A competitor looks at Staples
Regarding the issue of Staples coming to Sonoma: My dog is in this fight, but the bigger picture is that our dog is in this fight.
What keeps being said by customers in my store is that, "We thought the city had our backs, that something like this could not happen."
The further shock is that this was done in hiding until the last minute when it was required to go in front of a public meeting. The people's interest in the look and feel of the City of Sonoma was, I feel, deliberately bypassed. The only input on the question of how good this was going to be for us was one-sided and not fully thought out. In this down economy, a lot of businesses in town are tight right now. I know of three computer stores, three copy stores, two print shops that could be part of the local carnage. Add to that the look of Sonoma with all the added empty business sites.
Then there's the local Chamber of Commerce; did anyone ask them how this will affect their membership? They are already hit because of the businesses that have not made it through this down time.
The advocates for Staples point to Safeway, which was small to start with. Then they point to Whole Foods and its competition with Sonoma Market. What is not mentioned is that it replaced a food market. This box store is replacing a Ford dealership - it's not the same.
Now let's talk about the lack of control we have to stop big-chain stores. I really don't understand the function of the Sonoma Planning Commission if it is not to look after Sonoma's most valuable asset, the special feel of the town that won it a listing on the Dozen Distinctive Destinations from The National Trust for Historic Preservation. The value of that is more important than selling out to big-box stores.
We need to address the impact of the next big-box store to have an eye on Sonoma. On a "60 Minutes" show a couple of years ago, Wal-Mart was all a-bubble about their new idea to start a smaller version of a high end Wal-Mart boutique to sell wine, cheese and caviar. I would not be surprised if they come in without full disclosure of the type of store it would be. They are very tight-lipped about what their reduced sizes stores are going to be like. Now how many stores are at risk? If it is the same footprint as the old Sonoma Rentals, retail-to-retail, in you go.
When I first heard of Staples coming to Sonoma, I had to know my enemy. I went to check out Staples and Office Depot in a couple of towns nearby. Up front they had deals, but one look to the right and I saw items $5 to $7 above manufacturer's suggested retail price. Item after item was above list. The reality was so clear: perception is king, the customer has no idea what list price is. I was appalled that they could be thought of as a discount store. Once they are the only game in town they can charge whatever they want.
The evidence shows that in localities where Staples and Office Depot compete head-to-head their prices are significantly lower than in localities where only one of the firms is present. The standard way they do business is to low-ball prices until the competition is gone, then the prices go up. That tells us a lot about the ability of other firms to offer strong competition.
Some people have wondered how big Staples is, as in how many stores. The question should be, in how many countries do they dominate? It is the ultimate big-chain store, no matter what the size of its building.
I sell items for list or discount where I can, but there are five manufacturers who are impressed with themselves so it is difficult to discount their products or even live with list. Like the ink jet cartridges, as an example.
I am not in this business to get rich but so Sonoma could have a choice. I bought out my fellow owners in 2008 to give Sonoma a store that was committed to Sonoma.
As many of my customers have said, Sonoma is a special place. This is why we moved here and live here.
My biggest regret is that this is an obvious, direct challenge to my store. It takes away my true voice, as a Sonoma resident, to be righteously indignant.
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Victoria Frank is owner of Sonoma Business Supply.