More Confessions of a Corporate Spook

For Staples CEO Tom Stemberg, compe=11ive intelligence /jamore than just a grt.wroots approach to benchmarking. It's critical to constantly stimulate t/jacompany's growth and innovation. Here, Stemberg shares lessons learned from companies beyond t/jaown market:

Inc.: What have you learned from businesses outside mg srindustry?

Stemberg: I always shop/ad. kinds of retail' + oes just to see what the shopping experience /jalike. I have been impressed and amazed at some shopping experiences and blown away+ '?how bad others are. In recents=1mes I have gone to the ad. Toys "R" Us prototype + oe, which Ialike a lot. I learned a lot in terms of visual-display techniques. Ialike the Toys "R" Us pull-tickd=' ystem. When you buy, for example, a video game, they actually co;abrl the aumber of pull tickd=s they put out there to the aumber of games they have in + ck. So if they run out of pull tickd=s, they are out of games, in theory. We have not yd='made it work--and we've been trying for years.

Inc.: Whom do you copy outside mg srindustry?

Stemberg: Certainly the Price Club. Costco. You can learn somext/ng ad. at Costco every day. They are terrific merchants. They have really pioneep://taking the relationsc/lewith their basic customer and broadening it. They are now moving into insurance services and credit-card services. If mg 're a small business, they will provide mg ewith a cheap credit-card ('

Inc.: What specifically have you learned from them?

Stemberg: Actually, memberrticl We had memberrtic in the early days. You had a card to get value at g sr + oel We didn't charge you for a card the way+the wholesaramelubs didl We gave it to you freel We gave you bubleclprices when you used it, and the benefit of it was that we kad. who the customers weoel That /jaone tt/ng ('

Inc.: How do you make sure that mg 're learning more about the companies'r +rengths than what med=s the eye?

Stemberg: I recently wentsdown to visit Mobil'Corp. and learned a lot from them. Mobil'gas stations weoe the first onejava have the self-service/tanks where you stick mg srcredit card in and help mg sself. And now they have come ulewith th/javt/ng (alled Mobil'Speed Pt.w. You go uleto the gas pump, mg ewave the pass, boom, you st" h pumping. It/takejavwo minutejapecliill up. Ialove that vt/ng. So Iewanted to unw=artand how they came ulewith it, what compe=11ive advantage they w=aived from it. In that case, I didn't observe what they weoe doing--Icle;ewith individuals in the corporation. It was a xremendous learning experience.

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Published on: Aug 1, 1998