The binders, however, were easy to order on this site. The descriptions were much more understandable. I saw a listing for elegant binders and found exactly what I wanted, size and all, in short order.
File folders were a little tougher. I searched again on Globe-Weiss and as with Staples, I couldn't tell whether the items the search engine produced were what I wanted. After a bit of drilling down, I gave up and picked a Smead alternative.
My efforts to order my last item, the printer cartridge, illustrated the cool feature that Office Depot had explained before: the quick supplies finder pulled up not only the branded Hewlett Packard cartridge but also a number of lower-priced substitutes, which I ordered. But at checkout an unexplained problem occurred. The site informed me that I could not order the substitute printer cartridge on the same requisition as my other items. Not understanding why, I went back and changed back over to the more expensive Hewlett Packard brand. The total elapsed time for the order was 27 minutes.
The Scores, Please . . .
All in all, I was disappointed with both site's test times. The best time, 27 minutes, is surprising for ordering four simple items. It only took me 10 minutes to find the same products and order them via fax using Staple's regular catalog. I didn't, of course, know whether the items I ordered the old-fashioned way were in stock, and I risked getting the wrong things because I may have transposed an item number. But were these benefits worth the time and hassle of searching the sites?
Staples later explained to me that they help users avoid problems such as hitting the back key to go up a level with training. They also explained that as a user, I could have included a box of 12 pens in my contract list and catalog if I had wanted. But how many of us receive training to shop at Wal-Mart, or our local grocery store? I understand Staple's point of view and have no doubt that their site compares extremely well to any e-commerce site, but I also believe the Internet will not be the channel of choice for B2B e-commerce until usability, in general, improves. In fact, I suspect that when a StaplesLink user needs an item off-contract, most simply find what they want in the catalog and then quick order by part number.
Office Depot gets the highest marks for usability, because they took the least amount of time and I found everything I needed. But because it was still difficult, I'm only giving them an 11 out of a possible 20 points. Since I spent so much time at Staples and did not get everything I came for, they get a 5.
And The Winner Is . . .
Office Depot won this competition, but not by much. Except for usability, both companies were either neck in neck or tied in each category. (See the sidebar for a detailed summary of the scores.) Both sites had very strong points, and if I were a company considering automating my office supply purchases, I would certainly consider each very seriously before making my final decision.
One interesting outcome of this comparison is the fact that the highest score Office Depot's tally of 73 points still leaves a large margin for improvement. This is despite the fact that the overall functionality of these sites amazes me. So yes, these sites bring a lot to the table for small businesses, but we can probably expect orders of magnitude in improvement in the future.
*Note: The Staples.com test drive was done at 9 p.m. on a Sunday night, whereas the Office Depot site was tested at noon on a Monday morning. Staples.com's test times may have been negatively impacted due to varying traffic on the Internet at different times during the week.