Staples and lessons in e-commerce

Many people are familiar with Staples — supplier of general office supplies and furniture and the like. I think they have a reasonable reputation, so I decided to order a new office chair from their website. There are some good points about the site, but unfortunately, there are also some flaws which almost made me turn to a competitor.


I’ll start with a positive, and say the site is fairly easy to navigate for the most part. The pages are a bit cluttered with buttons and menus perhaps, but it is fairly easy to go through categories of products to find what you need. There is a prominent search option too, which is essential — the search seems to work well, although the advanced search options are a little limited.

VAT and non-business customers

After a while of browsing through the wares on offer, I happened to notice the following text at the very bottom of each page:

This site is for business customers only. All prices shown are exclusive of VAT at 15%

What’s good? First of all, it’s stated on pretty much every page. That gives you ample opportunity to understand what the pricing actually means before you reach the checkout. Additionally, there is a very handy and fairly noticeable green button at the top-left of each page to switch between prices including and excluding VAT. Works wonderfully, which is more than I can say for many other e-commerce websites which only admit to the inclusion or exclusion of VAT right before you pay.

What’s bad? The first part of that message always stays the same… “This site is for business customers only”. That is clearly not the case, as they are also pitching at individuals too. It’s an easy way to scare-off potential customers… although in fairness, their revenue from individuals is probably trivial compared to that from business customers.

Picture this… possibly…

Each product description page shows a nice photograph of the product in question — that’s good, because many people won’t feel confident buying something they haven’t seen. Clicking it will show an enlarged photograph in a pop-up window. Personally, I quite like the enlarged photo being in a separate window, although I know that’s not to everybody’s taste.

The problem is that the pop-up will always show the enlarged photo of whatever product page you most recently downloaded… not necessarily the one you clicked on. This is fine in a single-page browsing experience, as older browsers are limited to. However, if I want to compare products, I’ll often open several pages in browser tabs. The photo-popup flaw prevents me from seeing enlarged photos of all the products without tediously reloading each page in turn.

This is a good way to put people off the products, as it can first of all make them doubt that the pictures are accurate, and secondly just prevent them seeing what they want to see.

Get it sorted!

Here’s a fundamental feature which any e-commerce site should have, especially one with such a wide-range of products as Staples: sorting lists of products. Perhaps I missed something, but when browsing a list of products in a category, I found no way to sort the list (even though you could sort lists of search results). I would normally prefer to sort by price, but that didn’t seem possible. Users also often like to sort by popularity or date added or such like.

On a big site, this is a good way to make customers give up on your site — they could easily get fed up of trawling through pages when a simple sort would have made it much easier.

Patience is a virtue

Here’s the issue that made we want to give up altogether. When I had found the products I wanted, I confirmed them by looking at the ‘shopping basket’ — firstly there was an inexplicable ‘loading’ screen which said “please wait, your order is important to us”. The basket appeared fairly soon, so that wasn’t too bad, but it was a disconcerting departure from the norm of e-commerce sites.

From there, I clicked the checkout button so I could pay for the order… and nothing happened. It just sat there looking like it was loading, but the progress bar didn’t move, and after several seconds, I stopped it and tried again. Waited. Still nothing. I eventually decided to leave that to one side, and start browsing for a competitor’s site, because it didn’t seem to be working.

I had spent nearly 10 minutes browsing a competitor’s site (and nearly ordering from it) before the Staples checkout loaded. What took so long? It appeared to be figuring out that I wasn’t logged-in. Quite simply, the “login or register” page took nearly 10 minutes to load! I decided to give it a shot anyway, and registration and ordering proceeded as normal… mostly…

Somebody was asleep…

Here is the single most worrying issue I encountered. I was paying by Maestro UK (which is a debit card). The usual details were there: name, card number, and expiry date. The expiry date was entered using two drop down boxes: one for month, and the other for year. It is important to note that the year was expressed as a 4 digit number.

Beneath that was a text box saying “Issue number or start date” — this is a weird quirk of some UK debit cards… some have an issue number, while others have a “start date”. Mine has a start date, so I typed it in the same format as the expiry date above (“mm/yyyy”) and submitted the order.

But it was rejected.

The error message indicated that the start date was missing or invalid, but didn’t state why it was invalid. After a quick bit of trial and error, I found that I was supposed to enter it as “mm/yy”.

That may not seem like much of an issue, but as a programmer, it raises a big red flag for me, and it makes me wonder if the web-developer was asleep or drunk at the time! Payment processing is an utterly critical part of the system, so it should be programmed very carefully. This kind of mistake points to a very fundamental oversight, and didn’t fill me great confidence about the site. It’s also likely that many customers wouldn’t figure out the problem, and would just give up.


All these things being said, Staples itself (as far as I know) is of good repute, so I am not put off their services in general by this experience. The website as a whole is OK… it’s just a few quirks and problems which make it a less-than entirely satisfactory site to use. Admittedly though, I may be a little less likely to use their website in future if I feel I could get the same products elsewhere.

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