Will E-Commerce Save Mom-and-Pop Office Suppliers?

Last week, E-Commerce Industries, Inc. formed an alliance with United Stationers, Inc., the United States’ largest wholesaler distributor of office goods, which could be the salvation of many smaller mom-and-pop office suppliers.

The privately held Fairfax, Virginia startup said the two companies have created Internet Office Solutions and Services. The new entity will build online stores for United Stationers’ 20,000 customers who want to begin selling their products via the Internet.

Under the venture, E-Commerce Industries will charge a one-time fee to create a store for a customer of United Stationers, then continue to collect a management fee, or a percentage of sales.

“These products and services will allow independent dealers to focus on building their brands online, acquiring new customers and retaining existing ones,” said Paula Jagemann, president and chief executive of E-Commerce Industries. Jagemann added that by doing so, many mom-and-pops would also be able to reduce their costs, because many smaller dealers currently rely on taking their orders by phone, or by fax.

This comes at a time when big players such as Staples, Inc., Office Depot, Inc. and OfficeMax, Inc. are not only dominating the brick-and-mortar world but also cyberspace. This has put tremendous pressure on smaller stationary stores to get online — or perish.

Great Equalizer

Some analysts agree that going online is the only way mom-and-pops have the chance to survive against the big-box office suppliers. Managing a Web site so it responds quickly to customers’ requests could actually give smaller stationary stores parity with their giant competitors. They point out that some customers are willing to pay a premium for faster service. In addition, an affordable campaign using local radio and print ads to promote a mom-and-pop’s e-commerce store could tighten its grip on a particular niche market, according to industry experts.

Nevertheless, launching an e-commerce site is by no means a panacea. The fact is that the very survival of dealers — and even wholesalers — is in question because of the ongoing consolidation and price cutting in today’s office supply industry. But at least E-Commerce Industries and United Stationers — if nothing else — offer a ray of hope for some hardworking mom and pops stationary stores.

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