Staples Disconnect

Jun 4, 2016 by

Staples Connect hero shot

There’s been plenty of speculation over the past months and even hints from Staples itself that this was imminent, but after over a year of neglecting its Staples Connect platform, Staples has officially pulled out of the smarthome business. It turns out it wasn’t that easy for Staples to sell smarthome technology. The good news is they’re not Revolv-ing us. That is, they’re not shutting it down. At least not yet.

The History

Staples first introduced Staples Connect just two and a half years ago, in the Fall of 2013 with a limited pilot program in a few dozen stores, beating nearly every physical retailer to the punch for selling connected home technology. They partnered with services provider Zonoff, the company behind Somfy’s TaHomA control solution, delivering a robust ecosystem and retail experience that took everyone by surprise. “Staples?” everyone thought…but indeed they seemed to know what they were doing. The in-store experience—designed in partnership with Zonoff—featured hands-on, interactive displays with lots of product. The hub itself bridged Z-Wave, Wi-Fi, and ClearConnect—with that last one, Lutron’s ClearConnect, being a significant differentiator at the time.

connectdisplay

About the only weakness in the solution was the software itself. While it has improved somewhat over time, the Staples Connect apps and site remain somewhat clunky as we’ve discussed here at The DMZ, on Home: On, and with Zonoff in person. They suffer from cumbersome and illogical workflows, a one-design-fits-all design approach that disregards platform-specific interaction patterns, and an overly-aggressive upsell approach that surprises you with product links where you might expect to find device control or configuration features.

At CES 2014, Staples announced they’d be formally launching Staples Connect and adding additional platform compatibility, including support for ZigBee, Bluetooth, and Insteon products. We saw the updated hub with ZigBee and Bluetooth support at launch, but the Insteon partnership never really happened, and it’s something that neither Zonoff nor Insteon like to talk about.

Staples Connected Home display boxes leave you empty handed

Staples Connected Home mock display boxes leave you empty handed

After the pilot, Staples started rolling out its Staples Connect offering across the country, but what they took to market was a far cry from what they had originally previewed. The hands-on display was replaced by signage of product images, a single shell of the updated hub, and an iPad intended to provide product information. The shelves were no longer stocked with product and now featured limited SKUs, all represented by plastic moxes [mock boxes]. Staff in most stores seemed to know little about the products, let alone where to find them in the stockroom.

We spoke with Staples’ then Director of New Business Development, Pete Gerstberger, in August of 2014 about our concerns. He explained that their pilot findings led them to focus on fewer products, and that shoppers didn’t really understand the hands-on aspect of the pilot displays. And the moxes? Well, that’s just the way that Staples sells stuff. It’s necessary in stores with high shrink rates (i.e., theft), and Staples wanted the experience to be consistent across all stores and products. Pete moved to Zonoff three months later (and he’s still there today).

The Signs

And so here’s Staples, left with a whole new product category, and it’s already evident the company doesn’t necessarily know or understand how to sell it. The result? Just a handful of new products (while the smarthome space explodes around it) and a few software updates.

Back before the holidays, we speculated that Staples needed to [do something] or get off the pot, not having added any significant product or feature improvements to the platform for nearly a year. Then there was nothing for months until market analyst Michael Wolf starts investigating the state of things and publicly posits that Staples Connect is near death. And Staples very quickly reacts with a public statement that they will soon be “making an announcement” and will “continue to support” users [cue the sad music].

It’s Official

On Friday, June 3, Dave Zatz reported on Zatz Not Funny that Staples has distributed an email message to users announcing its retreat from the smarthome space, stating that it will “discontinue selling Staples Connect.” But…it’s not (quite) dead [insert the obligatory soundbyte from Monty Python and the Holy Grail here].

Unlike Nest’s unceremonious shutdown of Revolv and its supporting services, Staples has established an agreement with Z-Wave Devices and Zonoff to keep the lights on, so to speak. The Staples announcement indicates that Z-Wave Devices and Zonoff will jointly provide support of the system going forward. Z-Wave Devices’ online store still lists the hub, though it’s not currently available for sale (and likely won’t be going forward). However, the hub still works, and they indicate that there’s a plan for continued support of your devices. It’s unlikely we’ll ever see explicit support for additional, newer devices, but at least you can keep using it with your current setup.

Anyway, if you are or were a Staples Connect user, keep an eye out for that email message—you may get a $50 Staples gift card as compensation for your [sorry] to thank you for your loyalty.

The Unsolicited Analysis

So How Do You Sell The Smart Home?
Home: On tile

We recently visited b8ta in Palo Alto, a new type of store that’s promoting innovative, new ways to retail connected consumer technology products. Check out Home: On #071 for a survey of the current tech retail landscape, including a discussion with one of the founders at b8ta.

Staples surprised consumers and press alike when it introduced a robust and promising smarthome platform before any of the logical outlets were ready to come to market. It integrated established Z-Wave and Lutron products with some innovative devices from smaller startups. And it probably could have succeeded had Staples continued to invest and improve the platform in partnership with Zonoff as the market evolved. But a seaming lack of leadership vision and commitment after Gerstberger’s departure (and a failure to think outside the “mox”) ultimately resulted in the platform’s failure.

Today, despite its outdated device support profiles and clunky software, Connect remains one of the few platforms that not only combines (like Wink) but also integrates Z-Wave, ZigBee, Bluetooth, ClearConnect, and IP-based devices into one system. It’s still the only system we’re aware of that lets you set up individual buttons on a Lutron Pico remote to control anything in your system—or any non-Lutron device, for that matter. It’s also the only DIY system we know at its price point that supports modes of operation beyond just home and away.

There was a lot to like in Staples Connect, and we’ll likely continue to follow it through its early retirement. It’s a shame Staples didn’t feel the same as the rest of us.

Meanwhile, Staples’ web site continues to promote Staples Connect. And maybe that’s indicative of the problems at Staples. This is an organization that seems to have difficulty aligning the activities of its retail, marketing, technology, and support arms to remain sufficiently agile in a today’s fast-moving technology market. But hey…anyone need a printer?

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