As independent dealers move into the new decade, education sales offer an excellent growth opportunity. Classrooms have remained unchanged for most of the past century, but new takes on classroom organization open a world of possibilities. What some refer to as the Classroom in Motion offers a radically different look from desks lined up in rows. “It creates a learning environment that is reconfigurable, that’s mobile and that inspires creativity,” says Jamin Trowbridge, vice president, furniture and design, at Palace Business Solutions, Santa Cruz, California. “Almost every classroom has the opportunity to be reset in this way.”
No matter where a dealer might be located, from major metro areas to rural markets, selling to schools can be a viable approach to garner more business. “Our city is about 100,000 with a school district of about 13,000 students,” says Dick Wilson, vice president, Wilson Office Supply, Wichita Falls, Texas. He adds that the dealership also sells to another ten smaller independent school districts within a 50-mile radius. “We don’t do anything particularly special,” he says. “A couple of them are on TIPS pricing that we get through ISG, but the majority comes from good-old relationship selling.”
Two outside salespeople call on every one of those districts. “We try and have good relationships with the superintendent of each district and with the principal and secretary in every school,” says Wilson. “That promotes quite a bit of loyalty; when needs pop up, we’re the first ones on their radar.” Four or five of the districts provide steady business, while the remainder of the smaller school districts are hit or miss.
The average school district has something like 15 different schools as well as a district office, a maintenance facility and possibly an alternative special education facility. “All of these people have different needs,” says Trowbridge. “You have to be agile to adapt and provide next-day supplies or furniture for ever changing environments because different sites cater to a different type of person.”
Form lasting relationships
The most important position for a dealer to take when it comes to education sales is to maintain relationships and get to know specific public school teachers. “Typically someone’s support person will do the ordering, but if you get information to teachers, they’ll see what we offer and that opens up possibilities,” says Mac Neilon, owner of Penn Office Products, West Chester, Pennsylvania. “We try to dig down below the administration to who’s behind them.”
Education sales differ from everyday commercial sales in a number of important ways, yet they still share some characteristics. “Teachers have a different mindset than corporate customers,” says Wendy Pike, president, Twist Office Partners, Wood Dale, Illinois. Just like commercial accounts education customers focus on the bottom line, but that’s probably where the comparison ends.
“Teachers are far more creative,” says Pike. “You can show them unique products and how they will work with their classroom.” Teachers are always interested in new products and opportunities that could help them teach better or facilitate learning. Additionally, she says that people in education positions tend to stay there longer than employees in the corporate world. “You don’t see new buyers coming in as often,” she says.
Twist has education customers in all of its markets—Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Wisconsin. “You foster those relationships as they seem to be longer lasting that some of our corporate customers,” says Pike. Relationships continue to be important in all sectors, but she feels that some of those connections are being lost in the business world.
Wilson agrees that longer lasting relationships are harder to maintain in the commercial world. “It seems like schools remain relatively constant with their people,” he says. “Schools are pretty steady with the people we know, whereas other business tend to be a little more turnover oriented.”
Find the decider
The decision-making process is distinctly different in the education world. More layers of personnel have to be dealt with to reach the decision maker, suggests Mark Porter, president, Porter’s Office Products, Rexburg, Idaho. “So it takes a little longer to make sure we get to the right person and all the different approvals get signed off,” he says.
Porter’s is placing a greater emphasis on education sales this year, citing reduced competition due to issues faced by its main competitor. “When I talk with other dealers they can’t believe the high prices School Specialty charges on non-bid items,” he says. The fact that Porter’s largest competitor for school sales isn’t competitive on daily transactional business creates an opportunity. “It’s really going to be a focus for us this year,” he adds. Just like any commercial customer, schools want to maximize their budgets and minimize their spend. “They’re definitely price conscious but they also want service,” Porter contends.
The school business at Palace started at the beginning of this century with just one district. Up until then, districts maintained their own warehouses, but Gary Trowbridge, CEO, saw that was about to change. Palace won the bid from the largest school district in its market and quickly added school supplies to the contract.
The just-in-time ordering capability that Palace offered was used repeatedly over the years as one school district after another was added to the customer mix. “With anywhere from 10 to 50 schools per district wanting next-day delivery; the nationals can’t really offer that level of service,” says Gary Trowbridge. Today, the school market comprises roughly 100 districts and 1,000 schools and represents more than 50 percent of the business at Palace.
When you sell to schools, he says, for the most part you get one shot and that comes July 1. “Some dealers might find that discouraging because you usually start calling these schools in January,” he says. You work on the relationship and put in a bid and then it gets awarded in April or May. “The good news is now you know exactly what’s coming to you typically for the next three to five years.”
Another difference from the everyday commercial market is that there tends to be less competition selling to schools. “You have multiple people online from Amazon, Staples and Office Depot to another dozen online sellers of office products,” says Gary Trowbridge. Because the school market is more specialized there are really only two competitors—Staples and Depot. “Really, it comes down to the fact I have fewer competitors when I sell to schools with a just-in-time program,” he says.
Schools also tend to purchase more C, D and E items, adds Wilson. Recently a microwave oven was purchased by a school. “Who in the world buys a microwave from an office products company?” he asks. Schools often will order the odd items that other customers might go to the dollar store to purchase. “They are obligated to go through the purchase order process and it is just easier for them to order that stuff from me.”
Earn community recognition
FSIoffice, Charlotte, holds state contracts with North and South Carolina. The dealership also holds an NCPA contract, which some school districts choose to use. The contracts on their own don’t produce any sales and FSI works within the different school communities to gain recognition. “We’ve participated in drives for schools that needed supplies,” says Kim Leazer, CEO. “We’ve hosted events with the schools and Junior Achievement.” Students toured the FSI facility and heard employees talk about different jobs and the skills that are needed.”
Such activities help build name recognition in the education community. “We’re genuinely concerned about education and about the teachers,” says Leazer. “We know that it’s a tough job and we want teachers to know that we support them.” These efforts contribute to increased sales but there is much more to the motivation. “Our future as a company depends on students doing well and moving forward so the work pool that we pull from is equipped,” says Leazer.
The standout program at FSI is the dealership’s Teacher of the Week effort that runs in conjunction with the Carolina Panthers. The program has run during the NFL football season for the past ten years. “Our investment in the program has been significant over the that period,” said Leazer. Over that time she has seen the percentage of education sales increase in both states. “At this point we probably have maybe 65 percent of the total market in the two states,” she maintains.
Leazer considers another difference from the majority of commercial accounts is the need for secure deliveries. Security is important on K-12 campuses as well as with higher education customers. “Having a company’s own badged and background-screened drivers is preferred to delivery by courier where they don’t get the same people,” says Leazer.
Specialist drives sales
At Office Essentials, St. Louis, Missouri, the K-12 market represents roughly ten percent of total sales. School sales have been growing since a K-12 specialist came on board in 2017. “The last couple of years growth has been driven by our education furniture offering and program,” says Anne Farrow, product category manager for the education market. Farrow works as a consultant with the schools, learns about new teaching method and transforms that into flexible, collaborative classrooms.
Farrow joined Office Essentials after a stint selling for School Specialty. When she joined the dealership an analysis showed that it was selling office products to schools and furniture to the administrations. “The reason I was hired was to sell past the front office,” she says. Since coming on board, multiple building projects have been completed with new education furniture vendors.
She suggests that most furniture sales take place outside the bid process. “You need to get to know each school, know the buildings and then become a consultant to help them get to know the furniture products you offer that can transform their school,” she says. Many school fronts are being remodeled to incorporate more secure entrances. When that happens, the front office is frequently redesigned and new furniture is required.
Increased emphasis on education furniture has led Office Essentials to offer a greater selection of it in an effort to become more competitive on transactional sales. “We have to expand our offering to compete with online retailers,” say Farrow. “The biggest things people are looking for in classroom furniture today is flexibility and storage.” She points to furniture makers that have expanded their education offerings such as Safco and HON.
A lot of school districts give schools and their teachers latitude to buy, and they usually end up on the internet. “When somebody wants 25 student chairs and eight flip-and-nest tables, they can point and click and find those on our website,” says Farrow. “That frees us up to do larger projects when there is a school remodel or a new building is going up.”
Market for art supplies
With the competition in the education sector, Farrow says it’s difficult to imagine that independents could win more than 50 percent of any school’s business. “Most independents aren’t strong in art supplies which is a really big spend in school districts, especially K-6,” she says. There is a good amount spent on construction paper, crayons, glue and paints (both tempera and water colors) along with more specialized art products for high schools. “We don’t have great sources for a lot of that.”
A variety of specialty products used by K-6 students offer opportunities for increased education sales. “We have gotten into elementary school-specific products in the past six or seven years,” says Neilon. The elementary grades use a variety of art products. “S.P. Richards stocks these items and gets them to me really quick, so that’s a new market.”
“When you’re selling to K through sixth grade you need more than office products,” says Gary Trowbridge. “You need a strong offering of school and art supplies.” To service this market, Palace purchases direct about half of what is sold to schools. To be effective on the sales side it’s a requirement that salespeople become familiar with these products. “You have to know the grades of construction paper, brushes, crayons and tempera paints. You have to become a bit of an expert in the category,” he says.
Selling to higher ed
Opportunities for education sales also exist in higher education and can often be found within a dealer’s local market. That’s the case with Penn Office Products, which is based in the same town as West Chester University, part of the state higher education system. “The university is a big part of our town,” says Neilon.
Selling to the University presents a different approach than selling to schools. Every department does its own purchasing. “West Chester University has about 150 departments and we dig in and get to know each department’s contact person,” says Neilon. The big boxes don’t have the time or personnel to do that. “Obviously departments can go online and order from anyone, but the drawback is online sources don’t have the know-how and expertise to offer the same level of service,” he adds.
Since the end of last summer FSIoffice has onboarded five colleges. “We have always done well with colleges and universities, but our success in that market has picked up,” says Leazer. The colleges had overspent and were instructed to check with the state contracted vendor. “They contacted us and asked if they could become customers. The biggest difference selling to colleges and universities has to do with distribution,” says Leazer. ”Higher education operates more like a large corporation,” she adds. Lots of end users place their own orders and everything is delivered to them at their desks.
Porter’s does a good deal of business with its state university. “Steelcase has a contract with our state and that has really helped us get into that world of higher education,” says Porter. The extensive design and furniture consultation capabilities that the dealership offers have proven to be the needed ingredient to propel strong sales. “We’ve done classrooms, large common areas and cafeterias,” says Porter. “The expertise to show them different options to meet their needs has been successful for us.”
Contracts sometime facilitate sales but not always. “The contract isn’t binding so if they need something in an emergency they call me,” says Neilon. He suggests the reason schools make purchases from Office Depot is primarily based on price. “We got a lot of orders from the school district based on our ability to provide service, particularly with furniture,” he says. “Our knowledge and expertise in furniture can’t be found in a call center.”
To find success with school sales, Neilon suggests that education customers be made aware that while some big box items might be cheaper they shouldn’t expect every price to be the lowest. “We emphasize a local connection,” he says. “Being local, we get to know people and develop relationships. It resonates to a point, particularly with furniture, because they know we can provide service.”
Competition for education sales at Twist has found new life now that School Specialty has problems. “Our big competitor in the school market is now Office Depot with the perception that they’re the lowest cost,” says Pike. She says the response is to show that Twist is local and supports the schools. “We customize our programs and work with the schools to provide what they need.”
Leazer believes that Staples and Office Depot hold on to some of their school business because certain customers like to shop in stores. She suggests that’s starting to change as fewer workers today want to leave work and do that. “Typically an independent dealer is strong in their local community and has relationships with the school systems,” says Leazer. That local positioning often trumps any big box offers.
How to grow school sales
Opportunities for growth in the education market generally means selling more than office supplies and school supplies. At Palace, the next big opportunity is to sell janitorial supplies. Gary Trowbridge says that janitorial supplies can be offered for just-in-time delivery. “Schools are a big market for anything imprinted but that is probably down the road for us,” he adds. Essendant might be rolling out a program for that sometime this year, but right now the focus is to get janitorial supplies into every school.
At FSIoffice janitorial sales to schools has been a focus for the past two years and the dealership has seen sales increase in that time by as much as 50 percent. “If we could penetrate just the education accounts we currently have with facility products our sales would probably double,” says Leazer.
To further grow education sales, Farrow of Office Essentials suggests that dealers look for other pockets of funding that aren’t directed by purchasing. “There’s a lot of federal grant money spent on early education,” she says. Also take a look a summer school programs. There is both federal money and district money that is spent on summer school. “If you can find that summer school director you can get a pretty nice order for a one-time spend,” she adds.
Many schools are enlarging their media centers and Office Essentials finds that flexible tables and soft seating are part of the mix. “That’s another area where there could be flexible spending because a lot of parent teacher organization raise money for the media specialists—or librarians as they used to be called,” says Farrow. “You have to dive deep into the districts to be successful.”
“To find success in education sales start working the relationship and go in with the expectation that the sales cycle is probably going to take 12 to 18 months,” says Porter. Then, he says, instead of going after bids, focus on the daily transactional business to build relationships. “You can make decent margins and still blow the competition out of the water in terms of what schools currently pay,” he says.