The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed and reshaped dynamics and practices across all industries, and the IDC is no exception. As we move tentatively into a post-pandemic world, a selection of office product dealers explain how they have weathered the storm thus far and are anticipating further shifts in the future.
By Lisa Veeck
“The silver lining of the pandemic was we had PPE, a great product category to sell,” says Jaret Lyons, vice president of sales and operations for Emerald Business Supply, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, summarizing the sentiments of most dealers. “It kept many of us open and allowed us to keep our employees. The downside is that we all would like COVID-19 to just go away.”
The good news nationwide is the number of severe COVID-19 cases has dropped considerably. The downside for dealers is that sales of PPE are also falling.
“We are still selling some PPE, but it’s dropped off,” reports Jordan Kudler, president and chief operating officer of Legacy Workplace Solutions, Brooklyn, New York. “I think people have stepped back to pre-COVID-19 behavior. They are not buying the large quantity of masks or the accelerated levels of disinfectant anymore.”
And according to Kudler, PPE isn’t the only category to see changing trends: “The work from home or hybrid model hasn’t affected what people are buying—just how much they are buying. However, there’s been an uptick in office purchases: many accounts are growing weary of reimbursing employees for the supplies. The companies would rather buy the supplies and have employees take what they need home from the office than buy them from Amazon or Staples and turn in receipts.” In fact, he reports, Legacy hasn’t made a home delivery in months.
Despite the welcome “uptick,” Kudler admits sales in most office-related categories have not yet returned to pre-COVID-19 levels: “People don’t buy cases of copy paper or ink cartridges for home use. They aren’t submitting vouchers to get reimbursed for toilet paper or cleaning products. They are grabbing pens and pads of paper from their kitchen drawers rather than ordering boxes of pens.”
These slumps have many dealers looking to fill the revenue gaps.
While some dealers are concentrating on offices reopening, FSIoffice, Charlotte, North Carolina, isn’t waiting.
“We are still in the hybrid mode of working from home, which has reduced spend on traditional office supplies,” says Kim Leazer, FSIoffice CEO. “We are looking to make some of that up through the breakroom. Employees get coffee at work, so they want it at home. The same with cleaning products. We are good at pivoting so we can deliver to homes. The drop in office supply sales is also being made up by furniture, which is huge; and by air purification systems. We also are getting into shipping supplies—we’ve always sold some, but it’s an area we have found we can grow. There are still a lot of people working from home since the pandemic, so more products have to be sent from one place to the next.”
Emerald is similarly focusing on “shipping and storage—corrugated boxes, tape, bubble wrap—which has grown substantially in the last 18 months,” says Lyons. “It is not a leading category yet, but we are looking into how to bolster inventory and get better pricing. One great thing about Emerald is we are always looking for opportunities to expand and grow. I might not have good answers today on new areas we might expand into; but tomorrow, it could be a topic that might take us hours to discuss. We are open to exploring any commodity that can be put in a truck and delivered.”
And that doesn’t necessarily mean an Emerald-owned truck. “A lot of companies and organizations are looking at new breakroom options to keep a foothold in the office,” explains Lyons. “S.P. Richards is our first-call wholesaler, but Essendant has partnered with a company called Green Rabbit. The company offers perishable and frozen food delivered in one to four business days—everything from fresh fruit and yogurt to frozen pizza and cheeseburgers. We don’t touch the order. Customers order through our website at an appropriate price and the order is delivered straight to them. Green Rabbit has been around for a while. We haven’t started pushing it, so we haven’t had a lot of sales in this category. But we are noticing more interest: more people are looking at it online.”
And breakroom isn’t the only category fueling growth. “The volume of furniture we are selling is three times what we were selling pre-COVID-19,” reports Sharon Reissman, furniture sales manager and co-owner of Maco Office Solutions, Union City, New Jersey. “It’s been a tremendous increase driven by government funding of the return to schools [after the pandemic shutdown]. It is also an environment demanding change. It used to be all the seats were in a row and all students had the same desk facing forward. Now, it is about giving students—and businesses—a chance to learn and work the way they do best—backward, forward, standing. Furniture plays a big role in the classroom and impacts mental health. Now, there’s a lot of color to stimulate the imagination and improve outcomes. We’ve come a long way in the last 100 years. It’s a great time to be in the industry.”
While Leazer agrees the furniture style in the education market has become more relaxed, she sees the trend in offices going in the opposite direction. “In the education market, we are seeing a little more coming together space; we are doing a large lecture hall at one university with smaller collaborative areas around it,” she says. “But before the pandemic, there was a lot more open office space and collaboration. There is still some, but the trend we are seeing is a return to cubicles and higher partitions rather than lower ones.”
Specializing in specialists
Two other areas Leazer sees as market-expanding opportunities for FSIoffice are facilities, including cleaning and breakroom, and print and promotions. But growth will depend on finding the right talent. “We hired our first specialist years ago—a woman who had a degree in records management—and she would do seminars for customers,” recalls Leazer. “Of course, there’s no focus on that now because of computers, so we retrained her for another area. But that alone brought us a five to eight percent increase in sales annually for several years. That experience showed us how important it is. Next, we hired a new product specialist who was good at pushing new products out, which gave us better margins. It took us four years to find Chris Goodman, our director of facility supplies. He’s great—a rainmaker. We are currently looking for a print and promotions specialist. We’ve been using specialists for 25 years and will continue to as we expand into other verticals. It’s brought us a big increase in business.”
While finding the right print and production expertise may take time, this doesn’t leave the category at a standstill in the meantime. “The plan until we find the specialist is to utilize our digital marketing and begin marketing items in that category in the fall,” explains Leazer. “We use digital tools to create customer profiles, track what they are buying and do target marketing.”
Words of wisdom
Our interviewees have some final suggestions for fellow dealers keen to broaden their horizons. “If you want to expand, commit to it,” urges Leazer. “Invest in the inventory and the training and hire a specialist. Business owners don’t have the time to do it all. Don’t deceive yourself.”
“I don’t have advice on getting business for dealers selling in Emerald’s territory,” laughs Lyons. But he does reveal: “At Emerald, we think investing in your people is important. Employees are our greatest asset because ultimately, people buy from people.”
Kudler agrees that people are key. “Focus on what you do best with a heightened level of attention on relationships and performance,” he advises. “The level of dissatisfaction with the big boxes is increasing. I regularly hear how customers are increasingly unhappy with the big boxes that, on a good day, provide sterilized customer relationships. Now, with all the labor shortages and supply issues, they are having trouble providing even that. There’s so much focus on how people buy, which can change. But in all these years, what hasn’t changed is that people expect to get what they want for a reasonable price within a reasonable timeframe. There’s a lot of discussion about which is better: inside or outside sales reps. Regardless of whether reps are in or out, what’s important is having a consistent relationship with reps who are knowledgeable about the products they are selling and about their customers’ specific needs. At Legacy, we focus on providing a heightened level of service. We try to review every online order. Customers are inputting orders—work we used to have to do. We figure the least we can do is give the orders extra attention to be sure our customers have ordered what they wanted correctly and we fill it right. We look for things that don’t make sense, such as if they order a legal-size file cabinet but 8½ x 11 file folders. Or we watch if they order an excessive amount of something that seems unusual, like 500 boxes of pens instead of their usual five. We try to catch it and follow up.”
Lisa Veeck is associate editor of INDEPENDENT DEALER and owner of Clean Communications, a full-service content-generating firm specializing in office products, cleaning and maintenance, and healthcare industries. She can be reached at email@example.com or 773-484-7412.