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Staples to close 225 stores; 3D printing to the rescue?

Sections: 3D Printing

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The good folks at Dunder Mifflin would have enjoyed this news: Staples intends to close 225 stores — about 12 percent of its total number. This comes the same week that RadioShack announced its intention to close 1,100 stores.

As in the case of the RadioShack implosion, our first thoughts go to the Staples employees whose jobs hang in the balance. Unlike RadioShack, however, Staples has a strong, clear brand: When you think “office supplies,” you think Staples. It’s always been there when you needed it, and the customer experience has alwayS0801569_ENLs been tolerable.

But what if we don’t need Staples as much anymore — at least as it’s currently constituted?

It’s true that this is a story about the decline of brick-and-mortar retail, more than any weakness associated with the Staples brand. As with RadioShack, everything you can get at Staples, you can get on the internet. From places like Staples.com, of course.

But this is also a story about the decline of 2D printing and paper sales, which in turn helped Staples sell a ton of binders, envelopes, pens, folders… you get the picture. There’s a whole ecosystem attached to the world of printed paper that has been severely, negatively impacted by digitization. People are printing less stuff, handwriting is an increasingly antiquated concept, and everyone’s a lot “greener” than they used to be. There’s no turning back, either. Nor should there be.

So how can Staples survive? And why would you care?

My response is 3D printing. Which we all should care about, because it is going to transform our world.

Unlike chains like Best Buy, Walmart, Target, Costco, etc., which are all almost exclusively about consumption, Staples has been enabling people to make things, to create things, for decades. Heck, “Make” is part of its tagline (check out its logo in this story). So why shouldn’t it extend that legacy by going all in on the ultimate “maker” technology: 3D printing?

Not only is Staples uniquely positioned to sell 3D printers (actually, so are chains like Office Depot and OfficeMax, but you get the point), but it can sell all of the things that go with 3D printers, such as filament, cleaning supplies, and lots of other stuff. It can also turn 3D printing into a service. For example, lots of individuals and small businesses have brought their print jobs to Staples for years and years. So as we move from 2D to 3D, why shouldn’t Staples move in concert with that trend? If you’ve got a 3D design but don’t have a 3D printer, why not have Staples do the 3D printing for you?

Even more to the point, for a technology on the cusp of the mainstream, most people are aware of 3D printing but don’t really understand it. Staples can be a great agent for both educating and exciting the consumer about 3D printing.

Why am I so bullish on Staples doing this, as opposed to Best Buy or RadioShack or any other retailer? Because people expect and want assistance when they go to Staples. Because the notion of “making” and the brand of Staples go together. And Staples has been such a great go-to resource for consumers and businesses over the years.

Staples has actually been selling 3D printers for a little less than a year now. It offers a wide selection, at least online. But I guarantee you that most people don’t know it. Staples needs to take the lead and promote the technology, explain it, champion it. It needs to be running TV and web ads touting its 3D expertise. It needs to be the place you go to for all things 3D printing. It needs to help create the market.

This is the opportunity. This is the chance for Staples to stem the tide on store closures going forward. This is what the marketplace needs.

And if Staples doesn’t do it, some other brick-and-mortar chain presumably will.

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