Superior Suppliers?

Online Realities

Focusing on the Internet is the right move, judging by the popularity of online ordering among entrepreneurs. In fact, of all the people I talked with, not a single one purchases their supplies primarily by dropping by the store-not even one business owner whose office is located across the street from a Staples.

What's the selling point? In a word, convenience. You don't have to leave the office, you can consult a running log of past purchases when it's time to re-order, and you're spared the burden of carrying a load of supplies back to the office. Many feel buying online gives them more control over their expenses because they can make a set list of approved purchases employees can make.

And delivery is a real cinch. Staples.com, OfficeMax.com and Office Depot On-line all offer free shipping for orders totaling more than $50. And actual prices for products are pretty much the same regardless of where or how you shop (see "Shop Around"). Online ordering does have its downsides, however. Budget-conscious penny pinchers will miss out on sales and promotions offered in the physical stores and, consequently, sometimes end up paying more online. (A Web site like www.dealcatcher.com, which lists available coupons for a variety of retail sites, can help, though.) Also, if you're particular to certain brands, the selection you find online may be different from what you're used to in the physical store.

Ready to buy online? Then there's only one remaining question to answer: Who do you go with? A few words of caution-don't take this decision lightly. It's not just another expense; it's a long-term relationship. "A tip I would give to other entrepreneurs is to allow much more time to get set up than you think you're going to need, and definitely do due diligence upfront before selecting your supplier-you're probably going to end up staying with them for a while because it's just too much of a hassle to change," warns Rosemary O'Neill, 36, co-founder of Infopop Corp. in Seattle. O'Neill's company, which has annual sales of about $2 million and spends $300 to $400 per month on office supplies, has come to rely on OfficeMax.com for the majority of its office-supply needs.

While the ease of ordering and simply waiting for your delivery is a definite draw for online shopping, some aspects of the in-store buying experience simply can't be replaced. For instance, the personal customer service found in a physical store doesn't really translate well to the online world, where you're dealing with computers instead of people. "In stores we're constantly striving to beat customers' expectations in terms of customer service," says Baisden of OfficeMax. "I think we're really trying to add value in the training we give our associates and how they interact with customers."

For instance, if you're still fishing around for products that will address your company's needs, then going to the physical store, where you can consult with salespeople, is still your best bet. If you're looking for office furniture, for example, you might feel more comfortable going to the stores to look at and touch the actual products. And some entrepreneurs are accustomed to using special services the stores offer, such as copy centers that let you whip up everything from business cards to marketing materials.

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This article was originally published in the May 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Superior Suppliers?.

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