Staples Gets Rebates

March 5, 2006

The last thing a small business owner looking to shave off some expenses on print cartridges or some new piece of hardware needs is to get bogged down in the purposefully convoluted process of product rebates.

A recent article in the New York Times cited a report that 40% of product rebates go unredeemed, resulting in an estimated $10 Billion remaining in manufacturers’ pockets. Rebate-related complaints to the Better Business Bureau have nearly tripled in the past 4 years. In short, manufacturers are promising great deals and lower prices while complicating the process enough that nearly half of the money promised in rebates never finds its way to consumers. A typical rebate purchase often requires original receipts, obscure product identification numbers, snail mail with untrackable status and, at long last, a check (that comes in an envelope looking conspicuously like junk mail).

Customers aren’t the only casualty in a faulty rebate system. Retailers stand between consumers and manufacturers – so who do you think is likely to be the first line of attack for the disgruntled? Yards of scrolled receipts with the retailer’s name up top are a sure indicator that customers will at best consider retailers complicit in and, at worst, the cause of the absurd and roundabout route to a $75 rebate check.

Enter Staples Easy Rebates. With their “Make it easy” positioning, Staples apparently saw an opportunity to simplify the messy rebate process – and they have succeeded. As specific rebates are often exclusive by retailer, these can certainly become a driving force in where the customer shops for a major purchase. Staples flips that paradigm on its head. By drastically simplifying the rebate process, they’ve split the market between rebates and Staples rebates. Or I should say Staples Easy Rebates.

The difference, arguably, a bit of a “duh,” is to use the web. In a welcome marriage of bricks and clicks, Staples has moved the process online. The retailer’s digital paper trail offers all the necessary proof-of-purchase info, Staples handles the rest, and the customer gets what has been promised. Almost a no-brainer. (Sure, instant rebates are an option, too – but those pose other issues, like complicating the retailer-manufacturer accounting, amassing customer names/data, and, still, the manufacturer’s savings in unredeemed rebates.)

Staples has positioned itself as the brand to make office supplies easy for small businesses and consumers alike. This goes well beyong their “that was easy” tagline. Staples reinforces their easy promise with liberal return policies, downloadable and localized store circulars, and Easy Rebates. Good branding requires a holistic approach that aligns how you do business with the promises that you make to all key stakeholders. Manufacturers may balk at Staples rebate redemption percentage, which I have to think surpasses the industry average. Yet Staples is doing right by their customer and merely holding manufactures accountable for sales incentives that they themselves are offering. And, at the end of the day, a positive retail and rebate experience can only reflect positively on the manufacturer’s own brand. Happy customers are repeat customers – and if a retailer can help a manufacturer create repeat customers, well then consumers aren’t the only ones saying “that was easy.”

- Jonathan Paisner

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