Stationery Stores

SIC 5943

Industry report:

This industry consists of establishments primarily engaged in the retail sale of stationery, such as paper products (including printing and engraving), postcards, school and office forms, legal forms, and supplies. Those establishments primarily engaged in selling office forms and supplies are discussed in SIC 5112: Wholesale Trade, and those primarily engaged in the retail sale of greeting cards are discussed in SIC 5947: Gift, Novelty, and Souvenir Shops.

Industry Snapshot

According to industry statistics, there were 10,866 establishments engaged in the retail sale of stationery in 2009, employing approximately 147,195 people. The industry generated total revenues of $40.1 billion in 2009. The general category of stationery stores accounted for 32 percent of establishments (5,661 firms) but nearly 93 percent of revenues ($37.2 billion). Office forms and supply stores with 38 percent of establishments (4,109 firms) and about 7 percent of revenues ($2.65 billion). Smaller segments of the industry included firms engaged in the sale of school supplies, writing supplies, and notary and corporate seals. States with the most establishments were California, Texas, and New York; combined, they controlled about 30 percent of the market.

Office products have become the central component of many stationery stores. This change also has affected the kinds of stationery stores that control the market. Many smaller, independent dealers have been merged or acquired, while several large retailers have grown even larger. An indication of the depth of the shift occurred when the trade association formerly known as the National Stationers Association changed its name to the National Office Products Association (NOPA), later to become the National Office Products Alliance (NOPA).

Organization and Structure

According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, establishments that sell to the general public are classified as retail traders, even if the material they sell is not used in a household. Establishments that sell exclusively to businesses, institutional and industrial establishments are classified in wholesale trade. Most retail stationery stores categorized in this industry have fixed addresses, advertise to attract buyers, and buy merchandise in addition to selling it. Commodity classifications are assigned according to the primary source of an establishment's receipts. In the case of the stationery store industry, this means that a stationery store may sell office supplies but must derive most of its receipts from stationery sales.

The supply chain to stationery stores begins with manufacturers that produce office supplies. These firms sell some products directly to retail dealers, and other products are sold first to a wholesaler and then to a dealer. A growing number of manufacturers have begun to follow the practice of selling their merchandise directly to dealers. Warehouse clubs (such as Sam's Club), superstores (such as Office Depot), and discount stores (such as Wal-Mart) buy almost exclusively from manufacturers.

Background and Development

In 1775, pioneer papermakers of the now-legendary Crane family produced the paper used for the first currency of the young colonies. That paper was engraved by Paul Revere. The Crane family drew on the European tradition of making paper from cotton fibers and sold its products at the finest stores. Crane stationery and papers are sold at Tiffany's and fine department stores, but as businesses grew in the nineteenth century, more typical mass-market quality papers were developed. Early stationers sold business stationery as well as other products that could be used in an office.

During the twentieth century, business supplies shifted from typing paper, envelopes, and writing utensils to electronic products. Each of these products had replaceable parts: inkwells and cartridges for pens, ribbons for typewriters, and later, computer supplies such as printer ribbons, diskettes, and computer-appropriate paper and labels. The stationery stores responded by expanding and changing their inventories to supply all of the needs of the new business world.

The stationery store industry underwent a dramatic change in the 1980s and 1990s. As computers began to revolutionize the business world in the late 1970s, suppliers to businesses changed as well. Stationers have had to shift their focus away from stationery products toward the ever-growing demand for office products. Greeting cards, which are not part of this industry, are still sold in many stationery stores. Likewise, large office products, such as office furniture and computer equipment, are often carried by stationery stores but are not covered in this industry.

In the 1980s, new channels for stationery and office products emerged. These included superstores such as Staples and Office Depot, warehouse clubs such as Sam's Club, and mass-market stores such as Wal-Mart. Sales of stationery products and office products through these outlets were expanding in the 1990s. No other mass-market retail channels have come close to office superstores and discount stores in stationery sales.

Perhaps the biggest development in this industry in the mid-1990s was the proposed acquisition by Staples Inc. of Office Depot Inc., a combination of two of the largest U.S. office supplies superstore chains. Announced in September 1996, the proposed merger was seen by stock market analysts as a positive development for both the companies and the industry, largely because it would help to avoid "destructive" price competition as the superstore market becomes saturated with stores.

Stock market analysts had expected the merger to be a very positive development, both for Staples and its principal competitor, OfficeMax. By combining resources and management, the merged company was expected to save more than $400 million in costs over three years.

This merger was blocked by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC charged that the proposed merger would result in less competition and higher prices. The FTC previously had raised serious objections to the merger but Staples responded to the FTC's objections by agreeing to sell 63 Office Depot and Staples stores to OfficeMax Inc. for $108.8 million. The group of stores included some of the two chains' most profitable stores. Despite Staples' vow to fight the FTC challenge, the merger effort was eventually aborted in 1997.

Besides the growth of office product superstores and the consolidation of smaller stationery store chains, one trend that both small and large establishments in this industry were watching in the 1990s was the increase in the number of home offices. For stationery stores, this meant that more consumers would purchase items individually rather than for entire staffs. Special needs of the home office user include convenient hours and locations, good return policies, broad selection, and products offered in small quantities.

In addition to the growing number of home businesses, stationery stores were affected by consumers' increasing environmental concerns. After the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act was implemented in 1976, Stuart Hall was among the first recycled paper products sold in stationery stores. However, many consumers did not want to compromise on price or quality, and some environmentally friendly paper products were more expensive than those made from virgin material. Consequently, the growth of recycled paper in the market has been slower than expected.

Sales in the retail stationery industry were somewhat erratic in the 1990s. The total sales volume was stagnant or declining slightly in the early 1990s. However, the industry recovered and grew slightly in the mid-1990s and continued to grow in the later part of the decade. Industry sales rose significantly in the late 1990s; sales of office supply superstore chains Staples, Office Depot, and Office Max together had estimated sales of $13.2 billion in 1997. Staples reported sales of $7.1 billion for 1998, while Office Depot's sales reached $8.9 billion. OfficeMax, the smallest of the three superstores, had sales of $4.3 billion in 1998.

The overall industry extended its market presence via online sales. Industry leader, Staples generated $5.6 billion in Internet sales for 2007, per statistics from Internet Retailer and held the second spot in overall online retail businesses. These sales accounted for 29 percent of their overall business. Office Depot Inc. was third overall with online sales of $4.9 billion (32 percent of their overall sales) while OfficeMax was sixth with $3.2 billion (35 percent of their overall sales).

The top retail business was with $14.8 billion in sales. During the summer of 2008, it began offering an office supplies section on its site with about 500,000 classroom, home, and office items.

For the future, many sources predicted that independent dealers would be fewer in number and the surviving units would likely combine into new associations and groups. National distribution networks and more partnering relationships between manufacturers, wholesalers and dealers were expected to introduce more efficiencies to the stationery distribution system.

At one time, stationery retailers marketed their products to all of their prospective customers in the same way. However, the multitude of customers and their diversity of needs forced dealers to develop sophisticated sales strategies that enable them to sell parts of their inventories to specifically targeted consumers. They have had to develop sophisticated and focused marketing plans, recognizing that people who buy stationery and office supplies can choose among catalog dealers, warehouse clubs, commercial stationers, superstores, and retail stationers.

Current Conditions

The stationery supply industry continued to be negatively affected in the late 2000s and early 2010s by the trend toward data storage, as companies continued to move information off paper and onto computer-based applications. Advancement in computer-based technology not only increased the amount of storage space and communication options but had also decreased the price of computer solutions to once paper-based applications. For example,, the advent of cloud computing allowed firms to store significant amounts of information on Web-based storage centers.

In addition, the financial recession during the late 2000s caused both companies and consumers to cut costs. Firms, which saw sales decline, especially during 2008 and 2009, slashed overhead. As unemployment rose above 10 percent, consumers delayed major purchases and cut back on discretionary spending. As a result, many stationery stores lost revenues. For example, OfficeMax's retail sales declined, which totaled $4.3 billion in 2007, declined to $4.0 billion in 2008 and $3.6 billion in 2009. Although Staples increased overall revenues from $23.1 billion to $24.3 billion between 2008 and 2009, its North American retail division remains relatively stagnant at roughly $9.5 billion. Office Depot's total sales declined from $15.5 billion in 2007 to $14.5 billion and $12.1 billion in 2008 and 2009, respectively.

Industry Leaders

The stationery and office products retail business is divided into two dramatically different segments: the office supply superstore segment and the smaller stationery stores. The industry has three leaders, Staples, Office Depot, and OfficeMax.These superstores carried office supplies and products at prices that often were far below those of their competitors. They carried brand-name products and serviced small and medium-sized businesses with stores conveniently located in both suburban and urban areas. Most of the stores have high-volume operations and carry top stationery brands.

Staples, headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts, operates in 25 countries in North and South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. Staples is the second largest performer in ecommerce in the industry. Staples had 2,243 stores in 2009. Total revenues for the year was $24.3 billion. Of that total, 39 percent was generated by North American retail, 40 percent from North American delivery, and 22 percent from international sales.

Office Depot, Inc., headquartered in Boca Raton, Florida, had total sales in 2009 of $12.1 billion. Its North American retail division included 1,152 stores with the highest number of stores in California, Texas, and Florida. The retail division accounted for $5.1 billion of total sales in 2009.

OfficeMax, Inc., located in Naperville, Illinois, posted total revenues of $7.2 billion in 2009. As of January 2010, OfficeMax operated 1,010 retail stores in the United States and Mexico. Retail sales accounted for $3.6 billion of total sales in 2009.


The U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that for the larger industry segment of office supplies, stationery, and gift stores that dramatic employment declines occurred and are expected to continue. In 1996 the industry employed 406,000 workers, which was down to 379,000 workers in 2006. In May 2009, employment numbers for this industry categorization had dropped again to 330,470.

Research and Technology

Modern technology has had a profound influence on the products sold by stationery and office supplies stores. Dealers in office supplies used to sell calculators and electric staplers, while office machines dealers sold copiers, word processors, fax machines, and computers. However, the distinction by the 2000s. For instance, technological expertise and after-care service requirements became a must for computerized equipment. Calculator prices declined to the point that they became replacement items like typewriter ribbons. Typewriters themselves were almost completely replaced by computers, which became a central component of sales for the larger retailers Staples, Office Depot, and OfficeMax. As more information was conveyed electronically from one terminal to another, more steps involving paper were eliminated. Again, the effect on the stationery store industry was a loss in net sales.

Integration of services among retail, online, and mobile applications were being advanced in the late 2000s and early 2010s. The big three--Office Depot, Staples, and OfficeMax--all had mobile application for on-the-go search and ordering ease. All also depended on online sales for a significant portion of their sales. In late 2010, Office Depot partnered with Google to allow customers to check in-store stock online and on mobile applications.

© COPYRIGHT 2018 The Gale Group, Inc. This material is published under license from the publisher through the Gale Group, Farmington Hills, Michigan. All inquiries regarding rights should be directed to the Gale Group. For permission to reuse this article, contact the Copyright Clearance Center.

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