Alko Ready to Take On Staples, Owner Says

By Judith Scherr
Tuesday October 23, 2007

A 17,000-square-foot vacant commercial property in downtown Berkeley that most recently housed Barnes & Noble will soon have a new tenant, according to city Economic Development Division Acting Director Michael Caplan.  

Staples, which says on its corporate website that it “invented the office superstore concept in 1986,” will move into the building at 2352 Shattuck Ave. early in 2008, according to Staples spokesperson Mike Black. 

While the new store will make a small dent in downtown Berkeley’s total 114,000 square feet of vacant downtown retail space—amounting to a 12.8 percent vacancy rate in the downtown area—not everyone is celebrating. 

Gary Shows has owned Alko, the homegrown 99-year-old Berkeley office supply company, since 1984. While he does not welcome the competitor, with its more-than 1,900 outlets and $18.2 billion in sales in 2006, he says he’s prepared to go toe-to-toe with the international giant. 

Shows, whose store is at 2225 Shattuck Ave., said he’s done some investigation and found that Staples does not come in to a new venue and undercut other businesses, driving them out as he alleged WalMart does. 

Shows says that Alko’s prices are comparable to Staples’, and that his store stocks high-end stationery supplies, which Staples does not. 

Moreover, “We have a loyal customer base,” he said. “The only thing that Staples has is a parking lot and wider aisles.”  

What’s hurt his business in recent years, Shows said, was a UC Berkeley decision two years ago to buy office supplies from Office Max. “They signed a strict contract with them,” he said. “What has annoyed me most is the City of Berkeley—they give us almost no support,” he said. 

In July 2006, the City Council approved a three-year $1.65 million contract for office supplies with Office Depot. Alko did not offer sufficient online ordering, the city finance director told the Daily Planet at the time.  

“We’re really a Berkeley store,” Shows said. “We take care of our employees.” 

Caplan said he understands the concerns of competing small stationers, but given the large space, “it is almost inevitable that a large mini anchor” would move in, noting that commercial realtor John Gordon recruited Staples. 

Caplan added that Staples is much more than a paper-supply store. They also carry consumer electronics for which “most people now tend to go to Emeryville,” he said. “A lot of money flows out of Berkeley.” 

Speaking for Staples, Black said it chose the Berkeley location not just because of the university, but because of the city’s many small businesses.  

“In addition to carrying 7,000 products,” he said, “there are copy and print centers that offer business cards and signs” and services small businesses can use, such as in-store technicians who install computer software purchased at Staples, such as security software.