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Poppin staplers displayed in bright colours, in sync with Poppin’s image as a fashion company, at the company’s offices in New York City.


It's one of the last frontiers for fashionistas.

For years, office supplies have been sold in varying shades of grey, but Chris Burch of fashion mega-brand Tory Burch fame is betting he can shake up the lowly segment. Poppin, the New York firm he founded that makes style-conscious and colourful office supplies, is starting to gain ground: Office-supplies retail heavyweight Staples Inc. is expected to announce on Thursday it is testing the line in about 30 of its U.S. stores.

Spokespeople for Staples could not be reached.

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And Poppin has a key Canadian connection. Gerry Schwartz, Canada's premier leveraged buyout specialist who heads Onex Corp., has placed his own bet on Poppin through his TrilogyGrowth LP fund, which backs emerging consumer-related firms. His wife, Heather Reisman, will soon launch the Poppin line in her Indigo and Chapters superstores, part of her wider strategy to reinvent the bookseller by branching out into other product categories. Indigo has exclusive rights to Poppin in Canada.

To offset declining books sales, Indigo Books & Music Inc. is transforming into a "creatives" department store. It is starting to stock Apple products, introduce a series of shops that specialize in items such as baby and home goods and even contemplate global expansion. Poppin is an example of the chic style that Ms. Reisman is counting on to give Indigo an edge in its battle with discount giants.

"Poppin is about bringing beautiful design to the desk top," Ms. Reisman, Indigo's chief executive officer, said as she pointed to her array of white and orange Poppin paraphernalia on her own desk. "This is probably the first innovation in work space products in eons. Just go into any local office supplies company – it has not generally been an area where you've seen the application of design. "

The plan to bring Poppin to Indigo was hatched last September, when Ms. Reisman received a call from her daughter-in-law, Melissa, who had been reading about the retailer. That night, Ms. Reisman sent an e-mail to the company's CEO, Randy Nicolau, and within a week, she and her team were on their way to New York to check it out. Two months later she put in her order.

"She called me to say, 'We'd like to put your products in our stores,'" Mr. Nicolau recalled. "I'm like, 'Great, you plan to test us in six or seven stores.' And she's like, 'Honey, I've been doing this for so long, I don't need to test this.'"

Ms. Reisman said she found the line appealing and affordable as soon as she saw it. "The whole design philosophy behind the products and the pricing philosophy is 100-per-cent consistent with our own."

Having launched its e-commerce last September, Poppin is expecting to generate more than $1-billion (U.S.) in annual sales within five to seven years, Mr. Nicolau said. The firm received $11-million in financing recently, including "a few million" from Trilogy.

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Poppin works directly with overseas factories to produce its goods, yielding margins of 70 per cent, more than twice as high as those at specialty chains, he said. The products range from an aqua and purple notebook ($4), to a magenta mouse-pad ($9), lime green filing cabinet ($180), and white ping-pong table ($2,900.)

Ms. Reisman said she considered having Indigo invest directly in Poppin but felt that the retailer had too many other commitments, trying to navigate the fast-changing bookseller landscape.

Joel Silver, managing partner of Trilogy, former president of Indigo and a current board member, said he was impressed with Poppin's business model and products. "It's priced to compete against the boring black stapler from Staples."

Indigo also is borrowing ideas for its stores from mobile accessories specialist iStore, another firm that two-year-old Trilogy invests in, he said. "We always said if there are opportunities to work with Indigo, we would do it."

Robert Gibson, an analyst at Octagon Capital, predicted that Poppin has the biggest potential of all of Indigo's latest new growth strategies. "There is a lot of crossover between work and home these days and Poppin hopes to fill a perceived gap," he said. "Longer term, Poppin may dissociate its brand with the 'office' label, as it spreads its bright, colourful style into the home even more."

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About the Author
Retailing Reporter

Marina Strauss covers retailing for The Globe and Mail's Report on Business. She follows a wide range of topics in the sector, from the fallout of foreign retailers invading Canada to how a merchant such as the Swedish Ikea gets its mojo. She has probed the rise and fall (and revival efforts) of Loblaw Cos., Hudson's Bay and others. More


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