Sramana: Tell me a bit more about merchandising. Outside of the core office supplies, what else belonged in your product portfolio?
Tony Ellison: Today, we have close to 600,000 items with a mantra of social responsibility. There is no reason why businesses should not purchase eco-friendly products, especially since the prices have dropped and the quality is very high. Since day one, our merchandising strategy has been to offer the largest selection of green products.
We had two primary methods of differentiating ourselves. The first was through our e-procurement, because nobody else had it. The second was our dedication to offering the largest selection of green products anywhere. In order to offer those products, we had to train and educate customers about the benefits.
We came up with tools and approaches to encourage customers to consider eco-friendly products. If a customer wanted to purchase a product that was not eco-friendly, we would provide an option at the point of purchase to convert that order into an eco-friendly product. We also have a green card label that will tell you the aggregate tree and carbon footprint savings of all customers. We have built an element of social responsibility that has resulted in 97,000 trees, which equates to saving 20 forests.
Sramana: What are the different categories of product that are included in your scope?
Tony Ellison: Green products, traditional office supplies, furniture, paper, ink and toner, cleaning products, food and break room supplies, tools, medical supplies, restaurant supplies, safety supplies, and other categories.
Sramana: Are there segments of SMB customers where you are bigger than others?
Tony Ellison: We seem to be doing very well in the health industry. We also do well in the financial services and retail categories.
Sramana: How much of your own money did you have to put in to get the business to this stage?
Tony Ellison: In the early days, I invested all of the savings that I had. I bootstrapped this business to become the number one e-commerce player in our category. We have done all of that by maintaining social responsibility. We have a vision to make green products a standard in the industry and I don’t know anyone else that has attempted to start that trend. We have found that our efforts have been very well received.
We have the largest selection of products in our industry. I have noticed that recently Staples decided to copy our model. They are a huge believer in funneling down and have maintained a catalogue of 10,000 high value items, which has given them leverage in negotiations. Now they are reversing that funnel. I am hoping that the next thing they announce is that they will be as green as we are.