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OFFICE OUTFITTER : Personal Shopper for Small Businesses Even Stows the Stuff Away

Times Staff Writer

He’s busy, he’s affluent and for the last several years, he has hired a personal shopper to buy all those power ties and gifts that he just didn’t have time to get himself.

Now, our harried executive can have that cutting-edge convenience at the office, too.

Enter Michael Gamble, owner of Select Shopping Services, a not-so-personal shopper who makes his money buying all those nagging little office necessities such as copier paper, desk chairs, paper clips and java for the Mr. Coffee machine.

He picks them out and drops them off--for a fee, of course. After all, if the affluent professional is willing to pay someone to keep his refrigerator stocked at home, why shouldn’t there be someone to keep up the office?

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Industry experts contend that the office products business always has been long on service, with much of its sales done via telephone and delivery truck. But Gamble represents a new breed of office-supply entrepreneur, one who has cropped up in the last several years catering to customers’ wishes for convenience. He takes service seriously; if you order it from him, he’ll even put it away, something even high-end retailers rarely do.

10% Fee Over $400

Gamble plies his trade with a small staff from an office in Irvine’s Price Savers Wholesale Warehouse, selling the store’s inexpensive goods. He is merely a go-between, offering a service without running a store or owning inventory.

He charges a flat delivery rate of $23 for the first $100 in purchases, $28 for the first $200, $34 for $300 in purchases and $40 for $400. Over $400, customers are charged a delivery fee of 10% of their purchases.

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So far, he has about 400 regular clients and another 300 to 400 businesses that use his services occasionally. While Gamble’s clients range from a one-attorney, one-assistant law firm all the way up to ITT Corp., they generally are small to mid-sized firms of accountants, lawyers and developers.

And although he’s had orders ranging from $7 to $15,000, Gamble said, his average fee is about $31 and he does about 20 deliveries a day.

It’s a good business for Price Savers, too, because Gamble brings in customers who are not necessarily members of the warehouse outlet. They pick their supplies from Gamble’s catalogue of Price Savers merchandise; a new catalogue comes out quarterly and an update is printed monthly.

But he’s not the full equivalent of a personal shopper: If the pink, plastic half-inch paper clips you want aren’t in Price Savers’ catalogue, you’re out of luck. Gamble doesn’t buy from anyone else.

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Clients, so far, haven’t flinched at his fees.

“Our old office manager found out about them from someone and . . . our boss said it was a very minimal fee to have someone do the shopping for us instead of having two people out of the office for a few hours,” said Debbie Morello, who orders supplies monthly for Davis Developments in Newport Beach.

“They know our office real well,” Morello said. “They know exactly what to get for our office.”

Gamble didn’t start out as a go-between for the busy. He is a former salmon fisherman-turned-librarian, who got tired of his low-paying library job in the San Joaquin Valley.

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So he moved back to Orange County, where he had spent much of his life, and went into business dropping off laundry and picking up perishables for a price.

But when Gamble expanded his services to include shopping for business products and delivering to offices, he immediately was swamped with orders, he said. So he shifted his errand business from personal needs to business needs in November, 1986.

Growing Competition

Two months after Gamble went all-business, the Concord, Calif.-based Office Club opened its doors, with an all-office products warehouse and a small delivery service along the lines of Gamble’s. In its two years in business, the Office Club has grown to 16 stores--13 in California, including outlets in Santa Ana and downtown Los Angeles. The company also has one store each in Denver, Seattle and Portland, Ore.--and offers two tiers of service.

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For a basic annual fee of $10, club members can shop for themselves. For a $50 annual fee, businesses can order by phone.

And not to be left out, another chain, Price Club, opened its own pilot delivery service to businesses in a San Diego store six months ago.

To date, Office Club is the only company in Gamble’s Orange County territory, and so far, Gamble said, he hasn’t been given a run for his money.

“Orange County is so client-rich, and the warehouse companies know it,” Gamble said. “But so far, they haven’t made a real dent in our business.”

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