Commerce: Curt Schrage goes with the flow
There’s an old saying that change is the only constant. Curt Schrage has been in retail management for a long time, and he has seen firsthand that this is true. The Iowa native, who has lived all over the Midwest and formerly worked for Schultz’s Family Stores, Walmart and Kmart, made his way to OfficeMax in Rhinelander about 10 years ago after the Kmart store he managed in Antigo closed.
That closing was just one change that he has weathered. Over the years, Schrage has also seen the advent of e-commerce, changes in consumer shopping habits and most recently, a high-profile merger of his employer with another company.
He has also seen close-up how advances in technology have revolutionized retail.
“When I started in retail management in 1976,” he says, “we of course had no computers. No scanners, no automatic inventory control. We had department managers that had multiple departments, and they had what were called ‘list books’ that were anywhere from two to four inches thick. Because there were no computers and scanners to keep track of inventory and merchandise sold, these books had to be counted weekly, and hand-written orders placed by the department managers and approved by myself or my assistants.”
Now, the process is much less cumbersome. “Today, because we track every item sold and can track how much of each item we have on hand, merchandise orders are automatically shipped to the store when merchandise is needed,” Schrage says.
Technology has benefited consumers and has influenced their expectations. Customers now have a broad selection of websites from which to order merchandise, Schrage says, and they enjoy the convenience of having items shipped directly to their homes or offices. Consumers are also better educated now. “Even the shopper that wants to go shopping at a group of stores can research any item they want online and know what product is best for their needs before they step into a store.
“The Internet has done the same to office supplies as it has done to other mortar retail stores: made it possible to shop from home or business,” he explains. Increasingly, customers are ordering basic office supplies online, but people still come in to shop for items other than basic supplies. “Shopping in a retail store will always be there because of the ‘surprise’ merchandise that the customer doesn’t expect and the merchandise that the customer doesn’t know we carry.”
While OfficeMax still offers an array of office supplies, equipment and furniture, as well as business card and brochure printing, laminating, color banners, faxing, Fed-Ex drop-off and more, it also has expanded its services to business customers, offering payroll and NAB credit card services. In early January 2013, the company launched cloud service storage. And in an exclusive collaboration with GoDaddy.com, OfficeMax also helps customers establish and maintain websites.
“Businesses now can spend more time on what their business does,” Schrage says, “selling merchandise or services and less time on the ‘business necessities,’ such as accounting, payroll, hiring, billing, computer repair and clean-up, etc.
“We are quickly going from an office supply retailer that does services to a service retailer that sells office supplies,” he adds.
Keeping up with the times entails staying abreast of consumer demand, and OfficeMax took note of customers’ desire for corporate accountability. In 2013, the company was named one of the World’s Most Ethical Companies and is the only company in the office supply industry to receive Ethics Inside® Certification by the Ethisphere Institute, an organization that promotes corporate best practices and accountability.
The OfficeMax of today has come a long way from its origins in Ohio back in 1988. The company’s founders, Bob Hurwitz and Michael Feuer, opened the first OfficeMax store in Mayfield Heights, Ohio. Even from that single store, the company grew quickly and in the 1990s began acquiring other organizations. Embracing technology and trends has been a hallmark of OfficeMax from the beginning, and the company began doing business online in 1995, something that not many companies were doing at that time. There are more than 900 retail locations in the U.S. alone, and the company serves customers at those locations, as well as through catalogs and the Internet.
The company has experienced downward slides as well. In 2001, OfficeMax started closing some stores that weren’t performing well. In 2003, Boise Cascade Office Products Corporation acquired OfficeMax for $1.3 billion, according to the OfficeMax website.
Then in early November of this year, the winds of change blew again. OfficeMax and Office Depot merged to become Office Depot, Inc., a $17 billion company with more than 2,200 stores in 59 countries. Office Depot, Inc. now wholly owns OfficeMax.
What does this mean for the Rhinelander store? According to the company’s website, OfficeMax will still continue to do business under its current name. At this point, it seems likely that business in Rhinelander will go on as usual. The Rhinelander location, which opened in 2000 and employs 16 associates, will still continue serving businesses and individuals all over the Northwoods. This area is a smaller market for OfficeMax, but what Rhinelander lacks in size, it makes up for in drawing power.
“In our market, we don’t have the high percentage of business customers as some of the larger markets around the state,” Schrage says, “but our small business drawing area stretches from Merrill and Antigo to the south, and Tomahawk to the west, to the UP of Michigan and east to Laona and Crandon.”
For OfficeMax stores everywhere, consumer expectations extend beyond products and services; customers expect that OfficeMax staff members are well-versed in technological advances and are up on the latest developments. Keeping up with the ever-increasing pace of technology for customers, many of whom are business owners, is imperative. To ensure that associates are on top of things, the company regularly issues courses that may range from 15 minutes to an hour in length. The company also has what are called “huddles,” in which one- to three-page summaries on a variety of subjects are sent out to stores.
But conversations with customers and associates, Schrage says, are probably the best way to keep abreast of trends. “Just talking tech with other people can educate anyone about their thoughts and ideas concerning any tech item or program,” he says. “I could say I that I learned more from my associates than I ever learned from a course or huddle.”