laptop, planner and coffee on a green desk
Office Depot has begun utilizing handheld devices from Zebra Technologies to automate many of its store-level employee processes, like inventory tracking and in-store pickup. — Getty Images/ijeab

Office Depot is leveraging some of its newest hand-held technologies as it adjusts its operations during the COVID-19 crisis.

The retailer, which also operates the Office Max chain, said its stores remain open as essential businesses specializing in school and office supplies, offering online ordering and delivery options, too. In addition, it has added a curbside pickup service amid the pandemic, which makes use of the company’s new hand-held TC51 devices from Zebra Technologies.

“We recently implemented a curbside pickup program to better meet the needs of our customers and help them get what they need safely,” Jonas Stillman, Office Depot's director of store systems, told CO—. “This functionality was built out on our TC51 devices within a few days and has been a tremendous success.”

Office Depot last year transitioned from an iOS-based to an Android-based platform that allows the company to develop its own specialized applications designed to streamline workflows and improve customer service. After a thorough testing process, Office Depot selected and rolled out the Zebra Technologies TC51 handheld device, based on feedback from workers.

Meanwhile, Office Depot’s delivery drivers are carrying Zebra’s TC56 touch computers to facilitate contactless delivery through the company’s proof-of-delivery application.

 office depot employee using zebra technology in store
Office Depot explains how its new tech devices required minimal training for employees because the applications are intuitive, mimicking the flow of previous processes. — Office Depot

Expanding omnichannel capabilities

Office Depot has been using technology to put more selling power into the hands of its store-level workers as it expands its omnichannel capabilities amid burgeoning online orders.

The company is seeking to enhance the service levels in its 1,300 stores to provide a point of differentiation against rivals such as Staples and online sellers like Amazon, while at the same time making it as easy as possible for customers to buy product whenever and wherever they choose.

That push comes as Office Depot announced in January a partnership with Shipt, the delivery service owned by Target, to offer same-day delivery of office supplies from Office Depot store locations in 200 markets.

Taken together, the moves reflect strategic maneuvers by the chain to enhance the convenience it offers customers as the digital economy challenges office supply merchants, and as rival Staples adds co-working experiences to differentiate its own model.

A report from Zacks Equity Research noted that Office Depot has leveraged technology and automation efficiently, which is gaining traction in its e-commerce efforts.

“The recent collaboration with Shipt … to provide a quick and convenient shopping experience, is commendable,” the report said.

It has allowed us to shift labor from tasks that were not customer-facing to having more staff doing what they should be doing, which is selling more product.

Jonas Stillman, director of store systems, Office Depot

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Automating tasks like inventory tracking and shelf-space planning

Office Depot has rolled out a suite of applications that its store-level workers can use to assist in the sales process when interacting with customers, and for operational functions such as inventory tracking and store planogram verification. The applications automate and consolidate many of the functions that previously had been done with a pen and clipboard or were performed on other systems.

“It has allowed us to shift labor from tasks that were not customer-facing to having more staff doing what they should be doing, which is selling more product,” Stillman told CO— in an interview at the National Retail Federation conference in New York.

The consolidation of applications on the single mobile device has also allowed the company to eliminate the use of paper for all store operations, he added.

The devices help employees provide better service to customers on the sales floor through applications such as a product lookup tool that allows workers to easily view details about any item the retailer offers. It also provides operational details about each product, such as where it belongs in the product planogram, whether or not it is available in the stockroom, and, if so, where in the stockroom it’s located. That particular app is used about a million times per day in the stores, Stillman said.

Another practical app that can help store-level workers drive more sales is the omnichannel application, which can be used to facilitate customers’ online orders for in-store pickup, or online orders that can be shipped to a customer’s home or office from the stores.

For store managers, the devices allow them to view store sales levels throughout the day — something that previously required them to go to a back office.

 Jonas Stillman headshot
Jonas Stillman, director of store systems for Office Depot. — Office Depot

Additional functionality

The device also includes applications that aren’t directly connected to product sales, such as skill training applications, and video messages from Kevin Moffitt, chief retail officer of Office Depot, that are designed to focus workers’ energy. The messages are broadcast to workers each time they log into their mobile device.

“It’s a message from him to make sure that all 25,000 associates in our retail stores are on the same page as far as what our priorities are,” said Stillman. “This device has helped us enable that, because all of our front-line associates have one of these devices in their hands.”

Stillman stressed that even though the devices have helped the company automate some of the functions that previously had been done manually, Office Depot has not reduced its store-level staffing, opting instead to have workers spend more time interacting with customers.

The new applications and devices required minimal training, he said, because the company worked hard to make sure they were intuitive and mimicked the flow of the previous processes.

Office Depot is also deploying 3,500 new TC56 devices from Zebra Technologies to its warehouses and delivery operations, said Norm Parker, who oversees Office Depot's supply chain field support teams.

Similar to the consolidation of functions on the in-store devices, the supply chain devices also will combine legacy warehouse functions in a new suite of applications that can be accessed on a single device.

Office Depot’s supply chain also will use a software application called Workforce Connect that will facilitate push-to-talk telephonic communications between distribution centers and between the distribution centers and the corporate office.

“Through our investment in Zebra technology devices, we have seen improved productivity, accuracy and delivery performance across our private fleet and fulfillment operations, which have contributed to an enhanced customer experience,” said John Gannfors, chief merchandising and supply chain officer for Office Depot.

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Published May 19, 2020