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Big Box Watch: Ex-Office Depot Worker Speaks Out

A CBS2 investigative report has an interview with former Office Depot manager Ed Kurkurian, who was fired for following orders handed down from his superiors to lie to customers about laptop availability. Despite initially not talking to the investigators who came to his store looking for evidence of misconduct, Kurkurian was later fired, with Office Depot saying he was to blame for instructing salespeople not to sell computers without warranties.

Kurkurian gave the interview to clear his name and set the record straight about Office Depot’s policies:

…Kurkurian reveals what he says was the company’s secret policy. Designed to get consumers to buy expensive extras on computers. One he says was handed down from his district manager to some Office Depot stores in Southern California.

“What specifically did he tell you to do?”

“Go ask questions and ask if they want a warranty. If customer doesn’t want a warranty, go in back and pretend like you’re looking for computer and come back and say no. We’re out of stock.”

“That’s lying to the customer?”

“Yes.”

Despite the truth of these accusations already being revealed by an undercover report, it’s pretty damning to hear it straight from an ex-employee’s mouth. Though there will surely be those who accuse him of using this as an opportunity to “get back” at his former employer, the fact that independent investigations have found evidence of similar wrongdoing at stores accross the country lead me to believe that Kurkurian is telling the truth. Shame on you, Office Depot. Maybe there’s a reason your stores are “like ghost towns”. No one likes a crook.

Schedule C – What expenses can your business file?

Tax time is upon us once again, and small business owners, especially new ones, are likely to be blindsided by the sheer amount of tax information out there for a business owner. According to an article posted on Mary953’s “Caps” blog (a division of popular money site The Motley Fool), the 2006 tax code was the same word length as 10 King James Bibles. No one should be expected to remember it all.

In the spirit of compiling useful knowledge, I thought I’d link you to Mary’s post as it is indeed incredibly helpful in finding out what expenses you can claim. And since we have a particular focus around here, here’s an excerpt that stands out for me:

Office Expenses (18) – Office Supplies – Ink, paper, toner, pens, staplers and staples, paper clips, folders, and, guess what?  If you have an office with a public bathroom, then use that company credit card to buy hand soap, towels, toilet paper and the rest because it is deductible too.  Coffee service is here if for clients.  You can put snow removal, lawn care, cleaning service under this also.  Remember that the name of the game is to spread the expenses out so that you have something under as many spots as possible.

The links above are my own addition, of course, but it’s still cool to see that you can list all this useful stuff on your taxes. Check the article for a full list of how to get the most back (or at least avoid giving too much) this tax season!

Big Box Watch: Story of a Whistle-Blower

Naples News has an incredibly in-depth article on the story of David Sherwin, who blew the whistle on his previous employer, Office Depot, for allegedly overcharging millions on government contracts.

David’s story is interesting not only for the facts he presented, but the way in which he presented them. Not knowing the best way to put forth his beliefs of the company’s wrongdoing, David ended up sending an explosive letter that cost him his job and downplayed the credibility of his accusations (warning, mild foul language):

What would become his resignation letter, the caustic e-mail, stared at him from the computer screen on his kitchen counter, near a half-drunk bottle of Smirnoff. The vodka helped him escape the obvious: don’t send it.

“I would kick your ass so hard that you would fly across Florida like Tinkerbelle,” read a part of the message, a “Reply All” with company Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Steve Odland as the intended recipient.

This, Sherwin said, was his breaking point. He wanted out of Office Depot.

“I actually had the e-mail sitting on my computer, I remember, for probably two hours, staring at it, and I would walk around the room,” Sherwin said. “I would get madder and madder and madder, and then I would take another shot of vodka, stare at it and scowl at it.”

As Sherwin paced, he passed plaques, certificates and photos on his walls and refrigerator — reminders of his successful law enforcement career.

“And then, finally, I just said screw it and I just hit the send button,” Sherwin said. “And at that point in time, I knew it was no turning back.”

Office Depot fired Sherwin a day later for, “workplace misconduct.”

While the entire article is worth a read, I found it particularly great how the story captured the emotion inherent in making such a difficult decision. It also highlights Sherwin’s career as an administrator and investigator, skills which would have made him the perfect whistle-blower had it not been for his ill-fated delivery of the news.

“Because I more or less had a mental snap, I didn’t think things through. Had I thought things through, I would have waited a couple weeks,” Sherwin said. “I would have actually gone to the Attorney General’s office as an employee and they probably would have kept me on, had me wired and stuff like that. But for somebody who did this precipitously, I was able to eventually gather up enough information for them to believe me.”

Regardless of his initial explosion, Sherwin has worked tirelessly to bring word of Office Depot’s misconduct to anyone who might have been affected. Working out of a home office, he sends out emails and is in touch with representatives from all 50 states, 700 countries and numerous government agencies, and he’s not stopping until his story gets out.

“Almost every day he turns around to me and he says, ‘Do you think Office Depot realizes that I’m not ever going to stop and that I’m going to continue until somebody’s in jail or they’re out of business?,’” (Sherwin’s friend Brett) Vining said. “And I keep saying, I say, ‘Yeah, I think they’re getting the idea now, David. I think they’re finally getting it.”

If the number of stories filling my inbox every day is any indication, we’re getting it too, David. Keep fighting the good fight.

Article: An Orderly Office? That’s Personal

Sara Rimer at the New York Times recently published an incredibly in-depth article about her time spent with a professional interior designer who specializes in work spaces. It contains some anecdotes we can all relate to, and is a great read for anyone looking to re-do their home office.

When Sara first had help organizing her office, she felt great about it. Her filing cabinet was organized, her desk was clear, and everything was in its place.

She had accomplished what many people consider to be the goal of having a tidy home office: she had gotten the clutter out of her sight, and for all intents and purposes, out of her thoughts. A lot of people take this step and feel like they’ve done all they need to do, but even Sara’s friends were skeptical:

“I did that once,” said one of the men at the table, a computer consultant, with a skeptical tone in his voice. “I got everything put away. And I never opened the filing cabinet again.”

“That,” I said serenely, “won’t happen to me.”

A few months later, it had. The cabinet was again serving mainly as a place to put notebooks, scraps of paper and letters I was planning to file tomorrow. The clutter had not only returned but multiplied. I was back to where I’d started, or worse.

In the end, she realized her solution was not going to be hiding everything away in a filing cabinet, but keeping it out in front of her, where she could look at and visually sort her materials without having to root around for them in a drawer.

Employing a label maker and some storage and “bin boxes”, Sara created the perfect organizing system to match her needs and her space.

After that, personalizing the decor and updating the furniture were all that was left to finish off her perfect, customized home office. She even had space to invite her boyfriend to set up his own office space in the small room (though that ended poorly, highlighting another concept touched upon in the article: the need for a personal office space.)

Lisa Whited, the designer who helped Sara, has these tips to share regarding designing a home office:

• The No. 1 rule is clear out the clutter. Get rid of broken things that you won’t ever get around to fixing. Karen Kingston’s book “Clear Your Clutter With Feng Shui” is a helpful guide.

• Color can help make a small or confined space feel more livable, and paint is the cheapest way to get it. “I painted the walls of my home office — a five-by-seven-foot, windowless walk-in closet — yellow,” Ms. Whited said. “I like yellow, and we had leftover cans of Behr’s Cornmeal in the basement.”

• Lighting is important: beyond a room’s general illumination, which could be overhead lighting, you can use task lighting, to work at your desk, and accent lighting, like a hanging light, to create an inviting space.

• Choose containers that are an appropriate size to hold what you’re putting in them. They don’t need to be fancy, but if they are going to be visible, they should at least look similar, so the space looks more organized.

• Get the best chair you can afford. “It’s like your bed,” Ms. Whited said. “You spend a ton of time in it.”

• Always have extras of whatever you usually run out of on hand. “I have at least one extra printer cartridge,” she said, “two reams of paper, staples, tape, etc.”

• Don’t dismiss the importance of candles, flowers, a great piece of art — whatever inspires you. It all helps.

All in all, an amazing piece for anyone looking for stories about redoing a home office, looking for inspiration or helpful hints.

Please note, the links I’ve included in my re-telling of the article are used for sample purposes to give you an idea of the look and feel of the office being described; no specific stores or brand names were mentioned in the New York Times article.

Big Box Watch: Berkeley seeks reimbursement for alleged Office Depot overcharging

As reported earlier, Berkeley, CA has accused Office Depot of overcharging the city over a quarter of a million dollars for office supplies. According to the Berkeley Daily Planet, City Manager Phil Kamlarz has asked for a return of the money.

The article goes on to state that while Office Depot has only issued a standard “we are looking into the matter/taking it very seriously” form letter, Berkeley is by no means the first to find itself in this situation:

• Following a state audit last year, Office Depot agreed to reimburse the state of California $2.5 million for overcharges incurred during a two-year period of $57 million in state office supply purchases.

• A 2008 North Carolina state audit concluded that Office Depot had overcharged North Carolina state agencies by more than $294,000 over a six-month period. Among the charges in the state audit was that the company inflated base retail prices on the bid so that it would look like it was offering a higher discount than it actually was, included unauthorized items in shipments during the course of the contract, and switched brands so that the value of the products shipped to North Carolina was less than what was contracted and paid for. In a prepared news release, North Carolina State Auditor Leslie Merritt said that “There are numerous reports that Office Depot has engaged in a pattern of overcharging and violating state contracts in Georgia, California, Nebraska, Florida, and now North Carolina.”

• Last year, Nebraska State Auditor Mike Foley found that Office Depot overcharged the state as much as 400 percent ($1.06 for staples that were supposed to be bought for 21 cents, for example) on purchased items included in the state’s $3 million per year, three-year contract with the company.

• Also in 2008, the state of Georgia terminated its $40 million per year office supply contract with Office Depot over charges by state officials that the company “repeatedly overcharged and mispriced items for state employees,” according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

• Earlier this year, the Missouri attorney general’s office began an investigation into allegations that Office Depot had overcharged government agencies, nonprofit agencies and charitable groups in that state by using “bait-and-switch” tactics.

So while this article is not really an update to the ongoing investigation (other than the City Manager’s public request for repayment), it goes a long way to highlighting some of the previous allegations and shady dealings that Office Depot has been involved in.

What I find morbidly curious is that this article appeared in my inbox right alongside a notice that Office Depot has opened a new “Caring Connections” website to help teach people about volunteerism, citing the Office Depot Foundation’s previous work providing college supplies to foster kids. While I’ll never turn my nose up at a charitable action that actually helps people (the kids got their school supplies, and were better off for it), it seems like parading it around now during a time of inter-company crisis is a cheap PR move. Maybe they can wrangle up some volunteers to help them pack their bags when this whole mess is over.

Gadget DIY: Wall outlet charger caddy for home or office

Found via Lifehacker, this cool blog post from Zakka Life outlines a craft project to make your very own cell phone holder that hangs from the wall outlet it’s charging from. The charger itself pins the plastic caddy in place.

I always thought this was one of those “why didn’t I think of that” ideas when I saw some of the other models on the market; made from silicone or thin plastic, they couldn’t have cost more than a few cents to make and were selling for $15-20.

Apparently over at Zakka Life they had the same idea, because the caddy you see here is made from an empty lotion bottle, with a total cost of $0. That’s my kind of project!

This sort of thing would be perfect in a cubicle with a wall-mounted power strip, or anywhere you don’t want the cord trailing around while you put your cell phone or mp3 player in a safe place to charge. Right now, this design has the cord sitting in the “basket”, but you could also cut the “neck” between the pouch and the outlet a little thinner, and wrap the cord around that while charging.

You could also make it a little deeper, plug in a wall charger for your rechargeable batteries, and keep the spares in the pouch. All in all, a neat project that’s easy to put your own spin on, and a good way to save some cash.

Big Box Watch: Office store stock “uncertainty” on the rise

A recent article by Morningstar has listed their appraisal of OfficeMax stock to an uncertainty level of “extreme”. In a quote that I feel is only good news for online retailers and the end-user consumers, Morningstar said:

Office supply retailers have been disproportionately impacted by the current economic downturn as well as mounting competition from mass merchants and online retailers. In our view, an industry shakeout is inevitable, and it is unlikely that all three office supply superstore chains will survive in their current form.

And while they feel that Staples may be the best positioned to survive the economic storm, given their greater geographic reach and availability of online options over the other two big-box names, they went on to state:

…It is not immediately apparent whether OfficeMax or Office Depot (if either) is better-positioned to weather a severe economic downturn. Both firms carry heavy debt burdens on their balance sheets, and with few indications of an imminent pickup in office product sales, we expect free cash-flow generation to be increasingly difficult over the coming years.

I think this sort of uncertainty is definitely not a new concept, and is certainly being felt across the industry. The availability of quality online alternatives to big-box retailers has been chipping away at their stranglehold on the market for several years, and coupled with the downturn in the economy and stories of impropriety, consumer faith in the office megastore is at an all-time low.

To be fair, these businesses have no one to blame but themselves. They’re clinging to an outdated business model in a time where people are looking to move forward. Office supply sales is an old industry, but that doesn’t mean it needs to keep a death-grip on old ideas. Guess what, guys? Turns out if you provide good, lasting value to your customers, stock the inventory they want at a price that is reasonable and appealing, and deal with them in a friendly manner, your business ends up doing just fine. Who’d have guessed?

Workspace Innovation: The Simple Corner

Lifehacker  mentions some of the headaches I’ve often encountered trying to set up a work space in a small room, or the corner of an often-used room (the curse of the apartment-dweller):

The problem with a corner desk is you’re almost always stuck with two outcomes: you either have a wide open desk with a ton of dead space behind it or you have a hutch style desk with a store built up on the desk. The problem with the former is that you send up staring into an empty corner and while the latter makes better use of the space it’s usually an eyesore and makes the room seem smaller because it walls off the corner of the room.

Josh took a different approach, combining a table desk with a series of small bookcases (2 on the side and one in the back) to provide storage and fill in the “negative space” created by putting the desk in the corner. With his laptop on the table and his monitor on the shelf behind it, switching from computer work to good ol’-fashioned writing and other desk activities is as simple as unplugging the laptop and sliding it out of the way. An innovative use of space using simple components. I dig it.

Managing Potentially Awkward Workplace Scenarios

I came across a great article outlining some easy ways to cut stress at the workplace by managing 10 different sticky situations. It’s aimed at employers, but there’s no reason you can’t apply the information to making your own office life a little smoother. Check out the article to find out what to do when:

1. Two employees start dating or break up
2. An employee shares too much personal information with co-workers
3. A laid-off employee turns vengeful
4. Employees wear politics or religion on their sleeve
5. Employees think a co-worker got an undeserved promotion
6. An employee is planning a wedding and annoying co-workers
7. An employee who needs to drive on the job gets a DUI
8. An employee’s substance-abuse problem is becoming obvious
9. There’s conflict between childless employees and working parents
10. An employee is taking advantage of company money or equipment

The last one is what set off my flags regarding office-supply news. Employee theft of your hard-earned equipment is no laughing matter, and the article lists some good ways to deal with it discretely and humanely. Remember folks, that stapler may not seem like much to you, but after a hundred go missing every year, your boss is going to start getting grouchy. The good news is: they’re cheap! Buy your own!

 

Article: Design a Home Office on a Budget

I just came across an article from the Los Angeles Times with some helpful hints for building a home office on a budget. While I plan on doing a full feature on this very topic, I thought I’d share the article now because it has some interesting tips. In the article, interior designer Lauren Rottet is shopping brick-and-mortar office supply stores and liquidators, but the fundamental principles she outlines could easily be applied to online ordering:

“Because it’s quick and easy, there’s always the temptation to buy a whole room ensemble – matching desk, chair, cabinet and hutch – but they really dominate a room, and chances are you don’t need all four pieces.”

She moves on, gravitating to the simplest desk – nearly black with unfussy hardware.

“Wood veneers and laminates look cheap,” she says. “The darker the piece, the more it tends to disappear.”

And in the lighting aisle?

“Most people probably have a lamp at home that would serve their purposes,” she says, passing on the options here. “Or they could find a cool one at a vintage furniture store.”

Rottet’s main piece of advice is to keep your home office as much a part of your home as possible. Use design choices that match your personal style, rather than making your home office feel like a workstation or cubicle. Mix-and-match pieces and look for vintage or pre-owned materials to accent your new hardware. One of the ideas I really like was using two pedestal file cabinets as pedestal ends for a desk, and laying a piece of thick glass or granite across them for a DIY feel that still has charm and elegnace.

However you end up kitting out your home office, be sure to do it with quality materials from a reputable retailer. While the temptation is there to trawl the bargain-basement offerings and your local big-box store, you’ll more than likely end up with cheap particleboard junk that falls apart before too long. You don’t need to break the bank; just buy a few quality pieces and accent them with personal touches wherever you can. If you’re going to be spending a lot of time in your home office, you want it to be as comfortable and natural as possible.