Updated January 13, 2015

Study: Best Place to Buy School Supplies - Staples vs Office Depot vs Office Max

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Though it might be a bit of an exaggeration, office and school supplies are essentials — for some people, their pens and paper are right up there with food and water. Still, the move toward a paperless society and the rising costs of ink and paper have made stores dedicated to these “essentials” struggle.

But they're not going down without a fight. In fact, two of the biggest names in office supplies have combined, leading to heated competition in this space. We consumers can benefit when these retailers bring out their price breaks, hoping to top each other in the weekly fliers and sales signs. The best discounts tend to occur in the summer and fall months, during the deluge of "back-to-school" marketing campaigns. Even though they’re long removed from their schooling days, small business owners can benefit by these sales, which often extend beyond lined notebook paper and Number 2 pencils.

As the merger between Office Depot and OfficeMax continues to play out, consumers continue to make sense of which store is the best. Those two giants still have their own brick and mortar stores and standalone websites, while Staples does as well. We have compared all three industry leaders to help consumers not only with their office and school supply needs but also to reveal some of the surprising additional services and incentives each retailer has to offer.

Study Methodology

CreditDonkey analyzed four basic factors in choosing the best office/school supply store:

  1. Cost
  2. Product Selection
  3. Locations
  4. Extras

Dozens of stores might have the pens that you want, but sometimes the price varies considerably between one retailer and another. And if you're a college student, that extra savings could make or break your social life. You want to be as cost effective as possible so that you can have money in your pocket for entertainment and other school-related needs.

You also want your go-to office supplier to carry the brands you use the most. Even if you don't care what kind of pencils you buy, everyone likes having choice. In an effort to win your business, these stores have expanded their inventory to include snacks, cleaners, and gadgets, including the ever-popular “As Seen on TV” products.

While many people now shop online for these items, sometimes you need them right away. If you have a big project due and you run out of printer ink, you’ll need a reliable, local store to grab your new cartridge. For that reason alone, being able to shop at a conveniently located store still has its benefits.

And one of the hidden gems of these office supply stores are all the extra programs, discounts and efficiency tools they offer. Rewards discounts, the ability to download business forms online, trade-in programs, additional discounts for students and businesses, credit cards that offer even more savings and rewards — these are all part of the large office supply store experience that can make the difference between shopping at one store versus another.

BEST PLACE TO BUY OFFICE SUPPLIES: OFFICE DEPOT

  • Cost: Mostly competitive, but some everyday items have higher mark-ups, price matching with restrictions 4/5
  • Product Selection: Huge variety in stores, convenient breakdown of school supplies by grade on website, has a store brand 5/5
  • Locations: Combined with OfficeMax, mostly in U.S., though some stores recently closed due to merger 4/5
  • Extras: One-hour store pickup, downloadable business template forms via the website, rewards program, credit cards 5/5
  • CreditDonkey Score: 4.5/5

Office Depot is a trusted name in office and school supplies. It has more locations throughout the U.S. than its direct competitors. And it has a wide selection of products and copy services, as well as trade-in programs for your old electronics. Office Depot is one of the first major office supply chain stores in the country, with an attempt to get bigger because of the merger.

Still, Office Depot needs to set itself apart from other retailers selling similar products. While it has many resources aimed at small businesses, the retailer could do a better job of targeting to the younger demographic, including college kids. Marcia Heroux Pounds of the (Florida) Sun-Sentinel underlines their need to remain competitive: "In recent years, Office Depot strengthened its focus on technology gadgets, aiming to draw younger people to its stores."

Why We Like Office Depot
This chain has unexpected additional resources via its website, such as downloadable templates for small businesses (everything from cash flow spreadsheets to sexual harassment guidelines).

The Downsides
Its prices tend to be slightly higher than Staples. We did a sampling of a few everyday products (scissors and cleaning supplies) and found Office Depot to be as much as 20% higher than the exact same product elsewhere. Another downer is the lack of staff in its physical stores to help you if you get in a bind for a last-minute project or presentation.

Who Office Depot Works Best For
Small business owners and local consumers who happen to live near a store location and students who need to stock up during back-to-school sales.

BEST PLACE FOR PRICING: STAPLES

  • Cost: Prices beat competitors, and if they don't, Staples will price match comparable items plus 10% 5/5
  • Product Selection: Over 500,000 items available online, now sells Apple accessories in store 5/5
  • Locations: Has the most worldwide, including Asia, Europe, and South America, conveniently located in outdoor malls 4/5
  • Extras: Rewards programs, easy reorder, easy rebates, discounts for various sectors, branching out to products in other industries, credit cards 5/5
  • CreditDonkey Score: 4.8/5

The name "Staples" has literally become a "staple" in household names for office supplies. Staples also scored points for name recognition with its advertising campaign highlighting the big red "Easy" button.

Despite its number-one status in terms of name recognition (because truly, can you ever remember the difference between OfficeMax and Office Depot?), Staples does need to diversify. Maria Rajit Thomas of Reuters writes, "Staples has been shifting its focus to new categories such as business technologies, breakroom supplies, and copy and print services.” The cost of rent for Staples large stores is adding up, and society’s move toward becoming “paperless” is not helping, so it has had to expand its offerings.

Why We Like Staples
Ease of shopping, product selection, often located in malls where you're doing other shopping. You can order by SKU# online, ensuring that the paper you purchased last time is the same exact match to what you purchase this time. You can also shop by industry via its website, which now includes supplies specifically for businesses such as restaurants and retail. The retailer is also beta testing products sold in both the medical and education fields, with more industries to be added later.

The Downsides
As with Office Depot, the sheer size of the store makes it hard to find personnel to assist you.

Who Staples Works Best For
Students and work-at-home consumers, plus those who work in specific business sectors such as healthcare and government (for which it offers big discounts), Apple customers.

BEST PLACE FOR EXTRAS: OFFICEMAX

  • Cost: Comparable prices, though its paper brand is less expensive than others, price matching 4/5
  • Product Selection: As compared to other companies, smaller selection of products online, especially computer hardware 4/5
  • Locations: Limited, only 900 with the OfficeMax branded name (others are Office Depot) 3/5
  • Extras: Maxperks benefits, personal and business credit cards with special financing, remote 24/7 web-based computer repair 5/5
  • CreditDonkey Score: 4/5

Now that OfficeMax has merged with Office Depot, you're going to find, for the most part, the same deals and pricing as its larger partner. Office Depot loyalists can rest assured they will now get a similar experience from OfficeMax.

OfficeMax will retain its brand name for now. The closing of many retail stores is considered a plus, making it poised to become a head-to-head competitor with other retailers. In an article by Bloomberg columnist Cotten Timberlake, CEO Roland Smith of the newly formed office supply company said: "The overlapping retail footprint resulting from the merger provides us with a unique opportunity to consolidate.”

Why We Like OfficeMax
It has its own personal and business credit cards (through Visa), offering additional discounts. And it offers business resources via the dedicated "Workplace" website such as products and design for commercial offices.

The Downsides
Many fewer locations with the OfficeMax name, especially after the merger with Office Depot. Prices can be a bit higher. In-store selection not as wide as the other two chains as of yet.

Who OfficeMax Works Best For
Those who have a conveniently located brick and mortar store nearby, loyal Office Depot customers who want to expand into the merged-companies product selection.

Other Retailers to Consider

Target, Costco, and Walmart, which always have competitive prices, deserve honorable mentions. Amongst this group, Costco is probably best for small businesses, as even in-store, its items are available for purchase in large quantities and bulk. While the prices will often be somewhat lower than the dedicated office supply stores, they still don't match the selection that Staples, Office Depot, or OfficeMax have.

Despite the movement toward becoming environmentally friendly even at the office, office and school supplies are always going to be in demand. While most of the pricing is comparable, the location and your immediate needs will likely determine where you put your supply money. It might be a good idea to join the free rewards programs from all three of these retailers as it's beneficial to have the additional discounts readily at your disposal. You can always make your choice based on the best discount at the moment.

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