Of the three superstores, Staples.com seems to be beating the competition from an analyst's perspective. "Office Depot and OfficeMax have online sites, but it seems to me that they haven't really created a services platform for their small-business customer," says analyst Kneko Burney, director of eBusiness Infrastructure & Services at Cahners In-Stat Group. "Staples has just always been really innovative, and they have a phenomenal distribution network."
It turns out that the majority of business owners consider reliability and service rather than price to be their main priorities in purchasing office supplies, and Staples.com seems to have beaten the competition on those levels. "Their customer support is outstanding. The e-mail responses have been accurate and blazingly fast," says Ramon Ray, an analyst at Smallbiztechnology.com, a New York City-based company that provides strategic technology solutions to small businesses.
With this shift from in-store to online purchasing, companies have been striving to add value for entrepreneurs via additional online services, such as payroll and recruiting. "You'll see that [Office Depot's] goal is not just to aggregate hundreds of services," says Luechtefeld. "[Instead,] what businesses want us to be is that trusted partner in helping them find the best quality."
And it's quality of products and services that office-supply stores hope to provide to entrepreneurs. The weeding-out of lower-quality items also seems to be one of Staples' strengths. "They go through a significant due diligence process that's really beneficial for customers," according to Burney.
The bottom line: You don't want to get stuck taking mental notes during an important meeting because your office-supply store of choice is late on yet another delivery. Just because a store carries your favorite pen or notepad doesn't mean it's your best choice. Look at the big picture, and remember that this is a long-term decision.