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The Entrepreneurial Spirit in the Office Products Industry

Mark Hampton, Senior Vice President, Marketing, United Stationers, Inc.

What are commonly thought of as "stationery supplies"—paper, writing instruments, staplers, and such-represent only a glance at a remarkable industry brimming with history, change, challenge, and the constant reshaping of entrepreneurial spirit and finesse.

This industry now includes not only those original basic stationery products, but has grown to encompass everything from the most elaborate office furniture suite, to the latest technology media storage solution, to coffee pots and bathroom tissue.

Purveyors of these products have grown beyond the scope of the traditional "stationer" and now run the gamut from local "mom & pop" office supply outlets, to virtual resellers with vast databases of electronic shoppers, to the largest national chains of office products superstores.

Today, millions of consumers need a reliable supply of products to keep their offices running smoothly, and thousands of businessmen and women, commonly called "dealers" or "resellers," have emerged to service their needs with an amazing variety of business models of varying size and scope.

One of the key links in what is known as the office products industry "supply chain" is United Stationers, a leading wholesaler distributor of business products with sales of $4.4 billion annually. United's customers include the full range of resellers described above. But as a wholesaler, United sells only to resellers—never to the ultimate end consumer of the products. As such, United has a unique perspective of the components of the "entrepreneurial engine," satisfying an incredible variety of reseller business models and preferences.

One of the first things our company has learned in its history-spanning over 80 years—is that it is beneficial to offer a diverse range of capabilities and services, because no two resellers ever want exactly the same thing.

At one end of the spectrum may be the occasional office products reseller, someone who, for example, is first and foremost a printer, but whose customers sometimes also ask them for copy paper or filing supplies. Such a customer of United Stationers may only want a small volume of a limited number of items to satisfy these occasional requests. Demand may be sometimes heavy, sometimes scant.

On the other end of the spectrum is a broad-line dealer of a full range of business products. Such a business may have sales of hundreds of million dollars, employ a sales force in the hundreds along with complementary staffs in customer service and operations, and rely on the full range of our company's capabilities:

  • Access to 40,000 products with nationwide distribution, substantially on a next-day basis. Products can be shipped to the reseller or drop-shipped directly to end consumers. Such a capability gives the reseller the ability to select a "stockless" model if they choose whereby United becomes their total fulfillment solution.
  • Extensive marketing support, including pre-printed full-line catalogs, niche market catalogs that target specific demographic segments, and promotional materials. An important part of the marketing capability is a product database with multiple levels of consumer pricing, enabling the reseller to set pricing based on his marketing strategy and integrate appropriate marketing tools into that strategy.
  • United Brands, a private label product and marketing approach that gives resellers an important competitive entree into an industry where this trend continues to grow.
  • Communications technology that enables the reseller to communicate with United's computer system in a variety of ways, making possible real-time stock check in United's inventory and seamless order processing.
  • Marketing technology that offers the reseller a variety of tools, from a complete "eCommerce Database" to email templates and consumer prospect databases.
  • United Dealer Training, a complete training solution for office products specialists, featuring classes in marketing, sales and sales management, and business management.
  • A partnership with SAP, one of the world's largest software providers, to offer a full business management technology solution.

The net result of our firm's role in the business products "supply chain" is that we serve as an enabler of reseller business ambitions, while also serving as a conduit for manufacturer distribution and marketplace exposure, and an indirect resource for satisfying consumer demand. This is entrepreneurship at many levels-helping to fuel the spirit that continues to take many forms in our industry, just as it continues to restlessly grow.

© 2007 Mark Hampton. All rights reserved.

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