Staples seeks to soothe as it battles retail rivals

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Staples is tagging itself the "back-to-school specialty store"—even as it's up against Amazon's "Everything Store." The Framingham, Mass.-based office supply retailer began its back-to-school push on Monday, hours ahead of Amazon Prime Day's afternoon start.

"Staples has a unique competitive advantage in that we specialize in school supplies all year-round, not just July through September," says Christine Mallon, VP of retail marketing at the chain. The campaign includes TV, digital and, for the first time, cinema.

In a 30-second spot, crayons, glue, markers and calculators engage in a circular Esther Williams-style ballet as a hypnotic voiceover seeks to soothe anxious consumers. "Breathe," the voiceover says. "Let the back-to-school shopping wash over you like a warm summer wind."

"There's no back-to-school stress, only school supply serenity—thanks to Staples, the back-to-school specialty store," the voice explains.

While many parents are likely unfamiliar with so-called "school supply serenity," Staples is trying to position itself in a crowded sea of players that include Target, which is rolling out its own sales this week, competitor Office Depot and of course Amazon, which was the top choice by consumers for both early and late back-to-school shopping last year, according to a survey by Brand Keys. The Seattle-based ecommerce giant now controls 49 percent of the ecommerce market—or $258.2 billion—according to recent analysis by eMarketer.

"It continues to be a competitive space—it's hard for these specialists like Staples and Office Depot to differentiate," says Matt Sargent, senior VP of retail at consulting firm Magid. "Why go there versus Amazon, Target or even Costco."

Indeed, Costco has recently been doubling down on its business-to-business offerings by opening dedicated business centers to attract small companies. The warehouse retailer recently opened its 17th Costco Business Center in Minnesota and more are planned. Amazon Business, which was founded three years ago, is also infringing on Staples' market share.

For the new push, Staples worked with Muhtayzik Hoffer. The agency's executive creative director, Joel Kaplan, notes the chaos of the season. "And most of Staples' competitors add to the crazy with limited seasonal inventory and picked-over aisles," he says. "As we developed the Staples work, we wanted to counter that chaos and give families a moment of calm reassurance that Staples would have everything they need, exactly when they need it—because Staples specializes in supplies every day of the year."

More than a year ago, Staples worked with Interpublic's MRM/McCann on its new tagline "It's Pro Time," designed to court the business community.

The company, which was acquired by Sycamore Partners last fall, recently split into two divisions—delivery and retail. Staples Inc., which focuses on business-to-business delivery, has a new CEO this year in Sandy Douglas, a former president of Coca Cola North America, while Steve Matyas was promoted to run Staples Retail.

Last year, Staples spent $19.6 million in July and August on measured media in the U.S., roughly a third of its budget for the year, according to Kantar Media.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article identified Sandy Douglas as CEO of Staples. Douglas is CEO of Staples Inc., which focuses on selling to other businesses; Steve Matyas is CEO of the retail operation.

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