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Making Staples Easy

By Dennis McCafferty  |  Posted 2010-10-12 Print this article Print

Retail and distribution companies once viewed IT as a way to improve supply chain management and store operations. These days, they use technology solutions to manage relationships with customers, vendors and business partners.

With its shelves stocked with fax machines, paper supplies, office software, shredders, Bluetooth headsets and other products for professionals, Staples has emerged as a dominant player in the office superstore universe. Its continued growth has been downright staggering: The first store opened in Brighton, Mass., in 1986. Today, there are more than 2,000 Staples locations in 27 countries.

After the acquisition of Corporate Express, the retailer needed to unify processes to conduct day-to-day business for its IT operations. Without such unification, a host of “Tower of Babel” scenarios emerged when requests came in to fix computer systems, process new employee information, approve job transfers and install new software. These tasks were generally conducted on a region-by-region basis.

The company needed a better way. “We needed to launch best practices that could scale and would be on par with a large, worldwide company,” says Neelima Sharma, director of information services for Staples. “With our size, we needed to build a stronger foundation for future growth.”

In 2008, Staples selected SaaS from Service-now.com, to replace multiple on-premises IT management tools with a unified package. The company wanted to implement the Web-based tool so that an internal user in Boston—or Amsterdam—could have a consistent experience when requesting IT services. 

The firm’s employees are now able to get help from Staples IT through multiple channels, including a Web-based service request portal. This internal IT service catalog provides an experience similar to what Staples customers expect when buying office supplies through Staples.com. It includes a shopping cart, direct access to live customer support, a personalized shopping experience, autofill type-ahead and order tracking. 

For Staples, the whole idea is to take the best practices of online customer service and combine them with modern Web technologies to deliver a simple, easy experience for both internal and external customers. The company is currently integrating Service-now.com with tools from vendors such as Ariba, CA Technologies, Hewlett-Packard and RightAnswers.

“We think there is so much potential in using Service-now.com that we’re evaluating the use of this technology in other areas of IT,” Sharma says.

Containing Inventory Costs

In the best of all possible inventory management worlds, products are routed from distribution centers to stores in seamless fashion. And there’s always enough product on the shelves to meet daily customer demand—but not too much. 

Unfortunately, that’s not the way it always works. With about 50 locations throughout the United States, The Container Store realized it needed to change the way its inventory was managed. The Dallas-based retailer sells efficient shelving sets, storage boxes, closet/pantry/cabinet organizers, packing cubes and other items that enable customers to maximize their home or office space. 

For years, the company depended on an Excel-spreadsheet process for its inventory distribution system. Traditionally, Container Store locations could order products directly from the vendor, and the vendor would transfer the order to a Container Store truck. Or the store would order directly from a Container Store distribution center. All nonmerchandise supplies were inventoried and shipped from the distribution center. 

When the order was placed, central office staff made notes on the spreadsheets, which created the potential for human error. If uncorrected, a simple typo could lead to a major accounting headache down the road. 

In addition, it was needlessly time-consuming. “It would take our staff a full day’s shift to key in all those orders, which wasn’t a good use of their skills,” says Bram Warrick, systems operations analyst. 

A cloud-based solution from Coupa has helped the stores view order history and item costs—as well as pictures of products—online. Before this, the various distribution models had been segmented, and the systems supporting them hadn’t been adequately integrated, which added to the burden of tracking supplies. 

Now, regardless of whether the product is coming from a company distribution center or directly from a vendor, the Coupa solution provides information to avoid a potential oversupply. Also, store staff can process dozens of orders online in just five minutes, instead of the one-to-two-minutes per invoice that was needed before.
Because it’s all automated, there are no manual input errors. In addition, the Container Store is now experiencing a 60 percent reduction in the number of stock-keeping units (SKUs) managed in house. 

“In the past, our store staff spent too much time trying to navigate the ordering system in back offices,” Warrick says. “This [solution] gives them the tools to make better decisions about inventory with more efficiency. We need our store employees out on the floor, not in the back room.”

Dennis McCafferty is a freelance writer for Baseline Magazine.
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