The supplier of promotional products ranging from personalized apparel to pens and coffee mugs is smoothing out its sales operations with a new ecommerce platform and online product configurator.

With a multichannel online sales strategy, Staples Promotional Products today relies on a headless commerce ecommerce platform—and an integrated product configurator—to smooth out sales operations that were once hampered by legacy technology platforms.

Our challenge was that the world was changing so fast, we could not maintain three legacy platforms.
Dan Kroymann, director of global technology
Staples Promotional Products

A business unit of office supplies company Staples Inc., Staples Promotional Products sells personalized items ranging from apparel and handbags to pens and coffee mugs to corporate clients through three channels: a  B2B ecommerce site at StaplesPromo.com for individuals or groups of buyers at businesses; occasional pop-up online stores that it develops and hosts for clients’ special events, such as a healthcare organization’s Nurses Week; and 300 online stores that it custom-designs and develops for corporate customers including healthcare organizations, manufacturers and retailers.

Customers expected more user-friendly ecommerce

Until last year, Staples Promotional Products had operated these online channels on three separate legacy ecommerce platforms designed and built mostly in-house with some commercial software. Building new features for each platform required working with separate architecture and software codes, requiring extensive time and resources for every modification.

But over the years Staples found that customers were expecting more user-friendly online purchasing experiences—including easier and faster ways to choose promotional products adorned with customized logos and messages. Recently, Staples realized it was time for a major technology upgrade.

“Our challenge was that the world was changing so fast, we could not maintain three legacy platforms,” says Dan Kroymann, director of global technology at Staples Promotional Products.

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When a client wanted a new online feature on one of the three platforms, such as a better way of configuring and personalizing a product, Staples wanted to apply it to all three platforms. “But it was difficult to get the new features and functionality into all three legacy platforms,” he says.

Staples had started making some progress, focusing on improvements to StaplesPromo.com. “We were getting close with the user experience, but it was becoming too big of a burden to maintain updates, customer experience speed, site performance uptime,” Kroymann says.

APIs, a configurator, and headless commerce

Meanwhile, however, Kroymann’s team was also deploying the Artifi product configurator from Artifi Labs, a unit of Amla Commerce. The configurator, built with an extensive group of APIs for integrating with product databases and ecommerce platforms, was proving to be a useful application that worked well. Soon, Staples also learned more about Amla’s Znode headless commerce technology.

As a headless commerce platform, Znode also provides a large set of APIs, which connect its ecommerce engine with various customer-facing interfaces. It was then that Staples realized it had found a highly customizable alternative to its legacy platforms, Kroymann says. It decided to deploy a single instance of Znode’s software for its three online channels: StaplesPromo.com, its pop-up online stores, and its 300 custom online stores for corporate clients.

“The business case we wanted to get to was one ecommerce platform with newer technology and also an integrated configurator,” Kroymann says.

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Working with a large set of APIs, “we did a lot of work to get Znode to where we wanted it,” he says. But the payoff is a faster website and the ability to more quickly build and switch out web functions. “Headless allows us to have different customer experiences and turn them on and off.”

For example, when Staples builds customer e-stores for its corporate clients, it typically has three teams working on different projects to build out an online store’s features: a merchandising team builds product display templates including images, color and logo options; a pricing team sets up price points and payment options; and an inventory team connects individual SKUs to current inventory records to show the availability of products to online buyers.

Customized content displays for clients

But each client of a custom site will want its own set of display images and features, its own logos, its own payment options and its own set of SKUs by such criteria as style, color and size. Moreover, each client wants its own overall theme, such as Subaru’s outdoor scenery with families and dogs; Michelob’s preference for sporting events; and healthcare images for hospital organizations. With the headless architecture, art directors at Staples have found it much easier and faster to build out such highly customized buyer-facing front ends to its ecommerce engine, Kroymann says.

For the pop-up online stores, clients also want special features related to the special event a store covers. The headless technology makes it easier to tie custom content for pop-up stores to the ecommerce engine. And when such content proves to be popular and generate strong sales—such as with timely bundles of items like face masks and hand sanitizers—the headless architecture also makes it easier and quicker to also tie similar content to StaplesPromotionalProducts.com.

Such flexibility has helped Staples make up for the business it lost as a result of the coronavirus, as companies have cut back on business travel and trade shows that typically drive demand for promotional products. “Personal protective equipment sales have helped us, and customers have been happy with it,” Kroymann says.

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(This article was excerpted from a longer report on B2B and B2C ecommerce technology, The 2021 Ecommerce Platforms Report.)

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