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Business Survival Often Takes Small Changes

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The Post-Crescent has an interesting blog detailing how some smaller or local businesses are dealing with the economic downturn. In addition to companies laying off employees, instituting rotating periods of time off, and reducing office space, they’re also re-imagining how they manage office supplies (a subject near and dear to my heart):

For a national distributor, it was a matter of getting back to basics. First, they centralized office supplies into a single location to eliminate all the “private stock” of supplies that cost extra and resulted in more of some supplies (e.g. staples and paper clips) than would be used in a lifetime.

This highlights an interesting example of how some companies handle their office supply budget. When you have a lot of small offices, people seem to think it makes sense to have each office buy their own supplies, often from a local brick-and-mortar store. But if you found a company that shipped fast, nationwide, and offered bulk discounts, why not just use them exclusively?

Each office could tap into the corporate account and receive exactly what they need, when they need it. No need for little pockets of extra materiel, no need for a centralized office hub. Or rather, the company would be the hub, and do all the work for you. Sounds nice, eh?

Blurb: Stylish and Green Back-to-School Supplies

Examiner.com has a simple list of back-to-school suggestions for the planet-conscious. The typical players are there, including recycled items bought new, all-cotton lunch bags, and so on. One of the things that jumped out at me though was the idea of re-use. Instead of buying the same junk over and over again (I’m looking at you, big-box store-brand pencils that break after two days), stick with high-quality, reliable office supplies and simply take care of them. They’ll take care of you right back, season after season.

Blurb: Staples to Pay $790,000 in Overtime Lawsuit

The Boston Herald is reporting that, in a continuing theme, Staples is being ordered to pay $790,000 in damages to end a class-action lawsuit filed by a former employee who claimed she was shortchanged on overtime pay.

Kirsten McCandless of Milford would get about $106 per qualifying workweek under a preliminary settlement agreement with the Framingham-based office products company. The suit, filed in October 2007, claims Staples violated state and federal wage laws.

The deal, filed this week in U.S. District Court in Boston and subject to a judge’s approval, would also apply to about 60 other current and former Staples employees who worked as senior product solutions specialists between Oct. 1, 2004, and June 30, 2008.

It seems like not too long ago that Staples was being ordered to pay MILLIONS for violating overtime law, so perhaps only paying ALMOST A MILLION means they are settling down in their overtime-law-breaking ways. Oh wait, less horrible isn’t the same as good.

‘Office-in-a-box’ gives UK entrepreneurs their own business space for just £10

Here’s an interesting article I found over at the Daily Mail: a company in the UK, WH Smith, is offering business owners or budding entrepreneurs a little slice of the office life (complete with coffee) for a reduced rate:

Budding entrepreneurs used to turn to WH Smith for pens and pencils – now they can pick up a whole ‘office-in-a-box’.

Just £10 will buy them office space for half a day, with internet access and coffee thrown in.

The voucher scheme also offers a number of costlier options which include a personal assistant and meeting rooms.

At roughly $16 US at the time of this writing, I feel like this is a scheme that could easily catch on in the US. Even working from home, I have found times when it would be beneficial to have an office space just for working, without the home-based distractions I can see every time I look over my shoulder.

This could also be the jump-start many people need to test out new office-based ideas before jumping in whole-hog and renting out space. Overall, a really neat innovation that I hope catches on stateside.

Back to School with Less Plastic?

The Los Angeles Times has an interesting article from a parent who is concerned about the level of plastics in her daughter’s school supplies. Emily Monosson, the article’s author and a toxicologist who has spent years studying our dependence on plastics, has this to say:

By some estimates, hundreds of millions if not billions of disposable pens are sold in the U.S. each year. Once disposed of or lost, bits of those pens will eventually add to the Earth’s expanding “plastic layer,” a marker of our penchant for the disposable rather than the reusable.

And while it’s true that some of our favorite office supplies are not immediately recyclable, there is hope. Companies like ours are proud to offer tons of recycled office supplies, ranging from hanging file folders and vinyl binders all the way to post-it notes and scrubbing pads. We feel buying recycled products is one of the small steps you can take to help protect the environment, and Monosson agrees:

…What if teachers — originators of “the list” — urged students to seek out recycled, recyclable or plastic-free supplies? At the very least, let’s teach them to slow the growth of the plastic layer.

This tactic, combined with buying sturdy, reliable supplies from a reputable dealer and treating them right, can help keep office supplies on your desk and out of landfills for years to come.

The Definitive Back to School Supplies List

I’ve said it before, but back-to-school season is getting a little out of hand.

Every day my inbox is stuffed full of helpful hints, tips and tricks, ways to beat the crowds, and more.

All throughout, I’ve said there’s one simple way to get everything you need for back-to-school, and it’s this: plan ahead, learn what you need, and order online from a reliable source. That’s it. End of story, as far as I’m concerned.

However, there are always going to be be people who thrill to the idea of shouldering their way through a crowded store, or need to have their hands on the item they’re going to purchase, and I can respect that.

Here, then, with some help from Mlive.com (serving my home state of Michigan), is a list of helpful hints for back-to-school season.

1. Check consignment shops

The biggest expense, hands-down, is clothing. Young ones outgrow their clothes quickly and teenagers, who might still fit into some of their existing wardrobe, may have strong opinions about returning to school in last year’s garb — not to mention their typical fascination with expensive designer labels.

One solution is consignment shops. Many sell used clothing for adults and children. And for those picky teens, a few of them even cater specifically to those who crave designer labels and the latest fashion.

Amy Baird, 37, owner of 360 Degrees [a consignment shop in Kalamazoo, MI], said high school kids are beginning to appreciate the chance to buy many more items through consignment than they can if they buy them new.

“Because of the economy, I see parents setting specific dollar limits for the kids,” Baird said. “Our clothes cost about a third what they would cost new. Used items average $12 each at 360 compared to about $30 for new ones at the mall.”

2. Plan ahead

Many kids walk in the door after their first day of school with a checklist of supplies they say they need “tonight.” That spurs an impromptu trip by many parents to grab it all with no time to compare prices or explore discount stores.

Instead, call your child’s school in advance to see if someone can get you a list of what’s needed.

With that, there’s time to start knocking off items gradually — pencils here, binders there.

3. Recycle

Before taking that list anywhere, search every junk drawer in the house, purge little-used office supplies from the desks of home offices as well as those of older kids who needed the same supplies years before.

A protractor and a compass that one youngster needs may turn up somewhere in the house — if you make time to find it.

4. Network with other parents
This advice, from veteran bargain shopper Amy Swager, 42, of Climax, MI, is most helpful when it comes to expensive items.

“If you know other parents with kids older than yours, talk with them,” she suggests. “That $80 graphing calculator that their kid may never use again might be on your child’s list. And they may be happy to donate it.”

5. Be realistic

Swager, the mother of seven with six still at home, said her family has never done the “whole new wardrobe” back-to-school trip before the first day of school.

“We wait a couple of weeks because the weather is still warm so they’re all wearing summer clothes to school for a while anyway,” she said. “By the time we go, everyone else is done shopping, everything goes on sale, and each kid gets just what he needs, nothing more. One might need shirts. One might need pants. Another a couple of each.

“We are very, very realistic when it comes to shopping for the new school year,” she said.

6. Accept change

Just because your daughter has gotten a new backpack every year since school started doesn’t mean that last year’s Hannah Montana model has to go in favor of a Jonas Brothers backpack this year.

If the old one works, it works. Swager said that if a new one really is needed, be creative.

“A $5 backpack and some fabric paint means that it will be both unique and economical,” she said. “Have fun with it.”

7. Layaway is back

Take advantage of this old standby, which has been resurrected at many stores, including Kmart.

Eight weeks in advance, you can bring everything you need to the layaway counter, including clothing and school supplies for all of your children.

A $5 layaway fee allows eight weeks to pay for the loot in bi-weekly payments.

For more details on Kmart’s layaway program, visit www.kmart.com.

8. Rethink school options

Is taking lunch packed from home cheaper than buying hot lunch at school?

Cindy Turner, kitchen manager at Galesburg-Augusta Primary School, doesn’t think so.

“I think it is more economical to buy lunches at school,” Turner said. “They have to be nutritionally balanced due to government guidelines. An example of a lunch we provide is milk, slice of pizza, green beans, applesauce and a brownie.”

The 20-year veteran lunch lady compared the meal with a nutritionally balanced lunch sent from home.

“If a parent sends a juice box, a sandwich or wrap, piece of fruit or veggie and a snack it would cost more than the $1.70 we charge for lunch for grades K-3 and that includes a half-pint of milk,” she said.

“This is partially because of waste expense at home … you may buy an item in quantity but have to throw it away before it is used,” Turner said. “There’s also the cost of baggies, brown bags or containers to consider.”

9. Do you qualify for help?

Has there been a parental job loss or pay cut since last school year? Families hit hard by the recession may qualify, for the first time ever, for free or reduced-price lunches for their kids.

The income verification forms are typically sent home during the first week of school, but if there is an immediate food need that can’t wait, there’s respite, said Shauna Collison, administrative assistant to the superintendent in the Parchment School District in Michigan.

“Any principal in any district has the authority to put a child on the free or reduced lunch program immediately for 10 days pending income verification,” Collison said. “If you need free or reduced meals starting on the first day of school, contact your child’s building principal before school begins for help.”

10. Get back on the bus

Teenagers who drive to school should be coaxed to park the car at home during the day and get back on the school bus that is a free ride for them and a green move to boot.

This one might be a tough sell. But it’s worth a try.

Thanks again to Mlive.com for their content.

Big Box News: Office Depot Sues Ex-Employee Whistleblower

I wish I was making this up, but no, it’s true. Office Depot is suing the man who accused them of asking him to falsify documents.

According to the San Jose Mercury News, Office Depot is claiming that Earl Ante, who recently filed suit that Office Depot had asked him to falsify documents in the ongoing case of Office Depot overcharging the city of Berkeley, was in fact responsible for the overcharges, and they’re out to prove it in court.

The salesman, Earl Ante, says in his lawsuit filed in federal court in San Francisco that he lost his job in the fall of 2008 after he refused orders to falsify data in the company computer when Office Depot found out Berkeley was about to audit its contract.

Office Depot initially declined to comment on the lawsuit but decided to break its silence on its investor-relations Web site with a full-on assault against Ante.

“(A)ny overcharges to the City of Berkeley were caused by Mr. Ante himself, who was responsible for managing that relationship,” the posting states.

So basically, the timeline is as such:

-Office Depot overcharges the city of Berkeley by $289,000.

-Office Depot asks Earl Ante to falsify documents, he refuses and is fired.

-Earl Ante sues Office Depot for firing him unjustly, and blows the whistle on their overcharges.

-Office Depot panics and blames the closest person at hand…Earl Ante.

Now, obviously, I’m not a lawyer, I don’t know what evidence is on the table, and I don’t know how the verdict will play out. These are just my assumptions based on what I’ve seen so far.

And what I’ve seen so far are cowardly, playground-level tactics from Office Depot to cover up one of their biggest blunders. The suit says Ante was in charge of the Berkeley accounts, and that’s why they were processed incorrectly. But what about the other whistleblowers? What about the FIVE OTHER STATES launching their own similar investigations?  Was Ante in charge of those, as well? Not likely.

Overall, I am constantly amazed by Office Depot’s ability to disgust me with their tactics. First business, now legal: it seems there is no low that OD won’t stoop to. Just another reason to avoid the big-box entirely.

How to Save on School Supplies

The Yakima Herald-Republic has an article up about ways to save money during back-to-school shopping, but it’s nothing new. They advise checking fliers and websites for the best sale, getting to the store early to avoid crowds, planning your trips in advance so you don’t have to fight your way through crowded aisles…

Doesn’t it all just seem like a huge headache? This is the latest in a long line of back-to-school shopping tip articles flooding my inbox and they all seem to forget the same point: you can SHOP ONLINE and get your stuff cheaply, quickly, and reliably. No messing with sales, no throwing elbows down at the Walgreens to get the best deal on a gum eraser. Seriously, check out your options and make the smart choice.

Article: How Virtual Can Your Company Go?

Eweek blogger Don Sears has a post up compiling some information about the quest for the completely officeless company. In it, he talks about PerkettPR, a company that has existed virtually for over 10 years, and mentions some points from a ZDNet article on the subject (full article here.) I’m more personally interested in his take on the situation, which comes later in the post:

You can create the right communication environment to do many of the daily tasks virtually, but it can be very difficult to replicate the in-person, physical workplace.

Having flexibility with commuting and saving energy are concerns for companies, but they will depend on the culture your leadership wants to promote and the needs of your business. Many managers want to have their key talent close by in an office or cubicle and it’s not something taken lightly, especially in a tighter economy. If there are sunk monthly costs for office space, you can guarantee that the chief financial officer is going to want to see people in chairs.

This ties in to some of my more recent posts about telework and telecommuting in general. While I appreciate the idea that companies will be resistant to going virtual, I don’t think it will be long before a lot more companies realize that, for the prize of outfitting a home office with essential supplies, almost any company can transfer large portions of their workforce to the digital arena.

How to make telecommuting a win for employers & workers

The Richmond Times-Dispatch has an interesting article up about teleworking at the potential benefits to employers.

In it, they showcase the Virginia Department of Taxation, who recently made a move to digitize their offices by sending certain employees home kitted out for telework.

The move saved them over $130,000 annually in rent, utilities, and other costs, though it is not without its up-front caveats:

There is an initial outlay of money. Your company will have to outfit teleworkers with whatever is needed to perform their job at home, for example:

A personal computer, a laptop and docking station, a business phone line, shredder, fax, printer, copier, Internet service and office supplies. Also, it has to assure that its computer system has “layer after layer” of security and the ability to apply patches to protect from viruses, Bowen said.

I’ve always been a huge advocate of the work-from home model, and it’s nice to see companies embracing it as well. I feel that with the right gear, there’s nothing you can’t do from home that you could do in an office.

Obviously it’s not the ideal solution for every company, but in these tough economic times, it seems like a move more should consider before resorting to layoffs (or, heaven forbid, buying fewer office supplies.)