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The Earth-Shattering Importance of Cheap Office Supplies
Monday, February 8, 2010

Paper clips, manilla envelopes, sticky notes, pencils and pens -- no matter how highly technological the modern office may become, old fashioned office products remain an unchanging fact of working life. Among the most in demand items sold at retail and as bulk discounts deals, cheap office supplies are not the kind of items that provoke many daydreams. Nevertheless, they do fill an unusual niche in the modern imagination. In our post-modern world, so far removed from our hunter-gatherer roots, we cannot live without them.

The cult comedy hit, "Office Space," turned a red stapler and dysfunctional copiers into totems of contemporary life; innumerable scenes in the American and British versions of "The Office" demonstrate how the most ordinary office supplies can achieve a significance far beyond what most of us would imagine. Probably the most commonly stolen items next to hotel towels and bars of soap, office supplies hold an intriguing place in modern mythology because, as common and humdrum as they might seem, most of us cannot really work without them.

You don't miss your water until the well runs dry and you don't think about cushioned mailers, spiral binders, or name tag holders until you actually need them and can't find them. And that's when they become, just for a moment, the most important items in the world. Office managers the world over are only too aware of this reality, because the moment that last package of sticky notes is opened and and office-wide shortage threatens memories and communications, they are the ones who get the blame.

At the exact same time, the company's fiscal powers-that-be don't want to spend excessive amounts of cash purchasing and storing paper clips, three-ring binders, file folders, and correction fluid. It's a genuine dilemma: you have to have plenty of supplies on hand, but you can't bankrupt the company just to ensure you'll never run out. That's why, among all retail categories, there's probably no area where keeping prices reasonable -- or, let's say "dirt cheap" -- are of the greatest importance both to suppliers and retailers. That's why there really isn't much of a market for high end paper clips, elegant pencils, beautifully designed stainless steel scissors, or monogrammed file folders. Neiman-Marcus doesn't stock a whole lot of office supplies.

It's the art and the science of the office manager, and the home-bound freelancer, to manage just when and what quantities of office supplies to purchase. Get too many, and you're stumbling over boxes of envelopes and stapes at every turn -- and possibly wasting money and/or harming your office-wide reputation for thrift. Don't get enough and you put the operations of your office at risk and create potentially enormous anger among your coworkers. There's a reason why office managers are often either the most popular or unpopular people at many a corporate center.

Fortunately, it is a balance that, with a bit of effort, knowledge and foresight, competent workers can usually manage. It's just a matter of knowing where to purchase high quality cheap office supplies, when and in how much bulk. Deals and discounts are a huge part of it -- but managing just how much room you have to store those inexpensively purchased products is another part of the science of managing a business of any size. Office supplies aren't something that most people get excited about, but that's kind of the point. If you're thinking too much about them, something is obviously wrong.