The retail industry is expected to record its first drop in back-to-school sales in 10 years, with the National Retail Federation estimating an 8% decline in year-over-year sales. Less money in consumers' pockets and reduced school budgets are hurting a category that is already having a difficult year. At Staples and Office Depot, the No. 1 and No. 2 brands, respectively, in the specialist office-supply sector, the marketing departments are sharpening their 2B pencils to compete for a share of a smaller market and keep general retailers such as Walmart and Target from stealing their lunchboxes.
Retailers are fighting for market share both in-store and online, with about a third of sales coming from their websites. The average basket at Staples.com is $325, about twice the size at Amazon. With Staples and Office Depot supporting some 1,500 and 1,100 U.S. locations, respectively, driving foot traffic remains an important task. In addition, a large proportion of their sales are "own branded," so a need to support the brand is also a consideration. It's a complex task, no doubt made tougher by media budgets nearly half what they were in 2007.
So who earned the better grade?
Staples mixed a variety of communication vehicles for its 2009 back-to-school marketing, with TV front and center. Staples revived its popular "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" spot, featuring the holiday-themed Andy Williams tune of the same name. The retailer also aired a mom-and-teen-targeted "Easy Button" spot that continues the Staples "Anthem" campaign, in which customers reveal the ways the Easy Button helps them save money on the things they need. In addition to TV, Staples used free-standing inserts and a combination of public relations, promotional partnerships, online display, social media and event sponsorships to drive its back-to-school messaging. Staples once again partnered with DoSomething.org for the "Do Something 101" campaign, which features singer Ciara and aims to get students involved in collecting school supplies and money for kids in need. Staples also joined forces with Bed Bath & Beyond in a "Shop Smart for College" promotion.
By contrast, Office Depot's 2009 back-to-school marketing is dominated by sales promotions and partnerships communicated through newspapers, FSIs, online and event sponsorships. It promoted several partnership programs, including a joint promotion with Foot Locker in which customers who spend $30 or more at Office Depot get 20% off at Foot Locker, and consumers who make a $30 purchase at Foot Locker get $10 off at Office Depot. It was cross-promoted in Foot Locker stores and on the website. Another major component of Office Depot's 2009 marketing is "My Project Backpack," a national contest with Sharpie pens that encourages customers to submit images of their Sharpie-designed backpacks for a chance to win cash prizes.
Office Depot ran no TV for its back-to-school strategy.
Office Depot officially launched back-to-school season on July 12 with ad placements in local newspapers -- its principal communication vehicle for promoting low-priced items and its promotional tie-in with Foot Locker. The company has also run a consistent schedule in USA Today displaying weekly specials. Staples, on the other hand, has been noticeably pulling away from newspapers. Both retailers are very active on local-newspaper websites.
Free-standing inserts have been the cornerstone of many retailers' efforts. Staples typically spends a third of its media budget on FSIs during the back-to-school months, and Office Depot spends about half, running 8- to 12-page inserts. The FSIs were actively promoted and distributed on the retailers' websites and via e-mail marketing.
Staples.com is a powerful website that delivers significant e-commerce sales for the company across multiple business lines. Upon first entry, it gave no invitation on the home page to navigate me to the Staples' back-to-school specials. By contrast, Office Depot heavily displayed its back-to-school promotions on its front page, as well as through its Star Teacher program.
Office Depot relaunched its website in the second quarter this year with improved functionality. In time for the back-to-school season, it introduced a microsite, TheSurvivaloftheSmartest.com, featuring an online show, "Smart Specials With Matt and Matt"; its 5% Back to Schools program, which allows schools to earn credit toward school supplies; and its Star Teacher program, where registered teachers can earn in-store discounts and a free breakfast during Teacher Appreciation Week, a promotion running various dates depending on region.
This year the search statistics confirm consumers are spending more time researching their back-to-school needs online.
Both brands bought paid search on Google, Yahoo, Bing and Ask Me. Office Depot appeared to buy unbranded office-supply terms. Staples' hit rate on back-to-school search terms was 1.15% vs. Office Depot's 0.85%, according to Compete.
With online budgets expected to be double what they were in 2008, the retailers looked to draw traffic to their websites and target teens and moms.
Office Depot's online display ads -- extensively on local-newspaper sites -- promoted deals such as 20-cent glue sticks or 75-cent binders, driving traffic back to the website for more.
Similarly, Staples promoted its weekly back-to-school specials online. It used a clever array of rich-media executions such as rollovers and interactive placements. Traditional online display ads ran on a combination of sites targeting moms (ABC Family, Cosmopolitan, MarieClaire) and kids (Disney, Hi5), as well as broader channels such as Yahoo and Weather.com.
Staples demonstrated a strong presence on Facebook, establishing a fully customized site that included an excellent back-to-school section featuring the TV spots and detailing weekly specials. It even allowed users to purchase featured products via its e-commerce site. In addition, Staples nicely promoted its cause-marketing program, Do Something 101, by inviting users to download its Adopt a Pack app, which allows users to fill a virtual backpack with school supplies to send to friends. They are also invited to help fill collection bins in Staples stores by donating supplies. With some 22,000 fans with an average of 120 friends, the page has the potential to influence some 2.6 million consumers. I also liked an additional feature, I Shred U!, an application for shredding pictures or making goofy modifications to pictures in which the user has been tagged on Facebook.
PR and special events
To commemorate the unofficial back-to-school season on July 14, Staples President Michael Miles rang the opening bell for Nasdaq.
Office Depot promoted "My Project Backpack" as an official event sponsor of the 2009 Teen Choice Awards' Backstage Creations Celebrity Gift Retreat on Aug. 9. Celebrity attendees including the Black Eyed Peas, "American Idol" winner Jordin Sparks and "Twilight" star Kellen Lutz autographed and designed Office Depot backpacks using Sharpie pens, which in turn were donated to patients at City of Hope, a leading Los Angeles-based research and treatment center for cancer and other life-threatening diseases.
Like the retail industry as a whole, neither marketer is likely to record great sales results, but that's an indication of the current economic reality rather than their approaches to media.
I give Staples an A-. Yes, Staples had a budget nearly three times the size of Office Depot's, but maintaining a significant media budget demonstrates a commitment to advertising despite tough trading conditions. This investment gives the company an edge over its competitors. Having to cut budgets, Staples made some definite choices: maintain TV, increase online to support weekly specials and build participation in its Do Something 101 promotion via social media. The media strategy cut through and, by and large, delivered its messages consistently.
As for Office Depot, I give it a B. The company employed some nice tactics that delivered differentiation, such as its Sharpie co-promotion and consistent newspaper advertising. Its website proved more effective than Staples' in capturing e-commerce sales. But Office Depot was clearly outspent and as a challenger brand did not deliver enough to counter Staples' bigger budget this year.
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