New Staples locations part of broad ServiceOntario review, minister says

TORONTO — A plan to move nine ServiceOntario outlets into Staples Canada stores is part of a broader push by the government to consider new locations for all of the stand−alone, privately run operations of the provincial provider, The Canadian Press has learned.

Todd McCarthy, the minister of public and business service delivery, is set to make an announcement Monday, but details provided to The Canadian Press in advance show a range of models the government is eyeing through pilot projects.

As contracts with the 134 remaining privately operated ServiceOntario locations approach expiry, the government will be reviewing them to determine if they should continue to operate in the same way, or if they should be closed and moved into retail outlets, libraries, or municipal offices, for example.

No changes are being contemplated for the more than 80 government−run ServiceOntario locations, and some of the stand−alone locations will continue to be part of the mix, McCarthy said in an interview.

"We have to look at Ontario, as a province of 15.4 million people, as a whole and how different the communities are ... It’s not one size fits all," he said.

Six of those stand−alone locations are being closed and moved into Staples Canada stores on Feb. 1, while three others are set to open later this year — plans that have already attracted considerable public attentionthrough reporting by CityNews.

The news outlet reported on a Staples job posting for a ServiceOntario regional services manager, which said successful applicants will be expected to "drive sales and profitability by converting ServiceOntario traffic."

McCarthy and officials said using Staples locations is partly about saving taxpayer money — a projected $900,000 over three years largely through not paying leasing costs. The three−year deal with Staples is worth $10.2 million for operating, labour and one−time retrofit costs.

The plan is also about increasing consumer convenience as the Staples outlets are open longer and on Saturdays, as well as offering shopping opportunities, McCarthy said.

"The issue here is the convenience of the customer, putting the customer first, the convenience of being able to shop while you’re waiting for your virtual place in line at your ServiceOntario ... while you shop at Staples and because they have a community presence, you can shop at other retail," he said.

"That’s what the customer expects in 2024. That’s the modern world. Long gone are the days when you go into some cathedral−type building to access government services and products, 8:30 to 4:30, Monday to Friday only."

CityNews also reported that the Staples deal was sole sourced, which officials confirmed, saying the project got an exemption to government procurement rules, partly due to time constraints. The ministry had been in discussions with about one dozen other retailers, they said, but no one else met all of the criteria such as "cost effectiveness" and "scalability."

Some of the private operators whose businesses are being closed told CityNews they were given 70 days notice.

Putting ServiceOntario locations into Staples stores — as well as some existing locations in Canadian Tire, Home Hardware and IDA stores — is one type of pilot project out of six models the government has in the works.

Ontario is looking at expanding the retail pilot project, including to other big box stores, officials said.

Three pilot locations in municipal government offices opened last year, as did one location with an Employment Ontario community hub, and a mobile location that operates in the Robinson−Huron treaty area. Another branch of the pilot project is partnering with First Nations, with one location opening in northern Ontario in 2022.

The sixth type of pilot project is to put ServiceOntario locations in public libraries, though none have yet been identified.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 28, 2024.

Allison Jones and Liam Casey, The Canadian Press

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