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Saving on Office Supplies

Ylan Mui

We've written a lot about how the recession is affecting our own lives and yours. But sometimes, it helps to get a bird's eye view of the state of the consumer.

I met with Staples President Mike Miles yesterday to talk about the behavioral changes in his customers. He said the outlook has improved since the fourth quarter, a scary time when "it felt like a freefall." But he can tell that his shoppers still face significant challenges.

A survey of shoppers released this week by the University of Maryland’s business school and research firm Rockbridge Associates showed that 14 percent of respondents reported they had been laid off or lost their job in the past 12 months, and 78 percent personally know someone who has been in that situation. As a result, many consumers are cutting back spending and getting rid of extras such as satellite TV and landlines.

At Staples, people are still buying basics such as paper, pens and pencils, but sales of big-ticket items such as office furniture and computers have dropped off, Mike said. On the other hand, the company has seen its tech services business more than double.

"I think in this environment, people are more likely to get it fixed," Mike said.

Staples has tried to capitalize on that by offering free computer tune-ups to get more folks into its stores. The program has been so popular that it is being extended through July. Also, this week the company launched a "career stimulus program" that allows shoppers to make 20 free copies of their resume and 40 free business cards.

Consumers "have a mindset toward value," Mike said. Still, he said he is trying to ensure that the company is positioned to do well when -- if? -- the economy turns around.

"We are really trying to set our sights on the other side," he said.

By Ylan Mui  |  April 30, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Ylan Q. Mui  
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