Staples Aims to Make Home Automation Easy
A few weeks ago, Staples introduced a new collection of consumer electronics products in an entirely new product segment for them—home automation. Over the U.S. Thanksgiving weekend, Staples launched its entry into the connected home space, Staples Connect. That’s right…Staples has beat Best Buy and every other major retailer to the punch by creating its own ecosystem of hand-picked connected home control devices that are all pulled together through an inexpensive, Staples-branded hub and app.
The idea behind Staples Connect is to extend Staples’ theme of making things easy to the connected home. Sure, there are lots of home control devices on the market, but there’s a lot of confusion out there, too. Staples aims to make a splash in this space by eliminating the confusion and providing customers with a full offering of easy-to-use products that are all designed to work together. Their strategy even includes available services for on-site installation and setup.
Devices in the Staples Connect family include lighting controls from GE and Lutron, Philips hue multi-color LED light bulbs, the Doorbot connected door bell, the ivee alarm clock, Serena shades, and numerous other sensors, cameras, locks, and thermostats.
Most of these devices are either Z-wave or IP-based, but you can’t just go plugging any Z-wave device into this network. Staples’ devices are hand-picked and tested to ensure complete compatibility. Of significant note is the support for Lutron’s Serena shades. Staples currently has the only third-party control integration capabilities for these inexpensive automated shades, otherwise only controllable through IR or Lutron’s own RF-based Pico remote.
Staples’ solution is tied together with a surprisingly inexpensive hardware hub, built by Linksys and sold for just $99. At that price, it pretty much comes in as the least expensive control appliance available today. The hub is sold independently or in a variety of kits. To control everything you need to download the free Staples Connect app for iOS or Android phones and tablets.
Where can you find Staples Connect? Well don’t go running out to your local Staples just yet. You can go online and browse their vast collection of connected devices, but the descriptions are limited, and let’s face it—you’re going to want to get your hands on this stuff. You can do just that…but only at a limited thirty-some Staples stores for now.
The in-store display is impressive, and we had an opportunity over the U.S. Thanksgiving weekend to see one in person in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The Staples Connect section takes up about two-thirds of an aisle with 12 linear feet of shelf space. It’s something of a spectacle with hi-tech blue lighting, and products are out and available for customers to see, including a live demo of the Staples Connect app. These aren’t plastic product mock-ups (like nearly everything in their phone section); these are real products.
Testing it out
We acquired the Starter Kit, which included the hub and a GE plug-in appliance module [unboxing pictures available on our Google+ page]. Setup was pretty easy and went as we’d expect. You just plug in the hub and connect it to your router via Ethernet. When you install the Connect app, you need to create an account. The app lets you manage and control your devices, but you need to turn to your tablet or desktop browser to add most devices. This wouldn’t seem all that unusual except that the configuration pages and views also seem to be designed for mobile—it’s possible they just haven’t integrated them into the app yet.
And here’s where it all starts to fall apart—with the software, powered by Zonoff. Device controls are all over the place, workflows are convoluted, and the app’s home page seems like it was designed by the Marketing department…who really wants you to know about all of the different types of devices you can control with Staples Connect. Actually controlling something is five items down on the home page. And there’s nowhere in the app that we could find where you can just list all your devices and control them from there.
Every action seems to take just one or two too many taps, and standard maintenance activities seem backwards. To change the name of a room, you go to a list rooms, then choose a function like Remove or Rename, and then select the item to which it applies. Device managements is equally convoluted, and it’s all topped off with some strange page navigation, where the Back button sits as the bottom of most views.
Summing it up
All in all, Staples’s push into the home automation segment is largely unexpected and impressive. They’ve created a curated ecosystem of devices at reasonable prices that are all designed to work together, and they’ve managed to jump into the game before most of the other major brick and mortar retailers, including (perhaps most notably) Best Buy. Even those stores that are offering some home control technologies, like Lowes and Home Depot, haven’t presented anything as comprehensive or cohesive as Staples.
Even with all of our complaints about the software impeding overall experience, the good news is that it is software—so it can and will get better over time. If you’re looking to integrate some connected devices in your home, Staples may just have the right solution for you. And once it comes to a Staples near you, it may be the only store where you can see and play with such a wide variety of home control products.