Penny Pranks Provide OfficeMax with Fun but Fraught Route Through Back to School Doldrums

Last Updated Aug 7, 2009 3:15 PM EDT

As previously noted in the blog, the office supply sector of the retail industry has been hit hard by the recession and it's indicative of what retailers think is required to move shoppers that OfficeMax is selling back to school products for a penny.

But, even if has been forced to go back to Depression prices in the Great Recession, at least the company is doing it with modern flair.

During back to school, OfficeMax is featuring what it has dubbed Penny Offers each week. They include one item for one cent promotions as well as buy one, get one for one penny deals, with the whole program focusing on school supplies. Customers can find the penny specials in OfficeMax's circular advertisements and on a Back-to-School for Pennies web page. Recent offers at a penny each included those for 12-inch wood rulers, and basic and two prong folders.

While that might all seemed somewhat old fashioned, OfficeMax is supporting the program with a YouTube initiative. It should be noted that in last year's economically challenged back to school timeframe, the company also launched its cent promotion and managed to attract three million views to the supporting YouTube Penny Pranks series.

OfficeMax has added seven more Penny Prank episodes for 2009. The hidden camera shorts feature people trying to sell an eccentric millionaire expensive items, with payment coming in copper. Among the series episodes, a New York seller of antique buttons is convinced to eat home made jerky â€" he is initially reluctant â€" and shovel pennies into a bag as payment for a $5,000 purchase. The video's end comes with a pitch for OfficeMax one-cent products. The YouTube campaign is backed by two television and three radio ads that are running in major markets across the United States through the back-to-school season.

While OfficeMax clearly was happy enough with the penny campaign last year to bring it back, in a November 2008 conference call, as transcribed by SeekingAlpha, Sam Martin, executive vice president and coo, made it clear that the company couldn't buy its way out of a slumping economy a cent at a time when he said:

For the 2008 back-to-school season, which is always an aggressive pricing environment, we adjusted our advertising strategies to drive traffic in the stores without sacrificing overall gross margin levels, and we continue to rationalize and refine our marketing mix through various media, not just circular advertising. As anticipated, this was a weak back-to-school season with consumers continuing to be cautious. Competition, including discount stores, appeared to extend their back-to-school selling offering later than in prior years. Our same-store sales declined in the third quarter across all three major product categories: technology, which includes ink and toner, supplies, which include ImPress sales, and furniture. We experienced the weakest comps for more discretionary, higher-ticket items such as furniture and high-tech merchandise and our average ticket decreased. We also experienced an increase in cherry picking by customers who shopped only promotional items.