Maybe it's true that only suckers pay retail, but how do you bypass standard retail channels and get the lucrative hidden deals that (rumor has it) are out there waiting to be snapped up?
One reliable method is to ask retailers for the "small-business discount," on the theory that merchants will cut you a break if they see you as a potential repeat customer instead of as just a one-time buyer.
Sellers benefit in the long term by offering fellow businesses a little something extra--whether that extra be a discount, relaxed payment terms, better selection, or reports that let you track your spending--and advice on how you can trim it.
We surveyed seven major online and offline sellers of office supplies, computers, and other electronics to determine what policies and extra services they have in place for small-business buyers. The results varied widely, but all seven retailers offered at least something extra for business purchasers--and some of the benefits sound quite enticing. You'll see pretty quickly that some offerings are serious, while others barely merit mentioning.
Best Buy Business Advantage gives small businesses access to a special purchasing site--bbfb.com--where the selection is broader; prices vary and in some instances are more expensive than at the regular Best Buy Website. Once you complete a credit application, Best Buy Business Advantage gives you a purchasing account with net 30 terms (direct debit from your bank is among the payment methods accepted), detailed online reporting, and a purchase-by-phone option. You can use the BBFB account in any Best Buy store without paying an annual fee or paying interest on purchases. Specialized reps are available for small-business customers.
Office Depot offers services for businesses large and small through its Business Services Division. (Qualifying businesses must have at least 15 employees and expenditures of at least $6000 per year.) Detailed billing and usage tracking reports let you figure out how much toner and how many paper towels your business uses, and a dedicated Website gives you access to online ordering 24/7--orders that Office Depot claims to deliver itself at an advertised on-time rate of 99 percent. Alternatively, you can submit orders via phone, fax, or connections to procurement software, if your operation uses it.
Staples has two types of business programs in place: The Commercial Billing account is a fairly standard charge card that lets you apply purchase orders toward your buying--but you must pay the bill in full with each billing statement. The Business Account option is a credit card system designed for small businesses that might want to carry a balance from month to month, without an option for using purchase orders.
Both accounts qualify for Staples Rewards on paper, ink, and toner purchases: Spend at least $10 on these items in a business quarter, and you'll get 10 percent cash back; otherwise, purchases carry over to the next quarter.
The company also runs Staples Advantage for companies enrolled in either business program, provided that they have 20 or more employees. Staples Advantage provides access to a human account manager to assist with ordering.
Alternatively, you can order supplies online or in any Staples store. Smaller companies get next-day delivery; companies with 200 or more employees qualify for same-day delivery. Various add-on services, including IT consulting and facilities management, are available as well.
With its Business to Business Solutions program, OfficeMax aims to provide a sort of consulting service for all things in the office supply realm. Join the program, and the company will analyze what you've been purchasing to suggest where you can save money. It does this by benchmarking what and how much you buy, against the buying habits of the rest of the industry. Detailed reporting lets office managers analyze specifically who's buying what, and how (by phone, by fax, or on the Web).
Small-business buyers in need of an approvals system can use OfficeMax's online tools to generate the necessary e-paperwork. A special division--OM Workspace--handles on-site space planning and furniture purchase recommendations.
Many people use Amazon for personal purchases, so why not use it for business buying, too? Amazon's business service offering is reasonably full-featured. The online retailer supports purchase orders at checkout in lieu of your having to provide a credit card number, and it offers both revolving credit and monthly pay-in-full credit line services. Companies can specify who has buying power and who has to approve any purchase via the business's Amazon log-in. You can track and analyze your order history online, and a dedicated customer service team is available to anyone who has a corporate account.
This large e-tailer welcomes business purchasing with Newegg Business Account, a commercially focused subservice that the company launched in 2009. NBA is free and lets buyers pay on net 30 terms instead of immediately at checkout. Unlike most retailers that support business accounts, Newegg offers volume discounts. The company claims that 80 percent of its items are available with quantity discounts, and it identifies stock levels on every product page in case a prospective buyer is concerned about having to back-order.
Like most of its competitors, Newegg makes your business's ordering history available online, and you can filter that history by individual buyer (multiple people can use a single business account). To save on shipping, you can arrange for Newegg to send large-quantity orders via freight service instead of by UPS or FedEx.
Finally, the company offers a scheduled series of promotions and contests for its customers. For example, this summer it sponsored the "Small Business, Big Impact" award, for socially progressive firms, with three prizes worth a total of $25,000 in store credit for the winning small businesses to apply toward an "office makeover."
Newegg is not the most full-featured among retailers offering business services, however. It has no consulting options or specialized customer service reps, and it doesn't accept purchase orders.
This regional retailer has some impressive business offerings. For starters, the product selection is about twice as large for businesses as for consumers, with 75,000 types of products available for the former. Terms for commercial accounts are net 30, and Micro Center operates its own equipment-leasing operation--all the way up to file servers and networking hardware. Business accounts qualify for same-day shipping on orders placed before 3 p.m. Eastern Time.
What We Found
We couldn't help feeling disappointed overall by our experiences in the business-buyer world. Early on, it became clear that many merchants don't view these programs as an essential part of their operations; and some seem to offer them merely because they are expected.
When we contacted each company in this roundup to request additional information about their business services beyond what is publicly available, only one responded. (Congrats, Newegg!) Apparently, if you want something special, you have to work for it.