Office-supply retailer thrives on Web

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If you see Tom Graham walking down the street and you happen to ask him for a pencil or pad of paper, be prepared to get it and get it fast.

As founder of AtYourOffice, a Web-based business that specializes in delivering office products to anyone anywhere in the country overnight, he can ill afford the reputation of a tortoise in an industry populated by office-supply hares.

Facing larger competitors such as Staples, OfficeMax and Office Depot, Mr. Graham has a totally virtual business, with no warehouse space, three employees (if you count Mr. Graham) and 27,000 products that can be ordered at and delivered the next day.

"Companies that have traditionally bought from contract stationers are going to wonder why they are paying way more money for something that is not as convenient," he said one recent Saturday morning as he manned the customer service lines for his Washington-based business.

Instead, he says, "They can go right on these more retail sites, and it is a fun experience. You get shopping done and you are saving money."

Strong Web presence

The key to AtYourOffice's success is its Web site, which was designed by Red Dot Interactive, San Francisco, and Snickelways Interactive, New York, and is slowly becoming a small- and home-office portal that will offer products, advice and even news to its customers.

Mr. Graham has also started to affiliate his company with small-business organizations, such as the American Association of Home Based Businesses, which has agreed to place a link at its site for members interested in buying office products.

While the company technically has no inventory, it does have relationships with about 40 office product distributors throughout the U.S. These companies are linked to AtYourOffice's online ordering system and can ship a box of paper clips or truckload of paper at a moment's notice.

When a customer places an order, Mr. Graham's e-commerce system automatically notes the address, debits the customer's credit card or business account, checks with the warehouse closest to the customer, then notifies that warehouse to ship the products.

Customers can browse the company's site much like they flip through a catalog. A business-to-business customer can also pull up a list of frequent purchases and get an automated restocking list, a printer supply list and other forms.

"Each one is a compilation of products that they have identified as important to them on a weekly, monthly basis," Mr. Graham says. "They can go in and just check off those lists and get the product sent out."

While Red Dot did the site's basic design, Snickleways set up the technical end of the e-commerce system, using its own software that runs on a Windows NT platform.

Mr. Graham, who launched At-YourOffice in August, expects to generate revenue of $2.4 million in the coming year. Staples is expected to report annual sales of about $5 billion.

"Where we really kick is in our expenses as a percentage of revenue, which is now about 13%, where larger companies are running at about 22% to 23%," he says. "The Internet is a tremendous structural advantage."

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