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The health and wellness category is gaining traction. Products are in demand and employers appreciate the positive impact they can have on employee attitudes and productivity.

What defines products in the health and wellness category isn’t as straightforward as it first appears. Sit-stand desks and their permutations are solidly established, as is ergonomic seating. Then what about monitor arms and day-light task lighting? Do you also include healthy snacks, first-aid supplies or the cabinets and shelf units that hold them?

The health and wellness category, if “category” is the right designation, has many different components. “There’s the break room aspect of it, there’s the ergonomic and furniture aspect of it and then there is the hygiene aspect,” says Margee Witt, chief executive officer at Blaisdell’s Business Products, Oakland, California. She adds that it all depends on what the customer is looking for and then pointing them in the right direction.

Health and wellness products and services tend to provide solutions. A customer wants to create a healthier environment for employees and comes to your dealership for help. At this point you have a choice: start talking about products and features or continue asking questions. The first option puts you on a competitive track where you have to price your products as commodities. The second approach offers the opportunity to avoid a race to the bottom on pricing.

“Selling health and wellness isn’t a commodity, it’s a service,” says Bill Strait, sales manager at Wist Office Products, Phoenix. “We’re offering a solution to a problem.” Being able to offer health and safety solutions enhances Wist’s ability to respond to customer needs. Strait says when the dealership was out selling aspirin and bandages they were considered transactional purchases. One trip in the field with Acme United dispelled this idea.

“You open a prospect’s cabinet and see they have 12 different bandages and 12 different types of aspirin and how it is unorganized and a mess,” says Strait. This knowledge only comes from spending time with experts but once it is gained it can be taken to the field repeatedly. “You can confidently have that conversation with the customer and they see it for themselves.”

Vendors regularly visit Wist, and it is an asset that Strait returns to over and over. “We learn by participating,” he says. “When they are in town we have them participate in field work with our representatives.” He suggests that dealers work with their wholesaler to set up vendor meetings and field work. “Open up the communications between those individuals and your team and stay the course.”

“We lean heavily on manufacturers and their reps for support materials and sample products,” says Cody Durbin, sales and business development manager at GBP Direct in Kenner, Louisiana. “Manufacturers who visit the dealership will demonstrate their products so salespeople can see and feel how they work. Vendors also produce training videos which demonstrate how products work.”

Health and safety lends itself perfectly to consultative selling. Rather than meet with the office products buyer, typically salespeople from GBP Direct will speak with a corporate decision maker, facility manager or—in some larger plants—with an ergonomist.

A different sales approach

“We work with someone on the corporate side to discuss adding health and wellness products,” says Durbin. The difference with office supplies is that there’s no emotional attachment to the purchase because those items are viewed more as consumables, he says. “Whereas when you talk to the person who wants to bring health and wellness products into their office, they’re more emotionally invested and work closely with their sales rep throughout the process to specify those items for their employees.”

Once you understand customers’ long range goals you have a different answer when they ask if you sell sit-stand desks. “It’s a mistake to say yes we do and go right into products and features,” says Dave Sauter, president, Workscape Inc., Pittsburgh. Instead ask why they are asking. Once you understand why they want what they want, this helps you position it and gets away from selling based solely on price.

“If all you do is spew features and benefits at a price, they can do that more efficiently online,” says Sauter. “But if you can relate to them and say you understand their problem and speak their language, now you become a partner.”

Health and wellness first appeared as a category with the need to enhance acoustical privacy and improve the indoor workspace. “Twenty years ago everyone was moving to cubicles and everyone complained about the stress and the noise,” says Sauter. The choice was to become part of the problem or part of the solution. “So we became heavily involved in sound masking and speech privacy,” he says. “That issue has never gone away, but the real push for healthier spaces has been in place for the last five or six years.”

At Arctic Office Products, Anchorage, Alaska, the push for health and wellness was actually generated by customer demands. “More people were having health issues that may have been related to the work environment,” says Mari Wood, senior vice president. The dealership initially offered ergonomic assessments using a prepared form generated by Fellowes. “We started with the usual wrist rests, ergonomic keyboards and glare screens. Then we branched out and picked up sit-stands, which were really important.”

Based in Anchorage, resupply tends to take 30 days for the dealership, that’s why Arctic holds an extensive inventory. Customers were already aware of the Varidesk sit-stand desk, the only problem was shipping the desk to Alaska cost almost as much the desk. “We negotiated with Varidesk, and we now buy them by the trailer load, bring them up here and get a decent price for them,” says Wood.

Anchorage sells a variety of sit-stand options and has received training from Ergotron and Humanscale. “We have featured a number of our sit-stand items on our Facebook page,” says Wood. Varidesk is probably the best known product, so Anchorage features it on its sales flyers to bring in buyers. “The new Levado sit-stand tables from Fellowes can be assembled in about 10 minutes and they are a piece of cake to ship to rural Alaska,” adds Wood.

Ergonomics leads the way

When Cody Ables first started to work in the industry at Ables-Land Inc. discussions were all about ergonomics for chairs and keyboards. “As a Herman Miller dealer we have always focused on ergonomics and trying to make the customer comfortable in their environment,” says Ables, vice president/furniture.

Sit-stand has been a strong seller at Ables-Land for the past six or seven years, he reports. The market is inundated with units and he suggests buyers be careful when picking a unit—the tradeoff, as always, comes down to a question of cost versus quality.

Ables-Land recently completed an installation of traditional furniture that went into a surveying company. “They told us they needed big work surfaces to put plans on but they also needed a way for their workers to stand up,” he says. The client ended up adding sit-stand to almost every workstation.

At Blaisdell’s, health and wellness-related activity was generated primarily by customer requests. “We had a lot of initial requests and conversations with our customers about ergonomic products and ergonomic solutions,” says Witt. Based in California, where office ergonomics is paramount, requests for health and wellness products would come in along with requests for ergonomic evaluations.

“If there’s a worker’s comp issue, we recommend that they contact an ergonomist,” says Witt. The ergonomist works with Blaisdell’s in terms of recommended products that are then procured for the customer. “Our sales team knows how to do basic ergonomic evaluations so we can make sure the customer has all they need for a good ergonomic workplace.”

Beyond ergonomics there are a variety of healthy approaches that interest customers. “Our salespeople inform new and existing customers about the variety of product that we can provide,” says Witt. Breakroom products are always included in any health discussion. “We provide a lot of healthy alternatives for the breakroom including fresh fruit, fresh vegetables and dairy,” she adds.

While much of the country experienced extremely hot temperatures recently, in Mesa, temperatures regularly go over 100 this time of year. Employers need to have water stations and Wist offers solutions. “We installed 40 point-of-use cold-water coolers for a large electronics company,” says Strait. The coolers were a new product for the dealership but one that is certain to find more customers.

Sit-stand takes off

The health and wellness category is pretty much anchored by the whole sit-stand offering of workstations which includes everything from desktop attachments to fully automated worksurfaces that go up and down. The latest entries have a look reminiscent of more traditional casegoods.

“In the last four or five years sit-stand desks have gone off the charts,” says Sauter. The products show up in virtually every office and result in happier employees and a workspace that shows much better. “When a millennial walks into an older, poorly designed space, they can’t see themselves working there,” he says. Add sit-stand workstations to the setting and the vision problem goes away. “Millennials can envision themselves working in that space.”

It used to be that workstations were fairly straightforward, then sit-stand came along and stood that on its head. “Today, something like 70 percent of all workstations that we sell have a sit-stand capability,” Sauter says. Workscape regularly specs sit-stand tables from Right Angle that it purchases through its membership in the IS Contract program Connexions. “With the Connexions group of manufacturers we can offer a wide range of options for our customers without breaking the bank,” says Sauter.

“Sometimes upper management doesn’t understand that you can impact productivity by making sure that employees are comfortable and feel that management cares about their well-being,” says Wood. In those situations there’s usually someone in management who wants to know what the ROI will be from an investment in health and wellness. These managers usually come around, she says, especially when they see that productivity has increased.

Increases in employee wellness with concomitant increases in production are fairly common after the implementation of health and wellness products and services. Employers spend 92 percent of their operating expenses on their people. “If you can say, I can make your people better, I can help lower your healthcare costs, I can help you attract or retain, you get their attention,” says Sauter. There’s a real fight for recruitment right now and businesses want to know how to improve their ability to attract and retain employees. “CEOs love this because they see where the money is spent,” he says.

Helping to establish and support the best approaches to Health and Wellness, the WELL Building Standard has been established by the International WELL Building Institute, New York City. “The standard is starting to become more accepted and a lot of architects have started to talk about wellness and well building programs,” says Sauter. The standard sets directions and talks about how work places can be developed to support a high performing workforce.

Even without a building standard, new offices have started to adopt a variety of new approaches. Panels are lower, workspaces are smaller and in many cases the office orientation has changed. In the past, private offices were arranged on the outside of the space by the windows and cubicles were in the center. Now cubicles are being positioned along the windows and private offices and conference rooms have moved to the center of the space with glass fronts, says Sauter.

Cubicles might have shrunk but businesses are not taking less space. “Those square feet they saved in the cubicle, they’re putting into cafés, coffee shops, breakout areas and huddle rooms,” says Sauter. Even outdoor spaces have taken off. “Employees want to work outside, or at least eat outside if it’s a nice day,” he says. “Employers are spending less money on cubicles but spending dollars in other areas of the space.”

Wellness improves performance

“With more people glued to a computer screen, you want to promote health and wellness items so that people have more mental clarity,” says Durbin. He adds that given the opportunity office workers are moving away from their desks and working in other areas. “Some companies we work with are now specifically designing areas where employees can take their laptops and go work in several locations throughout the office,” he adds.

For many corporations, the commercial environment is starting to take on more elements found in or associated with residential spaces. Work sofas are just one example. Anchorage Office Products started to sell massage chairs at the beginning of last year and they’ve been well received, says Wood.

Massage chairs are offered in good, better and best versions from three different vendors – Panasonic, Brio Furniture and Inada Dream Wave. “We’re getting them placed in employee lunchrooms or breakrooms, especially for the North Slope oil field workers,” says Wood. She adds that the showroom is busy during lunch hours as Arctic employees try out the massage chairs located there.

More offices today are being established with relaxation areas or alternative work areas. Everyone takes work home at some point and you might have a home office to work in. “You also might bring your laptop to the family room or the kitchen table,” says Sauter. “You work where it is convenient and you can relax and be comfortable.” He says Workscape has produced a good number of these relaxation spaces.

In Arizona, Strait says that the customer for health and wellness tends to be a medium to larger-sized company. Often those companies are looking to improve employee retention. “People are more sensitive to safety and health that I can ever remember,” he says. Typically the buyer will be from human resources or the facilities department. “You may have a conversation with both of them, but it is generally not the office manager,” he adds.

These employers care about their employees and are ready to listen to dealer suggestions for what could prove useful. “They are kind of aware of the offerings but are not completely familiar will all the options,” says Strait. What’s more they are not aware of one company that could meet all these needs.

A different sales approach

It is a perfect opening for consultative selling, he continues. “We talk to them about what other people are doing and the kind of products they are buying,” says Strait. Then discussion turns to the client so the salesperson fully understands needs and can suggest ways to improve the workspace and increase productivity.

Strait admits the technique might differ from traditional sales approaches. “But if you keep after it and use the expertise of your partners, you eventually find your stride,” says Strait. That’s when the realization strikes that the health and wellness market is wide open for independents. “The big boxes don’t do consultative selling any more; they literally don’t have anyone on the streets,” he adds. He suggests that the category will become as big as breakroom if not bigger. It already accounts for a significant part of overall sales at Wist.

Human resources is the right place to land most health and wellness proposals, Sauter agrees. “If you can talk to HR personnel, you’re speaking their language, because promoting health and wellbeing lowers health care costs,” he says. “If you can help him reduce turnover and improve his attract and retain, you’re living in his world.”
Any dealer thinking of becoming more active in the health and wellness space needs to start by learning the lingo and becoming familiar with available products. “You will have a much easier time talking about these products if you have worked with them,” says Durbin. He suggests that dealers put these products in their own offices and work with them daily to learn some of the struggles and concerns office workers face every day.

GBP Direct completed its new working showroom in December of 2017. It includes many of these products being used by GBP employees. “Customers come in and want to see the potential these products have for their own offices,” adds Durbin. “So we try to have a lot of the products we sell in our own office so we can show them off and talk about them from our point of view.”

Blaisdell’s recently redid its furniture showroom, which continues to emphasize ergonomics and all its different approaches. “We also have a working showroom. Everyone here has some type of sit-stand or height-adjustable unit,” says Witt. When customers come in and walk through the space, invariably conversations take place about how the products are used and what employees like about them.

The working showroom is a great way to showcase and demonstrate health and wellness products, but the working showroom at Blaisdell’s serves an even greater purpose. Witt says having a comfortable work environment has been a focus of hers for a long time. “It’s important to make sure the working environment here is pleasant, that people want to come to work and are happy once they’re here,” she says. “Health and wellness pertain at our office too.”

Change the conversation

When it comes to health and wellness, proposals can take on a totally different approach. “We talk very little about furniture,” says Sauter. “Instead Workscape salespeople talk about how to reduce turnover or how to best attract and retain employees. Once you change the discussion to how you can help support them, you’ve effectively separated yourself from all the other guys out there saying ‘Buy me; I’m cheaper,’” he says.

Any dealer seriously thinking about starting to sell health and wellness products needs to have a program for customer education. “It is not a product that every single customer sees a need for, or that every single customer especially wants to pay for,” says Ables. Health and wellness isn’t different from any other product sold by Ables-Land. The goal is always to satisfy customer needs. “We want the customer to know when they see something on TV or in someone else’s office that Ables-Land has that,” he adds.

It comes down to talking these products up with customers. “Anyone who goes online or watches television is going to see Varidesk and other height-adjustable workstations,” says Ables. With that as the backdrop if you are not talking to your customers about these products you are already losing.
He suggests taking a height- adjustable workstation out to a big customer and let them work with it. “Explain to them how to work it and let them pass it around for a month,” says Ables. This is almost guaranteed to generate sales, he contends. “All you have to do is drop it off, explain to a few people how it works and then let them sell it to the rest of the office.”

Michael Chazin is a freelance writer specializing in business topics, who has written about the office supply business for more than 15 years. He can be reached at mchazin503@comcast.net.