM copy designed for distribution with new computers sold in Latin America. This is a problem because it virtually eliminates the potential to later resell the software.

The Best Shopping Game Plan

In purchasing any big-ticket item, you should always start with a manufacturers' Web site first. Moreover, sites like HP.com and Epson contain considerably more product information than the office supply sites. Armed with this information, you should check the price at either Staples or Office Max. Finally, you should take a run at Mercata to see if the items you're looking for are listed as a "Power Buy" to see if you can take advantage of group buying power for a specific item.