UK and US office supplies retailer Staples recently announced a plan to close 225 stores in North America – more than 10% of their presence – due to more shoppers moving online and causing sales to slump. Chief executive Ron Sargent said that nearly half the company’s sales were now generated online and that there was a plan to “fundamentally reinvent” the company by “taking aggressive action to reduce costs and improve efficiency.”

Well I’ve poked around in website source code for far less reason than that (“I need something to do while my tea brews” I think being a personal best – or worst!) so let’s have a look. Graham Charlton at Econsultancy was kind enough to collate the most pertinent of my comments in his recent piece on Staples SEO and eCommerce but for the full shebang read on!

Staples actually has two sites, the US site at www.staples.com and the UK one at www.staples.co.uk, which vary quite noticeably in look and feel. It’s a shame they haven’t gone for a more unified approach as this might help the brand gain more traction in the market, especially considering they’re up against mammoth competitors like Amazon. Aside from the brand considerations, having a unified presence at www.staples.com with the country-specific site versions split into subdirectories would also unify the domain authority, making all future SEO work considerably more efficient. That both are in English is immaterial – this is why we have Hreflang markup for regions as well as languages, after all.

The US site doesn’t look too bad and is reasonably cleanly coded although – eep – it’s a little worrying to see an H2 wrapped around a paragraph and an unordered list with the class name “seo short.” Danger, Will Robinson – you do know search crawlers can read CSS classes, don’t you? I’m working with a client at the moment who is looking at some great ways to make more of an “event” of their shop’s category level copy so it really adds value to users rather than just being a wodge of copy stuck up there for search optimisation purposes – something Staples most definitely need to look at as well!

It’s a shame because some of the content which has been put in as “SEO fodder” (a term that makes me cringe even as I type it) is actually not too bad – but there’s no real content curation area on the site where it could more usefully sit to help with overall growth. There’s so much the brand could do here to establish themselves as “office supply experts” (for variable definitions of “office”) which would be great for brand image and also boost their sites’ content proportionality for appropriate terms too, giving them an advantage over pure sellers like Amazon.

Staples Landing Page Copy

At least the US site is linking to its social platforms to try and build up some online brand conversations, which is more than the UK version does (they might be on there somewhere but I couldn’t see them – which in itself is a bit of a problem really since I’m a first-time visitor to the UK website) – and to be fair the dialogue on the US Facebook page and Twitter account is very good, with plenty of engagement and a cheery, amicable brand voice that is replying to and opening conversations with individual users as well as broadcasting.

This is a lesson many other brands would do well to imitate so the social team at Staples USA win massive points for their community building. There’s somewhat less chatter on the UK equivalent page, but whether this is down to the social links being missing from the site or just the British being less sociable about their office supplies is up for debate!

The navigation and H1s on categories on the UK site are a bit odd – it looks like for some reason the site has to have the text in the meta titles identical to the menu labelling, resulting in vertical separator pipes all over the shop – and could use a bit of a redesign for UX if nothing else. The whole of the UK site seems in need of a refresh in fact, with a lot of table-based layout used in the source code although the product pages, as on the US site, are doing well in terms of things like product reviews and offering social sharing capability. There’s so much that could be done with rich markup on those product pages, it makes my coding fingers itch (hmm, wonder if there’s a cream for that).

Staples Landing Page

Mobile search is another big problem for the brand – while there are sites sitting at m.staples.co.uk and m.staples.com they don’t seem to redirect properly which rather defeats the idea. I made a spirited attempt at Googling for Staples by brand on my Android phone and was presented with the desktop site in SERPs which when selected took me to the…desktop site.

A redesign to full responsive for both shops would be the ideal route of course but in the meantime there are some technical configurations that could really help with mobile conversion for the brand – even just ensuring the correct rel=alternate tags are in place for different media sizes would be a good start. It really is saddening how many big sites have separate mobile URLs and don’t set up properly to make best use of them – and a brand like Staples honestly deserves better.

I wonder if the lack of investment in mobile is reflective of traffic levels – it isn’t uncommon for some B2B “office” focused companies to see less mobile traffic than many consumer verticals due to user browsing habits. Not many dedicated office managers would order printer paper via mobile on their way to or from the office, rather than at their desks! Would be interesting to see the traffic segmentation by device for the two main sites.

At any rate, judging by their current web presence, it seems like Staples need to have a bit of a shift towards being more digitally aware in order to make the most of their new brand direction. 4Ps has actually helped brands through this sort of transition before – digital skills auditing and what our planners call “digital transformation days” can be really useful in helping internal marketing teams understand their skills strengths (and weaknesses). A skills audit and analysis would also help fill in organisational training gaps and adjust focus towards thinking as “digital natives” so they can get to grips with this new-fangled online marketplace doohickey.

I asked one of the co-founders of 4Ps, Matt Phelan, more about the process of digital transformation for clients, and he offered some insights into the process:

“Having facilitated quite a few digital transformation projects with our clients over the years the consistent theme is that the client in question normally has everything they need to evolve. It is our job as an outside team to help pull everything together into one plan that everyone can get behind. The less I talk in a digital transformation workshop the better I know it is going. The answers always come from within but the skill is pulling that information to the surface.”

On a personal note I think I’d love to help Staples blaze this new trail they’ve laid out for themselves – and not just by being an SEO geek (that’s not what it says on my business cards by the way…but it probably should). A great deal of digital transformation work also involves speaking to brand merchandisers and getting their IT and product leads together with their marketers to see how they can all be singing from the same hymn book in the digital world. There’s always that brilliant “eureka” moment when it clicks, all the teams start talking at once and suddenly ideas are flying everywhere. That’s awesome. That’s genuine punch-the-air cool. That’s when marketing – digital or otherwise – really takes off.

Plus I want to go for a coffee with those US social guys. My experience in office pranks is severely lacking and I could use some expert advice which they’re clearly equipped to deliver.

Staples Social Media

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