Office Suppliers Compete with Internet, Big Boxes

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Increased out-of-market competition – from entities with a physical presence here as well as online – has forced locally owned deaalers of office products and supplies to adapt, some on surprising turf.

At Modern Office Products in Boardman, 95% of its competition “is not located here,” says Bill Cross, owner and president. Modern Office, in business 32 years, sells office supplies, furniture and other essentials that are becoming core offerings, such as break room and janitorial supplies.

“Our biggest competitor is, frankly, Staples,” the office supply chain that has stores across the five-county region.

“More and more outlets” from Walmart stores to Target offer some kind of office supplies, Cross notes.

Even so, he adds, “It’s not any more competitive than it was, say, five years ago. It’s stabilized some.”

Should a customer order more than one item on Amazon, they can be shipped on different days rather than as a single order, Cross says. The Internet has made customers much more aware of product offerings and pricing.

Customers can order supplies online “but what we’ve found at least is people need more than that and we can be competitive with some of that,” he says.

Modern Office also competes on territory where it might not be expected to beat national competitors – price.

“We subscribe to services that basically tell us what our competition is selling at,” allowing the company to proactively adjust prices often “to make sure that we are below those competitors, and so we keep a close eye on that,” Cross says.

In Warren, Crosby Mook Office Equipment Inc., in business since 1911, sells office machines from nameplates such as Toshiba and Lexmark.

Crosby Mook also sells items from an 1,800-page catalog that has “pretty much [anything] you can use in an office environment except for the people,” says owner Rocky Mitolo.

Among the catalog offerings are office furniture, clocks, phone systems, panel systems and general paper supplies.

“Like every other business, our business has gotten extremely competitive,” Mitolo says.

“On the supply side, it’s extremely competitive because anybody can Google prices for a case of paper and it’s going to come up with 30 different suppliers. You’re not competing with a handful of locally owned businesses. You’re competing with anybody that’s willing to sell whatever they want to sell over the Internet.”

An individual shopping the Internet who is “chasing after saving pennies” will discover that it costs more money in the long run, Mitolo says. Big-box retailers such Staples and Office Max, which are consolidating and closing stores, are “having their challenges as well,” he says. “So that tells you something there.”

As for equipment, if a copier isn’t working properly, the customer wants someone nearby to correct the problem.

“People understand the importance of service and support,” he says. “And that’s where locally owned companies that have local support and service separate us from the big box stores.”

National competitors that offer service typically subcontract to a third party “that may not even be the same company the next time a customer calls for support,” Mitolo says.

At Team Office Technologies in Austintown, an authorized seller and service provider for Toshiba, the focus is on office equipment and network integration, says Tom Reeveley, president. “There’s a lot of competitors out there, but some of them are just selling boxes. And there’s just a few companies selling integrated solutions,” he says.

“Everybody’s going to say they’re local. There’s some that are national companies and they’re going to say they’re local. But their revenue doesn’t flow into the Mahoning Valley,” he remarks. “They might hire local people, it might be the neighbor who lives down the street, but it’s not necessarily funneling any revenue into the Mahoning Valley. Those corporations are located someplace else.”

Moreover, larger competitors don’t enjoy any price advantage, Reeveley says. “We can get the same price levels, the same national account programs that any of the competitors have. We’re not at any disadvantage there,” he explains.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.