Business Supply Franchises Provide Strong Competition For Big Name Non-Franchise Competitors

Business supplies are like the air we breathe: they're all around, necessary for life, and noticed only when missing. Where would we be without our business cards, business forms, stationery, logo-ized pens, printer and toner cartridges-not to mention all the computing and communication gear and gizmos-that keep the wheels of commerce turning? And don't forget the signage on everything from trucks to the booths of trade shows.

Businesses have an endless appetite for these items, which means an endless need for people to supply them, and opportunity to match. Competing with the supersized office supply stores-Staples, Office Depot, and OfficeMax, with 2004 sales of $14.4 billion, $13.6 billion, and $8.9 billion, respectively-may seem hopeless, but there is good news: the size of the market leaves a lot of room for competitors who can provide better customer satisfaction, lower prices, and offer specialized, niche services or products-which is where franchises excel.

In the rapidly expanding world of several familiar names spring to mind: FastSigns, Signs Now, Sign-A-Rama, Sign Biz, and Signs by Tomorrow, for example. Computer technology and advances in plastics and polymers will help this $8 billion industry find new and innovative ways to deliver its product. A new twist on this industry comes from franchise startup Have Signs Will Travel, a full-service sign store on wheels. Time will tell how this home-based, service fares against its more established storefront competitors.

On the business-to-business (B2B) side, when it comes to business forms and promotional items Proforma is the gold standard, winning awards from promotional, print, and entrepreneurial organizations. Founded in 1978, Proforma began franchising in 1986, and today has expanded to 600 offices, $250 million in sales, and a broad base of services in commercial printing, promotional products, business forms, and e-commerce solutions.

Printer and toner cartridges, a "lifeblood" for most businesses, are proving fertile ground for franchisors who can offer lower-cost, quality replacements and refilling services. In December 2002, a CBS Marketwatch report claimed that-for the first time-retail sales of ink cartridges in the U.S. surpassed desktop PCs as the leading technology generator (and that did not include those sold through other channels such as e-commerce, mail order, and contract stationers). Since then, the boom in digital cameras and home technology has only increased the use of ink.

Island Ink-Jet Systems, with more than 200 sites in the U.S., may one day take a page from McDonald's, with "more than 100 million cartridges filled." And the business is ecologically correct: the company claims to have saved 1,636,806 cartridges from landfills in 2004 alone. Other franchised companies in this segment include Cartridge World, with more than 1,000 locations in 20 countries. The company enjoyed a previous life in Australia, where it was founded, before setting up camp near San Francisco, selling master franchises. And Oregon-based Rapid Refill Ink International began franchising in 2004.

So next time you're photocopying at the office, printing at home, or attending a conference visiting booths with eye-catching graphics as you scoop up pens and other promotional trinkets (for the kids, of some money bringing that item to you.

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