Add Staples to the List of Restless Retailers

Like others, chain seeks creative help

The restlessness among retailers remains unrelenting.

Staples is talking to creative agencies about its branding needs. The scope of work, however, is unclear. One source says the company wants ideas for a new assignment designed to extend the Staples brand; others believe the opportunity is much broader.

Last year, the company spent more than $55 million in media, according to Nielsen. Its lead creative agency is McCann Erickson in New York. McCann, which has handled the account since 2004, referred calls to the Framingham, Mass.-based Staples, which declined to comment.

Staples joins a line of more than a half-dozen retailers that have reached beyond their lead shops for creative help this year. In some cases, they've added agencies; in other cases, they've replaced them.

The group includes Sears, Kmart, Best Buy, J.C. Penney, Dick's Sporting Goods, Foot Locker, and Radio Shack, which this week launched a creative review. Incumbent Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners in Sausalito, Calif., has been invited to defend, and Santa Monica, Calif.-based consultancy Select Resources International is managing the process, which is expected to conclude in March.

Last year, Radio Shack spent more than $90 million in media, and collectively, the eight chains spent more than $1.1 billion, according to Nielsen. Those figures don't include online spending, however, and Radio Shack reported total advertising expenses of more than $200 million in 2010. 

Retail, of course, is among the business sectors hardest hit by the economic downturn, so the restlessness is understandable. As consumer confidence (and buying power) wanes, so do sales at many retailers. What's more, many stores offer the same merchandise, which puts the onus on marketing to develop brand distinctions beyond the price points.

"These are not brands that are regarded as healthy, robust, and growing," said Ken Robinson of Ark Advisors, a New York-based search consultancy. "It's almost like some of these retailers are giving them just enough juice to keep them alive."

Furthermore, many chains find themselves behind the curve in e-commerce, where Web rivals like have become dominant players, often at the expense of the bricks-and-mortar crowd.

"The e-commerce channel gaining importance is fueling a lot of these" searches, said Robinson. "They are looking for much more digital muscle."