Ask Unclutterer: Organizing an office supply closet

Reader Debbie submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

We have a large storage cabinet and some shelves at my work office that have now become mine to organize. The cabinet is full of small cardboard boxes full of all types of supplies – tape, staples, computer pieces, pens, markers, hanging folders, envelopes, you name it. Lots of small items. I’m looking for some type of storage dividers/ container that will make this stuff more visible and reachable.

Is it weird that I am incredibly excited for you? I’m even a little envious. I love organizing supply closets. You’ve been given a really great project, in my opinion.

Are you familiar with the company (Beware: There is a talking guy who appears when you follow that link. He only talks for 30 seconds, though, and you can easily pause him.) Despite the talking ad, this company has a lot of reasonably priced office storage products you might want to consider. There are numerous office supply companies out there that carry similar items, so you can check with your purchasing agent at work to see if the company you use most often has the same items.

Since you already have a cabinet and shelving, I recommend checking out the bin kits or their individual bins if none of the kits exactly meet your needs. The bins come in all different sizes and are formed in a way so you can easily see and access the product stored inside:

The plastic bins are nice because you can insert dividers and bin cups into them (neither the dividers or cups appear on their website, but they’re available through their catalog). The bins are also stackable, so you don’t waste any vertical space. You can easily label them, too.

Stores like The Container Store are really terrific, and carry similar bins, but they price even their smallest ones at a few dollars a piece. Ordering multiple bins from an office supplier is the less expensive way to go, where the smallest ones come out to being less than a dollar a piece. Which, at least in my opinion, makes the office supply companies the better option in this situation.

As you’re organizing the items in the closet, try to put the supplies accessed most often on the shelves that fall between you knees and your chin. Otherwise, you’ll constantly be bending over or reaching above your head to straighten and replenish these materials.

Thank you, Debbie, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope these bins and tips can work for you.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

16 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Organizing an office supply closet”

  1. posted by wch on

    There was a reason my grandfather screwed jelly jar lids to the ceiling near his workbench in his basement: he wanted to store in the jelly jars small items like nuts, bolts, nails, etc., that could be seen, and stored up out of the way from other shelves. I imagine something like an upside-down lazy susan setup mounted to the underside of a shelf would win you plaudits. Use google images to search for jelly jar storage workbench, you’ll see what I mean.

  2. posted by Dawn F on

    What about putting loose pens, markers, pencils, etc. in mugs, cups or small vases (all matching, of course)?

    Perhaps you could put loose paperclips, push pins, rubber bands, etc. in big clear glass jars with screw-on lids?

    Erin’s suggestion of the stackable bins is a great idea, too (and safer than my ideas).

    Whatever you do, make it fun and colorful!

    Whatever you choose, I would label the containers and/or the shelf so that when people take a few things down they put them back in the correct place and/or the items run out you can easily see where things go when the new shipment arrives.


  3. posted by Ash on

    Do you have any suggestions for people with serious allergies? I’m very allergic to dust and it’s been my experience that these little cubbies get dusty very quickly. Right now I have several plastic containers with lids but they’re not user friendly.

  4. posted by Heather on

    @Ash, I also suffer from dust allergies and find that the most effective way to combat dust is to minimize exposed surface area that needs to be dusted regularly (thereby flinging dust into the air and making me sneeze). A cabinet with doors that close is ideal, but an affordable alternative is clear plastic Sterilite stackable drawers. I use them on my desk to hold frequently-used computer cables and small office supplies. They come in various sizes and you might find a bargain on them at Big Lots or a dollar store. For heavy things like paper, don’t bother with the larger cart-size versions that wheel around; the plastic wheels will collapse under anything heavier than yarn and quilting scraps.;section=1

  5. posted by JustGail on

    Another source for these type of cubbies is hardware stores and automotive supply catalogs. They usually have sorters intended for holding parts. I don’t know how they compare price-wise to office supply sources, but they *may* be a bit heavier duty.

    As far as dust, the only thing I can think of is if the bins are in a cabinet that closes. Or use those plastic drawers with dividers to keep them organized. I too look forward to seeing what others come up with. Not that I’m allergic to dust, but I do get tired of cleaning things like this out.

  6. posted by chacha1 on

    As a former office manager …

    The best way to keep office supplies clean (and more or less dust-free) is to keep them in original packaging. Once you empty pens out of their box into a bin or jar, every single pen gets handled every time someone goes to get one, and the bottom of the bin is guaranteed to collect dust, and the only way to clean it out is to dump the pens (or whatever) into yet another container temporarily.

    Use bins, by all means, but keep the pens, clips, rubber bands etc in their boxes!

    And get a small handheld vacuum for the supply room, and appoint a person to use it weekly. Commercial cleaning crews don’t do areas like that.

  7. posted by Wanda on

    I use 6qt (shoebox size) Sterilite with lids, grouping like items together. Label the outside of the box, stacking heavier boxes/less used items on the bottom. This also limits how many I can order of each item. I agree with chacha1 about keeping items in their original packaging. That way I mark the arrival dates on the package to keep track of how often we are ordering/using/rotating.

  8. posted by WilliamB on

    A few more words of advice, in addition to chacha 1’s excellent comments.

    1. If you want others to help keep the space organized, give some thought to how to make it easy for them. Labeling everything is a good start, otherwise they may guess wrong (or be stupid about) where to put something.

    2. Consider putting out a box for things people return and don’t put away. The upside is it’s easier for you to put things where they go, and stock won’t be in the wrong place. The downside is fewer people will put things away themselves.

    3. Try to get as few different items as possible. This means you and your office-mates have fewer different items to sort and keep tidy. In my experience the worst offenders here are file folders – manila or colored, 3 tab or 5 tab, what color labels, flimsy or sturdy, … It was a nightmare. And there was a disproportionate demand for left-tabbed folders. I met some of the demand by folding right-tabbed inside out, but there were always a ton of middle-tabbed left over. So wasteful.

    4. Don’t stack different items on top of each other, such as small pads on top of big ones. Doing so guarantees that people will pull stuff from the bottom of the pile and disorganize your work. If you need to put things vertically, use stacked shelves or something similar. Even stacked inboxes will help.

    Good luck. There’s a weird, dare I say almost sick?, pleasure from doing this sort of job right.

  9. posted by Susan in Florida on

    1. Inventory everything you currently have in storage. Be exact; i.e. 1 box red fine tip pens, 5 boxes yellow pentel highlighters, 2 boxes blue medium tip pens, etc.

    2. Review all the previous office supply purchase orders you can find to track usage of the various supplies on the inventory list.

    3. Circulate a listing of offfice supplies on hand to all employees, asking them to place a check next to items that they use and to add items to the list that they would like to use.

    4. Circulate a list of items that no one uses stating that these supplies will no longer be stocked. Box those items up and keep them for a period of time (6 months?) before donating to charity. You’ll probably never use those dot matrix printer labels again but you might think of another use for them.

    5. Decide how many of each item you want to keep on hand. Keep in mind that most office supply orders can be delivered the same or the next day.

    6. Perform an inventory often at first to gauge how quickly items are being used. Re-order when supply of a particular item is getting low.

    7. When possible store inventory where it is being used. Store boxes of copy paper in a neat stack next to the copier instead of the supply cabinet.

    8. If certain expensive items seem to just disappear, keep those items locked up in your desk so that employees have to ask for them.

    Hope this helps

  10. posted by Michele on

    I agree with @chacha1. When I was a secretary, I found that it would go a long way toward organizing a supply room when I would (1) consolidate the 49875 half-empty boxes, packages, and bags of various supplies into 1 box, package, or bag of each supply; and (2) label everything very clearly with a dark marker.

    In on office where I worked, we were on a very tight budget. It saved us a lot of money for me to use the original packaging, rather than ordering a shelving and organization system. (The other office was a large institution where the budget wasn’t a huge deal, but the money-saving effort was still appreciated.)

    The final key is maintenance. I figured it was my job, as the secretary, to maintain the supply room’s organization. Yes, it was irritating when an executive came in and did something like opening a new package of subject dividers when there was already an open box on the shelf. But I decided that if the executive would rather pay me for cleaning up their mess, rather than typing their letters and answering their phone, then that’s what I would do. So I would go in once a week or so and do a serious clean up, and try to give it a 20-second tidy whenever I had to go in to fetch something for myself.

  11. posted by Jo on

    I am an administrative assistant at a school and one of my duties is to take care of the large inventory of supplies needed. Because all school’s are on a limited budget, I found the easiest way to keep supplies corraled was to have them put into inexpensive Sterilite shoeboxes also. The items have a label on both ends of the boxes (label always shows that way). The boxes are put on the shelf alphabetically with the shelf area marked with a label also so you know if a box is missing. Having a clear container also makes it easy to check inventory to see if you are needing to order more of that item.

  12. posted by Debbie V. on

    Wow – what great suggestions. It’s great to hear from those of you who are already maintaining these kinds of storage shelves – nice to hear what works 🙂

  13. posted by Katha on

    For maintaining the order, once you have established it:

    You can hotograph the shelves when they are exactly as you would like them to look always, and tape the photos besides the storage area. (No fancy glossy paper needed, just a color printout will do).

    Where I work, we have these photos inside the kitchen cabinets, and it really helps (somewhat…).

  14. posted by cammy on

    The more difficult it is to get something or put it back in the right place, the less of a chance there is that the closet will stay neat.

    Lidded containers may help with dust, but they will frustrate the people trying to get supplies in a hurry. All it takes is one person who needs a red pen Right Now! to destroy an entire shelf of neatly organized supplies. You want to remove lids as much as possible. You want to make things easy to grab off the shelf or out of the container without having to move the container off the shelf or open a lid. If lids aren’t attached to the container, they will end up all over the place.

    A lot of your choices will depend on what your primary goal is–making things accessible, keeping the closet looking neat and pretty or keeping down the dust.

    Label everything. The shelf where the pen bin goes as well as the the pen bin itself.

    Keep things in original containers, but rip off tops or flaps to make getting things out of the containers easier.

    Expect to spend about half an hour a week tidying and reorganizing the closet.

    If you are in charge of making sure that any forms are in constant supply, get some differently colored paper and print “Customer Order Form–Please give this page to Debbie” on it. Then put that piece of paper about 20 pages from the bottom of the stack. Co-workers should be able to handle putting that paper on your desk or in your mailbox, and you will have a reminder that you need to run off more copies of the form, before you run out and it becomes a crisis situation.

  15. posted by Debbie Hall on

    I recently did the same for my office, and Office Depot had these bins that really helped:

  16. posted by Melanie on

    My best advice is to be sure to group like things together. Have a separate shelf – or are of a shelf – for a) sticky things (tapes, glues, waxes, etc.), b) writing instruments, c) labels, d) binding things (paper clips, staples, binder clips, string, rubber bands, etc.)

    This made it easy to just go to that portion of the shelf to see what is available. Even if your exact item is not there, it is easy to find something that will work because you are looking at items that all have the same function.

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