Staples RIP

May 20, 2017 2 Comments

Glancing across Parc Tawe after finishing the food shopping the other day I saw a shocking sight.  Staples was no longer there.  It took a while for the eye to confirm that it really had disappeared, and a while longer for the brain to absorb the meaning of the disappearance.  The truth was that some ghost, some Staples doppelgänger, was still there, in the same place.  It had quietly borrowed the Staples colours, red and white, and it had some ersatz Staples name, like ‘Office Outlet’. Probably, I thought, they’d bought the abandoned stock and would try to flog it cheap before leaving the shop empty, like many of the neighbouring sheds in Parc Tawe.

It wasn’t long ago since I was last in Staples, when it was still Staples.  As usual I’d concocted for myself some poor excuse, like I needed a new small Black n’ Red notebook, with lined pages, or a Parker Jotter refill (medium, blue) or a pack of white C6 envelopes with self-sealing flaps.  And as usual my real motive was to wander slowly down the long aisles, a flâneur of stationery.   Past the paper and envelopes and box files and plastic storage bins, the dozen different types of transparent sleeves and display folders, the bewildering array of pens, blinking at you seductively like the lights in the pilot’s cabin of an aeroplane.  I’d noticed, on this and other recent visits, that the stock looked thin and tired, and the staff likewise.  I should have known that investment by Head Office had ceased, custom was on the wane and the business on the rocks.  But it still came as a shock.

My love affair with stationery goes back to early childhood.  I’ve never been the model stationery user.  Unlike many other addicts I’ve known, most of them women friends, I’m no artist or draughtsperson or calligrapher.  It helped that I’ve always loved order and classification in paper, and I’m a natural hoarder of it.  The attraction to giant stationery stores came much later.  It’s true that small, boutique stationery shops, with expensive Mont Blanc pens and coloured paper from Nepal, have a superficial attraction.  The best of them seem to be in Berlin.  But they can’t compete for richness of experience with the megastores, where the range and assortments are vast and no one will approach you and ask if you need advice (I rarely do).  I first came across them in America.  Whenever a branch of Office Depot – pronounced, of course, ‘Deepo’ – came into view I’d want us to pull the automobile over and see what they had to offer.  The concept, like most US concepts, eventually crossed the Atlantic, and Staples was born.  I’ve been firmly attached to Staples ever since.  The name ‘Staples’, a tiny item made to stand for a huge enterprise, is one of the best metonyms you could muster.  Strangely, despite being a loyal customer, I never succumbed to their loyalty card.  Perhaps, subconsciously, because I suspected that the loyalty wouldn’t be reciprocated.  Every other shop of any interest had long since fled Parc Tawe and abandoned it to the sickening stench of popcorn coming from the Odeon cinema.  Even the low grade charity shop in the shed next door couldn’t make a go of it and had closed.  But I still kept coming back to Staples.

The few other customers in the shop looked very like me.  That is, they were carrying round some small token purchase, a printer cartridge or presentation folder, but their real motive was to savour the stationery in all its variety, with no intention of buying.  We’d try not to catch one another’s gaze.  Keep peering at the shelf.

In its golden age Staples was much busier.  It had a big copy centre, where you could get expert advice on reproducing almost anything short of 3D objects (3D printing was yet to arrive).  At the back of the shop were tables and baskets piled high with remaindered items, and on the left side, acres of black cushioned office chairs, all ergonomically sound but hideously ugly.  Packs of white copy paper reared up within the aisles, silent towers of Babel.  If you wanted something as simple as a biro the choice was dizzying, but the real interest lay in all the variants of the simple pen – rollerballs, gell pens, technical pens, highlighters, felt-tip pens, marker pens and digital pens.  And all of them with their enticing packs of refills, in varying colours and thicknesses.  And then there were the Filofax inserts.  Rows and rows of them: diaries (a week at a view, or more, or less), address book refills, clear plastic page dividers, financial accounts paper, maps of the London Tube or the UK rail system.  The display has shrink badly, and I often wondered whether I was the last Filofax user in Swansea.  Before leaving I usually felt the need to check the notebooks.  Here I’d be surprised at who on earth would want to buy those spiral-bound ones with soft covers, when everyone knows that any genuine notebook writer can’t do without a sewn binding and hard covers.  You could always rely on Staples if you needed a specially recherché object, like one of those neat instruments with two vicious jaws for removing unwanted staples and separating two sheets of paper without damaging them.

When I got home I found out what had happened.  I wasn’t far wrong.  Staples Inc. hadn’t pulled out, but they’d been taken over.  After failing to make profits the British part of the company was bought in November 2016, for a nominal sum, by an outfit called Hilco Capital, who also own HMV, another business much affected by internet trading.  Staples explained the decision: ‘agreeing to sell our UK retail business to Hilco aligns with our go-forward strategy of focusing on our North American and mid-market business, and is a meaningful step in that process’ – a corporate sentence so horrible it’s little surprise the UK company failed.

Hilco provide, in their words, ‘distressed investment and restructuring services’.  According to one commentator, ‘if the high street is beginning to look like a horror movie, then Hilco could be cast as the vampire’.  Their website helpfully lists the top executives, ‘our people’: fourteen smiling white males wearing suits and ties.  Their first act was to ditch the Staples brand and replace it with ‘Office Outlet’ (surely an ill-judged move).  They look intent on moving to the discount end of the market.  Whether they can make a success of ‘Unstapled’ is anyone’s guess.  Their real problem is that most businesses and individuals now buy their stationery online.  It’s easier and cheaper, no doubt.  But how do you reproduce on your computer screen the vivid, gorgeous sensory experience of half an hour’s wandering up and down the nave and chancel of the Staples store in its heyday?


Comments (2)

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  1. Sian Evans says:

    On my way to my closest Staples right now to spend a very enticing coupon.

  2. Lis says:

    Even the most gloomy day could be lifted by a raid on Staples post it notes. For me they belong in the category of guilt free shopping binges (along with books, music and pots). Thank you for your elegy!

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