First Look: Inside Staples' new Velocity Lab in Cambridge, focused on advancing the multi-channel retail experience
"We decided to get radically more aggressive about strengthening our e-commerce and digital capabilities," Staples e-commerce SVP Brian Tilzer told me, sitting in a conference room in the first-floor space, just across the street from the Kendall Square Cinema. "Digital is the glue between our different channels — our call centers, our stores, and our web site." By setting up an outpost in Cambridge, he explained, "we can diversify the talent we were bringing to Staples. Some people don't want to do a reverse commute out to Framingham." And some of the partners that Staples works with, like Endeca, Akamai, and Google, are located just a short walk from the new Velocity Lab. (Staples PR manager Mark Cautela tells me that there was some discussion last year about planting the new lab in California.)
The new facility can accommodate about 75 people, and there are more than 40 in it already, explained Prat Vemana, the lab's director. About one-third of the people working at the lab today are Staples veterans, and two-thirds are new hires, says Vemana, who also oversees Staples' mobile strategy. That's an intentional mix, to blend fresh thinking with Staples' existing corporate culture. (Tilzer is on the left in the photo, Vemana on the right.)
"The vision for this center is to create a place where we can test, learn and iterate as rapidly as possible around new technologies," says Tilzer. As examples, he cited "thinking about how to leverage big data to deliver personalized experiences" and "helping consumers understand what services are available related to a particular product, like a laptop." But there will also be some blue-sky brainstorming, too, to "produce really cool stuff that's meaningful to our customers."
Vemana says that Staples' entire mobile team is based at the Velocity Lab, and that they're hoping to continue hiring people in Cambridge. "We have a mobile site, a mobile app, and a tablet-oriented site," he says. "But we're still thinking about other on-the-go pain points." Over the Black Friday shopping weekend in November, Vemana says, Staples ran time-limited "mobile flash sales," with certain deals that could only be unlocked by showing up in a store. There's also a "rapid prototyping team" based in Cambridge that works on Staples' web site, thinking about new functionality, like making it easier to re-order frequently-used products.
While Tilzer and Vemana say they're trying to attract techies who would enjoy working for a major e-commerce player, the signage at the entrance of the new lab, pictured at right, doesn't feature the name "Staples" at all. Partly that may be because a big Staples sign on a first-floor office space would probably invite people to stop in looking to buy printer toner. But also, Vemana says, "we're trying to communicate that this is a different part of Staples." While Tilzer works at the Framingham HQ, he says he spends a day or two each week at the Velocity Lab.
The lab is outfitted with a nice café area in the front, phone booths for private conversations, open meeting areas, and conference rooms outfitted with Cisco teleconferencing gear. There are lots of whiteboards and bulletin board walls. "We're really committed to the lab, and we're putting a lot of money against this," says Tilzer. The furniture, of course, comes from Staples Furniture Solutions. (See the photo below.)
The top e-commerce player, Amazon.com, also opened an office in Kendall Square this year, and is planning an expansion in 2013. But it seems that Amazon may not be competing with Staples for the same employees; many Amazon jobs have been focused on devices like the Kindle and Kindle Fire, speech recognition, and Amazon Web Services, the company's cloud computing group.
Vemana, I should mention, is speaking in Kendall Square tonight, as part of a panel on the "Mobile Wallet." Tilzer will be part of MITX's E-Commerce Summit in February.
About Scott Kirsner
Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.
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