Mini-Store Visit: Office Max

Walking my local OfficeMax this week, I noticed a few customer experiences mistakes.  When you see something “not quite right” with a retail customer experience, one question that always comes up is if the mistake was in the design or the execution.  Obviously one element of good design is that it can be easily executed in the store.  If the fundamental flaw is in the design it means it’s going to be a flaw across an entire chain, while flaws in execution can be localized to one of more stores.

Here’s a breakdown of what I encountered:

Clearance Display


They aggregated a bunch of slow moving products under a clearance sign, a classic promotional tactic.   The only problem is that the items aren’t priced.  When I asked a sales associate to price check the product I was interested in, he reported that it was $194 (a mere $5 discount from the full list price, a savings of 2.5%).  That didn’t seem like much of a savings to me, and my subconscious mind just formed the opinion that this retailer is trying to trick me.  I wasn’t going to bother asking for the price of any of the other “clearance” items.

I suspect that this particular mistake was in execution.  The products are probably supposed to be priced (ideally showing the original price and a much lower clearance price).  And I’m guessing the product I checked wasn’t intended to be on clearance.  But at least in this one store, the damage is done.  Did the merchandising manager that added the clearance display to the plan-o-gram include a standard operating procedure for mark-down pricing?  Has he ever worked in the store to see how those instructions reach the employee who will actually execute them?

Ambiguous Product Information


A Hitachi “Lifestudio” brand external hard drive caught my attention.  Unlike most of the other drives in the category, this one seems to have some visual interesting design element.  It has what looks like a blue USB Thumbdrive glued to the drive.  But no real hint what it does.  The display is a “dummy” unit and the feature in question is glued to the drive, but if I buy one what will I get?

  • Is it a Bluetooth dongle to let me wirelessly access the hard disc?
  • Is it a separate USB memory drive that is bundled with the hard disc?
  • Is it just a visual element?

For security reasons, OfficeMax doesn’t put actual product boxes on display, so maybe the fact tag will tell me what the mystery dongle does? 

hitachi_closeBut there is no help here.  What I can learn from the display is that Hitachi offers two similar products the LifeStudio Mobile and the LifeStudio Mobile Plus.  Both are 500GB and both have the exact same 4 bullets on their fact tags.  The only difference I can get from the fact tags is that the “Plus” is $50 more, and includes the mystery dongle that might be purely cosmetic.  Affter walking out of the store I learned that the dongle is a 4GB thumbdrive that autosyncs to the hard disc. (OfficeMax sells Sandisc 4GB thumb drives for $9 so it’s probably not worth the $50 premium).

LifeStudio Mobile PlusHitachi and OfficeMax did nothing to make me want the Plus.  They could have at least added “Auto-sync 4GB USB key” as one of the 4 bullets, or they could have included this image on their sign (at least I’d have known the dongle is removable). 

This mistake was certainly in the retail display design, and I’m sure I’d see the same bad experience at all of OfficeMax’s stores.

This simple display took a lot of work from a Product Manager at Hitachi whom I’m sure had a vested interest in OfficeMax selling his product.  Making the dummy drive to give to OfficeMax was probably more expensive than manufacturing a live one (because the quantities are so much smaller).  Hitachi probably had to provide the fact tag copy to OfficeMax and missed the boat in promoting the Plus.  Did a Hitachi sales rep visit an OfficeMax store after the product launched and give his buyer at OfficeMax any feedback?

These kinds of simple misses occur countless times for the more than 10,000 SKU’s a typical specialty retailer tries to merchandise.  A consumer doesn’t have to be frustrated by very many displays before they decide that the retailer doesn’t make their life better.  

Doing good retail is very hard, and even the best operators are going to make mistakes.


  1. it’s actually embarrassing how often such “glitches” occur even in major retailers on well known brands. Despite all our so-called merchandising “sophistication”, we can’t even get the basic basics right. Too much flash … not enough think-through.

  2. Doing retail well is very hard! As much as it pains me to say it, “Perfect Execution” is too high of a standard.

    You can walk any of my clients stores and find countless similar misses on projects that I was involved in, so my point is definable not that OfficeMax isn’t a good retailer (they are).

    I wanted to use the above “learning opportunities” to emphasize how much planning and thought needs to go into ease of implementation and execution.

    People that aren’t retail savvy (or don’t have large chain experience) tend to propose all kinds of solutions that are likely to have “execution challenges.”

  3. Hello, I am the visual manager at OfficeMax who is responsible for the Drives Category and I have some feedback on one of your comments. The fact tags (not pictured in your post) for the display drives are located on the shelf front directly below the display item and the tag for the LifeStudio Mobile Plus certainly does call out the thumbdrive, as well as other reasons for this model to earn the “plus” tag. Thanks for your for your feedback as we strive for the best in-store experience.

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