Staples sale shows change is the only constant

Once upon a time there were things called stationery stores. These were usually small-ish shops, often family operated, where one could buy fancy pens and not-so-fancy pens, paper, paper clips, and various other office supplies.

One day in 1985, a Massachusetts grocery store executive named Tom Stemberg got frustrated when he had trouble finding a place to buy a typewriter ribbon over the Fourth of July weekend. From that, the office supply superstore Staples was born — helped along by then-venture capitalist Mitt Romney and Bain Capital, which bet big on the concept.

Staples changed everything, with market forces from its rise — and that of several other big-box office supply stores — doing to stationery stores what Home Depot’s arrival did to neighborhood hardware shops.

Fast forward 32 years and Framingham-based Staples, finding itself on the ropes after several years of declining fortunes, announced yesterday that it would be sold for $6.9 billion to the private equity firm Sycamore Partners. The move will take the company private, as the buyout firm looks for ways to turn Staples around and turn a profit by selling it.

That won’t necessarily be easy. A New York Times headline says the new owner will face “an uphill battle.” That is, of course, because the once disruptive new idea of big-box retail outlets is now being disrupted by the new idea of making purchases online, something that offers unbeatable convenience for consumers and a much more efficient cost structure for sellers, who don’t need to build brick-and-mortar stores to sell goods.

The turning point that set yesterday’s announcement in motion was a federal judge ruling in May 2016 that upheld a Federal Trade Commission finding under the Obama administration that a bid by Staples to acquire Office Depot, its main office supply rival, would give one company too much market clout in the sector.

The companies were under great pressure to join forces to try to contend with the growing role of online retailing in general and one particular digital sales behemoth in particular.

Yesterday’s development was chalked up to the unrelenting movement of retail sales in that direction. “The deal is the latest instance of a once-prominent name in retailing being laid low by the powerful forces reshaping how people shop (in other words: Amazon),” reported the Times.

In last year’s federal court ruling that blocked Staples’ acquisition of Office Depot, the Globe says, the judge concluded that Amazon was still “too nascent at the time to constitute a legitimate market threat.”

Which is probably how those who manufactured the typewriter ribbons Tom Stemberg went in search of 32 years ago viewed, at one point at least, the crazy geeks who were talking up new, ribbon-free devices that combined a typewriter keyboard with a television screen.



Gov. Charlie Baker comes under fire for not filing an updated FY18 budget even though the revenue projections on which the budget was based have been revised downward by as much as $1 billion. Some of the governor’s political opponents say his refusal violates the law. (State House News)

Rep. Aaron Michlewitz and Sen. Sal DiDomenico say more tools are needed to combat wage theft, a $700 million a year problem. (CommonWealth)


An enormous fire gutted a $45 million residential project nearing completion across the street from the Ashmont MBTA station in Dorchester. The Boston Globe covers it as a business story, while the Boston Herald goes at it in a more traditional fashion, calling the fire an inferno.

The city of Worcester pays attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union $475,000 in connection with a suit that overturned the municipality’s ordinances on aggressive panhandling. (Telegram & Gazette)

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A Globe editorial calls on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to shelve his “misbegotten health care bill” and work with Democrats on a bipartisan effort to mend, not end, Obamacare. Could bipartisanship be the thing that saves health care reform for McConnell? (New York Times)

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An Australian cardinal who is a top aide to Pope Francis has been charged with sexual assault, the highest Vatican official to be criminally charged with sex abuse. (New York Times)


Cambridge City Councilor Nadeem Mazen plans to challenge US Rep. Michael Capuano in next year’s Democratic primary for the 7th Congressional District seat. (Boston Globe)


New apartment buildings in the Seaport District are offering leases of $2,000 a month for a studio to up to $11,000 a month for a three-bedroom. (MassLive)

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The Lowell School Committee votes 5-1 to keep the high school downtown, parting ways with the City Council, which voted 5-4 to move the school to  Cawley Stadium in the Belvidere section of town. (Lowell Sun)

The Boston City Council approves a new schools budget, but slams the $1 billion cost of transportation. (Boston Herald)


Joan Vennochi says nurses at Tufts Medical Center who are threatening to go on strike should work hard to try to avoid that outcome. (Boston Globe)


Gloucester Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken said she received no notice of the MBTA’s plans to erect 75-foot poles in her community along the commuter rail line. “I’m appalled — beyond appalled, that (the MBTA) would come into our city and try to install seven or eight of these poles without notifying us, or our residents. (The poles) are for what? Communication? They don’t communicate themselves.”

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Jesse Mermell and Sen. Eric Lesser say public transportation is an investment in Springfield’s future. (CommonWealth)


Barnstable County has agreed to pay the town of Barnstable $3 million to settle a suit over contamination of water supplies stemming from chemicals used at the firefighter training academy in Hyannis. (Cape Cod Times)

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