Staples, the office supply company that also happens to be the second largest online retailer in the U.S., is making a big move in the connected home Tuesday.
The company, which operates 1,550 stores in the U.S. and sold $5.3 billion worth of products last quarter, will offer a connected home hub, an app and about 30 different devices online and in its stores. It’s called Staples Connect, and will be available in November. This puts it in competition against big ISPs and smaller hub providers like Revolv or SmartThings. It’s also similar in some ways to the Lowe’s Iris hub and connected sensor offering, although that offering has a monthly service fee associated with anything beyond basic remote access to the devices.
As far as announcements go, this is a significant one for the burgeoning connected home market as well as a savvy shift in retailing strategy by Staples. Staples has teamed up with Zonoff, a software company whose team has been building software for the connected home for 10 years. Zonoff is doing the hard work of integrating the devices being sold at Staples into a Staples branded app.
Staples also worked with Linksys to build the hub hardware, which has support for Wi-Fi, Z-Wave and the Lutron Clear Connect radio protocol. Peter Gerstberger, senior merchant, new business development at Staples, said the goal was to make consumer confusion disappear. While protocols like ZigBee are gaining in popularity, in order to keep the price down (the hub is $99), Staples started with today’s most wide-spread radio technologies, he said. If a lot of devices start hitting the market that use ZigBee, Gerstberger said Staples could offer a dongle for users to add the protocol to the hub.
What’s really cool about this is the integration with several popular purveyors of connected devices that range from Yale Locks to the Hue light bulbs made by Philips. Startups also have a chance to get their name in front of consumers with products from Doorbot and vvee rounding out the list of 30 partners. In a Internet of Things Show interview with me, Gerstberger said that eventually the ivee voice control software might act as an alternative interface for the items in the Staples ecosystem.
You’ll be able to see the whole display that will be used in stores for the first time at our Mobilize show coming up Oct. 16th and 17th in San Francisco. Select stores will get the displays and start offering the connected products in November. Meanwhile, everyone can buy them online. The goal, Gerstberger said, is to offer thousands of products online that work with the system.
As someone who has been plugging in products to a home hub that might speak the same radio protocol but don’t have the required software support, I know that getting thousands of any type of device to work together via one app and one the same network is no small thing. That’s what Zonoff is doing for Staples. So far this system sounds like it will be open for a variety of companies to submit their products to, but the integration will be needed to bring it on board.
That being said, this is a promising approach for consumers who can buy a connected home experience without paying an ISP a service fee or having to hack an Arduino board to make something talk to something else. The Staples app lets you control everything in one place, cutting down on app fatigue. You’ll also be able to combine devices across the app like you might if you were using something like If This Then That (IFTTT).
This is a big deal for the industry for several reasons, starting with the notion that consumers can find a cost-effective way to implement a smart home. But Staples is also the first retailer to create a clearly defined strategy around the connected home and small office. Before, buying a connected device might take a consumer to a Target, a Home Depot, a Best Buy or even an Apple store. Once in the store you may not know where to go: electronics, a special section or wherever all the other unconnected devices of that same ilk are showcased.
If we’re going to add connectivity to our locks, thermostats and even kitchen gadgets, for the time being it makes sense to offer them in the same area. Eventually when connectivity permeates everything, this sort of grouping may not make sense. But for now, when most people aren’t quite sure of the value of a connected light bulb or thermostat, having a retail display dedicated to educating the consumer makes sense.
Plus, this is also a forward-looking way of thinking about retail for a connected world. With the hub, the app and the integration with other products, the Staples Connect program is interesting hybrid of the retailing and providing a platform for connected services that the consumer can derive value from. If you think about the hub like you might an iPhone and all of the connected devices Staples has integrated and would like to one day interconnect you have what is akin to the iPhone and App store model. I’ve been asking for this for almost a year, and it’s nice to see it finally coming to pass with so many variations.
For more, on this please listen to the podcast where Gerstberger explained why Staples is getting into this market and how it vets companies for the program. We also discuss where Staples will take this next. And if you want to see this in action or learn even more come see Gerstberger and Zonoff CEO Mike Harris at Mobilize next month.
This post was updated at 8:54 am to add more information about the competitive landscape.