Tony Ellison brings expertise, innovation and a passion for sustainability to his role as founder, CEO and Chairman of Shoplet.com. Over the last 17 years he has built up Shoplet.com as one of the largest, profitable e-marketplaces, affording over 2.8 million subscribed customers the opportunity to engage in eProcurement and source products for the office cost effectively. Prior to starting the company in 1994, Ellison worked for Goldman Sachs & Co. in the private client services division. Shoplet.com has become one of the largest pure play e-tailers in the USA and one of the few dotcoms reaching profitability in 1997.
In addition to building a profitable company it is pleasing to note that Shoplet.com is a socially responsible company as well. Shoplet.com is leading the way in providing the largest selection green office supplies to businesses. It is their goal that through example, companies will see the importance of using both green products as well as green company guidelines. Shoplet.com was the first company in the office supply industry to build a green calculator that demonstrated the reduced impact on the environment if we purchase more green office supplies.
MO: When you first started Shoplet.com the office supply industry was dominated by companies like Staples and Office Depot. Why did you decide to go into office supplies and compete against these heavy weights in an already saturated market? Where did the motivation and passion come from to tackle such a big challenge against the odds?
Tony: I knew that there was room to do it better in an industry that has not seen major innovation in the past 100 years. For example, in 2005 less than 5% of businesses bought office supplies online, now it is estimated that more than half of all office supplies are bought online; that percentage is still growing. The way office supplies were bought in the early days was not efficient. Without the functionality of a website or web tools, it was difficult for businesses to procure office and business supplies effectively. I was passionate and believed in myself because I saw unlimited potential in both the internet and the vision; I knew that I would be able to carry it out. We carried forward with superior benefits to our customers such as free shipping on most orders over $45, a %110 price match guarantee, and schedule and save on products your business uses the most. I knew that if I delivered a superior buying experience that was based on service, simplicity, and selection customers would find us and stay with us.
MO: I was impressed to read about your passion to drive forward the green movement in office supplies and see it in action on your site. It’s heartening to see such a large company working so hard to encourage, educate and influence businesses to make more sustainable choices. Do you think that eventually we will see green products become the standard? Are you seeing a trend in how businesses are impacted by the environmental movement?
Tony: Companies are starting to see that switching to green products such as discount office furniture is not the sacrifice in terms of quality and price. As a supplier to so many small and medium sized businesses, we see it as our responsibility to offer the largest selection of sustainable, green choices and promote the benefits that they provide. It is our dream to transform the $250 billion office product industry (OPI) into a more socially-minded industry and make green products the standard. Shoplet.com is not looking to just peddle office products online like its big counterparts, but help its customers convert to green equivalent products.
Shoplet.com recognizes that small operational changes can make a huge environmental impact. One of the ways we help companies make this change is with our “green your cart” tool, which gives customers the option to switch to green products when they are available. We built the first green calculator that proudly displays on our main page the most direct and meaningful way our joint efforts with our customers have made an impact over the past 17 years. Our 2.8 million customers have helped save over 57,000 trees and over 14 million LBs of CO2, and are examples of the positive impact that can happen from small operational changes. As businesses see that going green does not mean giving up competitive prices and high quality on products, I think we will continue to see the dramatic shift in “green offices.”
MO: With such a huge empire, and incredible amount of selection how do you manage to keep customers continually happy? Social media has had a huge impact on how people are conducting business and on-line reviews and recommendations are omnipresent. How are you able to keep customer service at an optimum level thus keeping your customers coming back, and maintaining your reputation?
Tony: Service and being able to differentiate ourselves are key areas that we focus on at Shoplet.com. We have been ahead of the curve for a B2B focused company; we were not only the first company to sell office products online but also one of the first to move forward in Social Media. However we know that it is a human touch that wins over customers. To give our customers the best experience possible, we offer best-in-class, U.S based customer service that operates in the same corporate office as the rest of Shoplet.com. Our Customer Service team never has and never will be outsourced; they are an critical part of our organization. Additionally, in order to better assist our small business customers we have dedicated Account Managers that can work one on one with businesses to help them understand the website and their purchasing platform.
MO: Office supplies themselves aren’t known for being too exciting. How do you stay inspired and excited and keep customers interested in an industry that doesn’t seem to have a sexy image.
Tony: At the end of the day, while we are selling office and business supplies, for example Avery Labels , our real value lies in what we can do for our customers. It is that passion through service and our social goals that fill in the gap in the office supply industry. We are always inspired to change; right now we see ourselves innovating for our customers in an industry that has not seen real innovation in 100 years. I stay inspired by remembering that helping businesses save time, money, and be socially responsible, all while transforming the industry is a huge deal. We are proud of that. We are constantly motivated by the positive feedback we receive from businesses who say we have made their work lives easier.
MO: What was your inspiration for your eProcurement platform and how has it impacted the way your customers do business? How are you able to offer such a significant and money saving tool for free and do you think it has helped level the playing field a bit for smaller companies who didn’t previously have access to such a service?
Tony: We understood that small and medium sized businesses wanted to benefit the same way that the largest corporations did from custom, expensive procurement platforms, in an affordable way. So we built eProcurement and offered it for free because we knew that it would make our customers lives easier and differentiate ourselves. In the early days, large corporations would spend $750,000 on custom procurement software in order to receive similar benefits as Shoplet.com’s free hosted eProcurement platform. Our platform helps our customers set budgets by department, cost center, or user as well as raise compliance, set approval lists and routing and most importantly save time and money to our customers. Since its introduction, our free eProcurement platform has given businesses the freedom to spend less time worrying about supply procurement and have more control over the ordering process. At the end of the day, the ordering of all office supplies efficiently such as staples and paper makes a huge difference. Our free eProcurement platform differentiates us as part of a unique value proposition that promotes greater brand loyalty and incentives for businesses to continue to use Shoplet.com as a supply vendor. It absolutely levels the playing field for smaller businesses; we have heard countless reviews from customers that thank us for providing them with a platform that larger businesses pay for.
MO: You’re the number one virtual e-retailer in your category which is an impressive accomplishment. How are you planning to maintain your fantastic positioning, while remaining innovative and staying competitive?
Tony: Our plan to move forward is to continue to do what has driven our success thus far, to focus on our customers.
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