39 Great Business Bargains
Online Payment Processing
If you don't need a full-blown e-commerce solution, PayPal lets you accept credit card payments with a PayPal shopping cart. There are no setup charges and no monthly fees, just a transaction fee of 2 to 3 percent, plus 30 cents--about what credit card merchant-account processors charge.
Outsourcing onerous payroll tasks is easy and quite affordable. For a flat monthly fee, online services such as surepayroll.com and paycycle.com do all the calculations, pay and file federal and state taxes, and make direct deposits into your employees' bank accounts. PayCycle costs $45 to $73 per month for a company with 25 employees, regardless of how often you run payroll (50-employee maximum); Sure Payroll charges about $87 to process the monthly payroll for 25, and can cut payroll expenses by up to 50 percent.
Playing Post Office
All mail is not created equal, so if you're paying equally for all of it, you're probably paying too much. Go to usps.com/businessmail101 for a primer on the different classes of mail and an explanation of the many discounts available for bulk and presorted mail and for things like dropping mail off at a bulk mail center or a central post office. For flat non-letter-size mail, such as catalogs, simply presorting according to Zip code can save you up to 30 percent on postage, and you can save up to 10 cents per pound by dropping it all off at a bulk mail center. And remember, never send a letter if a post card will do--post cards cost 38 percent less to send than first-class mail.
Montblanc Pen: because you don't want to sign a multi-million dollar contract with a 50-cent pen
Seal the deal with a more elegant instrument. Pen maker Montblanc distributes its wares through a small network of authorized dealers, so prices are pretty standardized. A new Montblanc StarWalker Ballpoint sells for $216, including shipping, at writewithstyle.com. That's not a bad price, but you can do better. The recent eBay price was $142, with shipping--with several more up for bidding.
Color, light, and air
A fresh coat of paint might be the most cost-effective investment you can make in the look and feel of your workplace. And since paint is so cheap, you can always repaint if you're not happy. For help finding a color scheme, do what professional designers do: Check out the free color forecasting reports published by the Color Marketing Group. To make sure your new color looks right, switch out harsh white fluorescents with "warm white" ones; their fuller-spectrum light will make everything look better. Finally, improve the indoor air quality with bargain-priced planters from big-boxers such as Lowe's and Home Depot, warehouse clubs, or Ikea.
Buy or lease modular carpet tiles, such as those made by Interface. While regular roll carpet is cheaper to buy up front, modular tiles can pay off in the long run because rather than having to buy a whole new carpet, you can just replace the worn tiles. It's easy to take the tiles with you if you move. Plus, they look a lot cooler.
Put off software purchases until the end of the year, when you'll find discounts on programs that are being released in new versions. You may also see discounts at the end of a financial quarter. There's also plenty of free software out there available for download--from e-mail (Evolution) and e-commerce (osCommerce) to Web browsers (Firefox, Opera) and accounting (GnuCash). Two of the best sources of freeware are tucows.com and CNET's Download.com.
Cheap (and Eager) Labor
Entrepreneurship is hot these days, and plenty of students are eager to get experience at growing companies. The key is to offer experiences that truly can't be had at big corporations, such as real responsibility, individual mentoring, and access to decision makers. William Wright-Swadel, director of career services at Harvard University's School of Arts and Sciences, suggests that companies build long-term relationships with career centers at local colleges and market themselves through campus events and organizations. On MonsterTrak, the largest student job and internship site, you can target your posting to the schools you want to recruit from; the site charges $30 per posting per school, with a discount for multiple postings. Wherever your job posting appears, get it in as early as possible; students typically start thinking about summer internships at the end of the fall term. And remember: Interns are cheap, but they're not free. Generally, if you're paying someone, you have to pay minimum wage; for unpaid internships, certain educational criteria often must be met. Check with your state's labor department for the regulations in your area.
Score, the Service Corps of Retired Executives, is a nonprofit partner of the U.S. Small Business Administration that provides free online counseling on everything from accounting to workflow analysis, provided by a volunteer corps of working and retired business owners and executives. Score also offers free one-on-one and team business counseling at 389 locations around the country; find the one closest to you at score.org.
Mid-level business copiers can cost $5,000 and up. Because of the high entry cost, and the near certainty that the "latest technology" will be outdated in a year (if not six months), leasing--which often includes an option to upgrade and can cost as little as $50 a month--is usually more attractive. When signing a lease, make sure to clarify the service and repairs included, and what the response time will be. Beware of contracts that require a minimum or maximum monthly number of copies; work out pay-as-you-go terms instead. And remember, you don't have to buy paper and toner from your copier supplier--you can usually save money by buying these from an office-supply source. And if you don't expect to make more than 700 copies a month, you probably don't need a "business" copier at all--you can get by with a combination printer-copier that costs a few hundred bucks.
Ink & Toner
Deals abound on generic, remanufactured, and even name-brand cartridges. There are numerous online office supply and ink specialty stores--InkSell.com, 4inkjets, Databazaar.com, and InkjetSuperstore.com--that often have better prices than the superstores and printer manufacturers. For example, in a recent search on comparison site NexTag, we found an HP Laserjet 2400 cartridge for $120; the same product retails for $206 at Office Depot. If you're willing to use refurbished cartridges, you can pay as little as $70. Meanwhile, OfficeMax recently launched a nationwide refill program for inkjet cartridges, which could translate into cost savings of up to 50 percent.
Best for Blogging
Wordpress.org provides a free, easy-to-use tool for adding an easy-to-update blog to your company's existing website. If you want to go cheap--and skip a formal website altogether--blogger.com (owned by Google) and wordpress.com (not wordpress.org) will host your blog for free. The only drawback: The generic domain name (blogspot.com or wordpress.com) can look unprofessional.
Check out dealer show rooms and keep tabs on any floor models you like. Come June, when NeoCon, the huge convention of office furniture manufacturers, takes place, dealers want to get new stuff on the floor--which can translate into good deals on old merchandise. Discounts of 20 percent or more are not uncommon. For general office furniture, check the lower-cost subsidiaries of the big manufacturers, such as Steelcase's Turnstone line. And don't forget eBay, where bargains on durable workplace basics abound. Here are some recent examples: 34 Steelcase telemarketing cubicles: $6,700; eight Herman Miller workstations: $3,995; 12 Steelcase office desks: $1,500.
Paper, envelopes, pencils, staples and the rest
Rather than buying different items from different vendors, consolidate your office-supplies shopping in one place. The big office superstores all offer online order management, free delivery for orders over $50, and loyalty rewards programs. In addition, OfficeMax Commercial Solutions and Staples Business Advantage are free programs that work like managed-travel programs, helping customers track and reduce total office-supply spending through more efficient ordering and discounts for volume buying. Office Depot offers similar services through its Business Services Division.
Negotiating an Iron-Clad Shipping Contract
The major package delivery companies--FedEx, UPS, DHL--are all competing for the small-business market. It's up to you to meet with their reps and determine what services you need, which company best meets those needs, and which one offers the best deal. Beware of add-on charges for things like sending packages to nonurban areas and shipping fragile items; shippers today have more than 100 such charges, compared with about 30 five years ago. Many of these fees are negotiable, though it helps if you have what the shippers call "good shipping characteristics"--high volume, packages that tend to fall in the same size category (say, more than 100 pounds), and lots of deliveries to urban Zip codes (which are less expensive to deliver). Smart negotiating can shave 10 to 20 percent off your shipping bill, says Mike Erickson, president and CEO of AFMS, a consulting firm that specializes in evaluating and negotiating business shipping contracts. Indeed, if you do a lot of shipping, it makes sense to hire a consultant, as shipping contracts are often difficult for laypeople to decipher.
A company car--plus a tax break
Under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, individuals and businesses that buy or lease a new hybrid gas-electric car or truck, or an alternative-fuel or fuel-cell vehicle, are eligible for an income-tax credit of up to $3,400, depending on the fuel economy and the weight of the vehicle. (This credit is in addition to the regular depreciation or lease expense you're allowed to deduct for any vehicle.) If you buy more than one vehicle, you get a tax credit for each. This tax credit applies to vehicles "placed in service" beginning January 1, 2006. Once a manufacturer has sold 60,000 eligible vehicles, the tax credit for its cars will be reduced, and eventually eliminated. So get on it now.
When buying a printer, check out the "print yield"
A cheap inkjet may be easy on the wallet today, but it'll end up costing you more later. That's because with printers, it's all about consumables--paper, toner, etc. For example, with a $300 laser printer and compatible cartridge, it costs $30 to print 1,000 pages (black ink only); with an $80 inkjet printer from the same manufacturer, the same print run costs $100. After a little more than 3,000 pages, the more expensive printer has paid for itself. Check out the "print yield" specs for the toner cartridges the printer requires, and divide the price by that number--that's your cost per page. Let that number, not the cost of the printer, guide you to the real bargains.
Mall tenants may enjoy foot traffic, but that traffic comes with a steep price tag--incidental costs can run from $18 to $55 per square foot per year. Wherever you set up shop, scrutinize your lease for so-called pass-throughs--charges on top of the basic rent for things like common-area maintenance--and make sure you're paying a share that's proportionate to the actual square footage you're occupying. Another way to save: Minimize your square footage in an expensive retail area by leasing storage space in a cheaper space off the premises.
Treating your staff to monthly massages may seem like a needless indulgence, but it can save you in the long run. Research shows that employees are more productive on quantitative tasks after massages and report feeling less stress. There is also, not surprisingly, less absenteeism on days that massages are scheduled. And because office massage specialists provide education about ergonomics and repetitive-stress injuries, you may reduce the costs of such injuries. A 15-minute seated massage--about the time of a coffee break--is all it takes to realize the benefits. On-site massage rates vary by location--expect hourly rates of about $75 and up in larger cities (a massage therapist will typically fit in three 15-minute massages per hour). Go to amtamassage.org and use the locator service to find a qualified provider in your area.
Corporate jet: a good option for small groups
It's a bit of a stretch to call a company jet a bargain, but look at the upside. There's no penalty for booking last minute, so it's attractive if you make spur-of-the-moment trips. And since jet operators charge by the hour, not per person, a private flight can be a good option for flying small groups (midsize jets can accommodate about eight). Full or fractional ownership requires laying out millions up front, but Sentient and Blue Star Jets' SkyCard program offer membership plans that give you planes on demand for less than the cost of fractional or outright ownership. With both companies, you make an initial deposit (minimum $100,000 for Sentient, $50,000 for Blue Star) and funds are deducted as you use flight time (hourly fees start at about $2,000).
Deals on PCs
Comparison shopping is a no-brainer. But with PCs, you'll be surprised at how large the price variations are for identical products. A recent search on comparison-shopping site NexTag, for example, turned up about 20 different vendors offering new Toshiba Portege R200 laptops for prices ranging from $1,162 to $2,159. Another useful tool is NexTag's "Price Drops" section, which tracks the market in a range of tech categories and reveals, for example, that in April, the best price for an IBM Thinkpad T43P abruptly dropped 25 percent.
Travel is typically a company's second or third largest controllable expense, and one way to control it is to implement a managed-travel program. Most of the online booking services have launched programs for small companies. Expedia Corporate Travel ($149 a year) and Orbitz for Business (fees vary according to use) drive down travel expenses by 10 percent or more by lowering transaction fees (an average of $5 per ticket, compared with about $30 for traditional agencies) and negotiating discounted rates with airlines, hotels, and rental car companies. Obviously, the larger the company, the larger the discount a travel service can negotiate. But in some markets, just being able to offer an airline or hotel a 10 percent incremental increase in your company's business can be a potent bargaining tool. American Express' small-business travel program (starts at $500 a year; $100 for small-business cardholders) offers discounts on airfares of up to 15 percent on domestic flights and 35 percent on international trips. AmEx also promises to beat any fare you find online.
Website Hosting and Design
Some broadband providers offer free hosting with their service. If yours doesn't, consider one of these low-cost options, all of which include easy-to-use design and e-commerce tools and templates to get your site up and running quickly.
- Yahoo Hosting and domain registration: $12 per month and up
E-commerce: $40 to $300 per month, depending on sales volume
- Homestead Hosting and domain registration: $20 to $50 per month (plus $20 setup fee)
E-commerce: $7 to $60 per month
- Microsoft Office Live Hosting and domain registration: Basic service is free; added features cost $30 a month
Web Traffic Analysis
Google Analytics is a free and useful Web analytics tool--if you can get it. Right now there's a waiting list that doesn't seem to be budging. Fortunately, Google is far from your only affordable option. Check out ClickTracks' Analyzer, a basic hosted service that charges $49 per month (or buy the software for $495); Web analytics program SmarterStats 3.0, free for use on a single website (available at download.com); StatCounter, free for up to 250,000 page views; and Site Meter, which starts at $9.95 per month. Numerous free trial versions of other programs are available, too--which can at least hold you over if you decide to wait for your Google spot to open up.
Even in the information age, manufactured goods can't telecommute. That's why industrial space--factories, warehouses, distribution centers--always costs more the closer it is to large population and transportation centers. Prices decline the farther out you move, but then transportation costs go up--so what appears to be a bargain often is not. The right balance is easiest to strike in less pricey "second-tier" cities such as Columbus, Indianapolis, and Louisville, as well as on the fringes of primary markets--places such as eastern Pennsylvania, lower New York state, and northern Los Angeles County.
Go to authorized Herman Miller dealers first and think of the advertised price as a starting point. Even if you're buying just 10 or 20 chairs, you can bargain. "Every contract is individually negotiated," says Herman Miller spokesman Bruce Buursma. Dealers often have used chairs coming back from leases, which can cost 20 percent less than new ones. Consider lower-cost models too--Herman Miller's basic Celle chair, for example, offers Aeron-like features for about $499, compared with $699 for a basic Aeron. If you're not making progress with the brick-and-mortar dealers, go online. Here's what a recent price comparison turned up (all prices include shipping):
- New Aeron Chair $699 at officedesigns.com, ultimatebackstore.com, sit4less.com, homeofficesolutions.com (volume pricing available)
- "Like New" Aeron Chair (floor models or returns) $519 at luxurychair.com, $560 at trendychair.com, $539 at sit4less.com's clearance section
- Aeron Look-alikes Sit4Less "E" Chair, $399 at sit4less.com
Ergonomic eChair, $319 at luxurychair.com
Mesh eChair, $269 at designerseating.com
A serious coffeemaker--and serious coffee
If you consider a super automatic espresso machine to be a super productivity booster, check out the "outlet" section of wholelattelove.com, which sells manufacturer-refurbished machines at deep discounts--a Jura-Capresso Impresa S9 (list price, $2,400) goes for $1,399, shipping included. As for beans, get the gourmet stuff from old-school coffee roaster D'Amico Foods, which ships nationwide from its store in Brooklyn--at great prices ($6 a pound for the house blend espresso).
The best rate on credit cards
Start by checking out what your bank offers, then do some comparison shopping. As with personal credit cards, there are numerous no-annual-fee cards out there, so avoid paying such charges unless you truly require the particular services or reward-program benefits of a certain card. At sites like CreditCardGuide.com, CreditCards.com, and MyRatePlan.com (go to the credit card section), you can compare cards and apply online.
Fun and Games
Nothing succeeds in conjuring that giddy dot-com mood quite like little plastic soccer players. A new Striker foosball table retails for $699. But you almost always can find better deals at online specialty stores, many of which also include free shipping--which is no small matter, since delivery of a foosball table can cost a couple hundred bucks.
Here's a sampling of some of the best deals on office amusements:
- Foosball Table Striker foosball table
$499, shipping included, at justfoosballtables.com
- Air Hockey Carrom Premium Hydralumina With Scoring, six-foot model
$540, shipping included, at christophersgames.com
- Ping-Pong Table Prince Competitor table tennis table
$359, shipping included, at dickssportinggoods.com
- Pool Table Charleston eight-foot table
$1,787, crating and air freight included, at pooltables-direct.com
- Pinball/Arcade Simpsons game
$4,800, with shipping, christophersgames.com
1979 Space Invaders cocktail table arcade game
$700 (plus $350 shipping), recently listed on eBay
Turn Your Office Into an Art Gallery
Why buy pricey art for your office walls when you can rent? A number of major art museums have rental programs--and many will even help you choose the best pieces for your space. The Artists Gallery at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art charges about $350 to rent a $5,000 painting for three months; a $1,000 painting rents for $170. Like most museum rental programs, SFMOMA's program focuses on local talent and has thousands of work in all media; photography tends to be the least expensive option. Other museums with rental programs include Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Portland Museum of Art, the Seattle Art Museum, and the Racine Art Museum in Racine, Wisconsin. Local galleries may also rent to businesses.
The Office of Your Dreams
Right now, the cheapest downtown Class A rents in major markets can be found in Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, and Seattle--places where $20 per square foot can land you palatial digs that would cost three times as much in New York City. Wherever you live, make sure you keep up with local business news. When companies close, downsize, or move out of town, they're often left with time on their existing leases. "Subleasing is where a smaller business can really pick up a bargain," says Andrew Abramson, a senior vice president with Grubb & Ellis in Washington, D.C. Abramson points out that in addition to lower rent, expensive improvements that were made by the previous tenant--such as phone systems and furniture--are often thrown into the deal as an incentive. Meantime, if you forgo a view and instead take lower-floor or obstructed-view space, you can save anywhere from 10 to 30 percent on rent. (Go to grubb-ellis.com/research to check pricing in markets throughout North America.)
Location, Location, Location
How much do real estate prices fluctuate nationwide? To find out, we searched for Class A office space in three major markets--Denver, Atlanta, and San Francisco. In each city, we found a plush office of about 6,000 square feet (enough for about 20 people) in a fancy, downtown building with all the amenities-health club, concierge services, covered parking, etc. The annual lease rates, of course, were all over the map.
- San Francisco $37 per square foot
- Denver $25 per square foot
- Atlanta $29 per square foot
The Wall Street Journal
A staple of office waiting rooms everywhere, the Journal does not offer corporate discounts for bulk orders to new subscribers. Check for special offers on the comparison-shopping sites as well as newspaper specialists subscription-offers.com and discountednewspapers.com. And check the paper's website, too. At the time of writing, an offer for new subscribers made dealing directly with the publisher the cheapest option out there by far (56 weeks for $99); only one third-party distributor was able to beat the regular yearly subscription price of $215. (Note: This special offer was available online only; operators at the Journal's 800 number did not mention or even acknowledge this option.)
The Clean-Up Crew
Any cleaning service you hire should be bonded and insured--if cleaners mess up your stuff, or themselves, you don't want to get stuck with the bill. Prices for that will be higher than for under-the-table help, but worth it. Remember, cleaning people often work when the office is empty; you need to be able to trust them. Make sure the company does background checks on workers, and check multiple references.
Old-school long-distance service
Negotiate directly with carriers or go through resellers, or CLECs (competitive local exchange carriers), which tend to price more aggressively and be more focused on the needs of smaller businesses than the large telecoms. There are many sites that let you solicit bids and compare rates, including PhoneSaver.com and BuyerZone. As you compare services, look for one that will bill the shortest time increments possible for long-distance--one- to six-second intervals, rather than 30-second ones. The smaller increments can translate into savings of 10 percent or so.
It's not a substitute for a traditional phone system, but Skype, which lets you make calls directly from your computer, is a useful supplement if international calls are a big part of your phone bill. The quality usually can't match a good phone connection, but the prices can't be beat. Calls to other Skype users (through your computer) are free wherever you're calling from, and calls to landlines and cell phones in the U.S., much of Europe, China, and Japan cost about two cents per minute.
Broadband: Why You Need a Broker
Unless you have a strong preference for a particular provider, you'll generally get better rates through a broker--brokers do the comparison shopping for you, and because they buy in bulk, tend to have greater negotiating leverage. Typically, there is no charge to the consumer in working with a broker; instead, the providers pay the brokers a fee. Look for resellers that have been in business at least a few years, and make sure they show you quotes from several providers. Broadband is an extremely competitive market, so avoid getting locked into a long-term contract. Most companies require a two-year minimum commitment--don't sign up for a longer term. You can solicit quotes from multiple vendors and resellers at comparison-shopping sites.
Most professional designers charge between $75 and $200 an hour. But hiring one can actually wind up saving you money. Designers often see possibilities that you do not. A designer might suggest ways to use inexpensive materials and built-ins--using melamine boards in place of desks, for example--that can help reduce the amount of office furniture you need to buy. And when you do buy, designers get discounts of as much as 50 percent. The trick is to keep your designer on a short leash by defining the task at hand as narrowly as possible. To find a designer, go to asid.org, the website of the American Society of Interior Designers, and click on the "Find a Designer" link.
Before You Buy
Thanks to the Web, comparison shopping is a cinch. Sites such as Bizrate.com, PriceGrabber.com, Shopping.com, and NexTag.com may turn up the deal you're looking for on any number of items. The following sites may be helpful for specialized searches.
- Broadband service Broadband.com
- Business equipment leasing Buyerzone.com
- Commercial real estate Equityoffice.com
Cushwake.com (click on "Property Listings")
Grubb-ellis.com (click on "Properties")
- Computers/software Shopper-zdnet.com
- Credit cards Creditcards.com
- Newspaper subscriptions Subscription-offers.com
- Phone plans and systems Phonesaver.com