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While the pandemic has hurt many dealers’ traditional office supplies sales, the channel has enjoyed some success with jan/san and PPE. We have also witnessed the birth of some new categories that have emerged in direct response to COVID-19—but which may be here to stay
For years now—both in trade show seminars and, indeed, in the pages of this magazine—independent dealers have been advised of the need to diversify their product portfolios if they are to survive in the modern business environment. The argument goes that the competition presented by the Big Boxes and rampaging online retailers requires the IDC to place more irons in the proverbial fire in order to maintain sales volume and profitability.
Many have heeded that advice, with great success—mixing furniture, breakroom, jan/san and other categories with the independents’ trademark characteristics of consummate customer service and willingness to go that extra mile.
The last 10 months or so have not only underscored and accelerated this need for diversification (last issue, we looked at the importance of jan/san during the pandemic), but also seen the introduction of a number of new categories that dealers in our channel would not even have considered selling when sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner a little over a year ago. Sneeze guards, seriously?
There is little doubt that COVID-19 has wrought havoc on the business supplies industry as a whole, with traditional office products seeing a decline pretty much across the board and severe supply chain disruption for high-demand jan/san and PPE products; but the IDC has always proved resilient in the face of adversity and these new categories have provided something of a lifeline for many dealers.
“At the beginning, you weren’t able to get the things that you would normally be able to sell,” says Andrew Ives, vice president at Office City Express in Delaware, Ohio. “You were just trying to find anything out there that you could get your hands on and sell; and to some extent, we’re still in that situation. We partnered with J. P. Cook, who were able to produce signs very quickly at a very good price, and—especially at the beginning of the pandemic—we had loads of orders for them.
“That really helped. By having some of these other items like signage available, we were still able to stay out in front of the customer. That was the main goal. Even though it wasn’t huge profit, it still gave my drivers a reason to go places. I didn’t have people sitting around doing nothing; and when we were able to get certain things like masks and wipes, we were still out in front of the customers to sell them those.”
Other dealers found that these products helped them not only to retain customers, but also to make inroads into new business. One of the recurring pieces of advice that dealers offered on how to make the most of the current situation was the importance of both embracing these new categories and looking towards new verticals for expansion.
“Shields, signage and space sanitization are in high demand in bars and restaurants,” says Kasie Morley, president of Jacobs Gardner Supply Company, headquartered in Bowie, Maryland. “We’ve added many new customers in the restaurant industry since COVID-19. Obviously, they all require clean, hygienic spaces for their patrons. Their ability to remain open depends on them having these items in place.”
While these new categories have helped some dealers replace income lost by non-selling and hard-to-find products, it doesn’t mean that they have always been easy to find themselves. To this end, there has been near-unanimous praise for the role played by both major wholesalers and the buying groups for their assistance in sourcing stock. Many independents, however, were forced turn to new suppliers.
“Before the pandemic, we didn’t really sell any PPE products,” says Sharon Reissman of Maco Office Source in Northern New Jersey. “As soon as it hit, Ricky Reissman the owner of Maco was fielding calls and very quick in seeing what was actually needed, but it was still very hard to get product through regular supply lines. The traditional manufacturers were just swamped with orders.
“Fortunately, a number of local factories—one that we worked with in particular—shut down their operations and moved to plexiglass production. I think it would be fair to say at this point we have sold thousands of shields and sneeze guards, without any doubt, have been the biggest market for us.”
J.D. Pedigo, president and CEO of Velocity Business Products in Houston, Texas, experienced a similar need and also had to look beyond the regular supply chain to meet it. “We sold around $750,000 worth of sneeze guards,” he says. “It was hot and heavy there for a little bit. We found a manufacturer in Mexico who was very good at getting the product out quickly for large quantities and then another two, more local to us in Houston, who were able to produce the more complicated elements such as certain clamp mounts, cut outs and more complex bending.”
Other dealers anticipated the likely demand for products such as sneeze guards and went one step further: designing, manufacturing and marketing their own products.
“During the summer months, a lot of us were thinking ‘How are kids going to go back to school? How are universities going to go back?’” recalls Andy Todd, vice president of Snap Office Supplies in Richmond, Virginia. “We had some failed attempts from school districts to go back because children ended up testing positive for COVID-19 and so they shut those schools down for a period of time.
“We started thinking, ‘What could we do that would protect children more than a mask or disinfectant wipe?’ So we developed and created a foldable, transportable, lightweight device that is a barrier and that uses a polycarbonate product, which is unbreakable. We call it the Pop-Up and we’re in the process of trying to get a patent, because there’s a lot of three-panel devices that people just put on a desk. But if the desk is not sanitized correctly, there’s a risk of contracting COVID-19. Ours offers a fourth level of protection, as there’s a base that sits on the desk, protecting against the desktop. We’ve already taken several orders and we’re beginning to market it like crazy to superintendents across the country.”
It is, without doubt, the dealers who were able to find alternative sources to supplement the disrupted supply chain that benefited from the early demand for new COVID-19 categories. That said, there is still a market for these products and many established vendors have also responded quickly to customers’ needs.
“At the beginning, I was sourcing barriers from a company I’d seen online that was one of the first to offer them,” says Wendy Pike, president of Twist Office Products in Wood Dale, Illinois. “Then it seemed like almost every week there was new product and prices have come down. Companies like HON, Global and Deflecto are all there. Special-T has some wonderful barriers. We were very successful with their barriers and they had good marketing to go with it; that was helpful too.”
With regard to marketing, most of the dealers we spoke to agreed that in the early period of the pandemic, little more was required than letting customers know what products were available and when—with regular customers reaching out for items that were in high demand.
“COVID-19-related products have been the highest-demand category this year,” says Kasey Morley. “As I’m sure all dealers have seen, requests for those products changed as the months of the pandemic dragged on. In March, it began with a need for hand sanitizer, masks, gloves and touchless thermometers. From May to July, it gradually changed to items like social distancing signage, acrylic barriers, shields and wall partitions. Currently, air purifiers and whole room sanitizers are on the rise.”
As new products entered the market, it became necessary to educate customers on the variety of products that were now available.
“We are very proactive with our marketing, letting customers know what we have in stock that they might need,” continues Pike. “Customers may not know we carry some items, but our sales team get in touch to tell them what we have. A good example of this would be the Victory electrostatic sprayers that we have had a lot of success with.”
This shift in demand has led not only to a focus on marketing, but also to a need to ensure that buyers and sales teams are kept up to date with the latest products coming to market. This is particularly true as the level of technology increases in items such as the aforementioned electrostatic sprayers and air purifiers. Once again, the wholesalers and the buying groups have done a fine job in helping dealers stay informed, running regular webinars and training sessions.
“For our company, disinfectants, sprayers, foggers and air cleaners have been in high demand,” agrees Bret Wrigley, owner of Wrigley’s Business Products and Services in
Boyertown, Pennsylvania. “It’s important to invest time in finding the PPE suppliers that are the best fit for your company and in getting your staff better educated in the product categories that are in some way connected to PPE and the future after-effects of the pandemic. Our company has had a crash course in cleaning and break room supplies. We are better versed in that product line and as a result, I see more sales from that category. I believe many of the PPE items will become long-term key supplies.”
As hopes grow that 2021 will see a gradual return to the office, the question of exactly how that office will look is very much open to question. As we’ve heard, it’s likely that many of the new categories mentioned will feature to some degree; but there’s also every chance that other new products will come to the fore.
“One of our largest verticals is the legal profession,” says Charlie Kennedy, co-owner of Kennedy Office Supply in Raleigh, North Carolina. “I was talking with an attorney friend of mine. His firm has 200 employees, with 100 of them currently in the office. He has suggested most of them will be in the office again in January. We’ve been thinking about how things will be different; if you just take the break room, for instance, there’s a lot of companies that used to have fruit and other food out on display—that’s unlikely to continue. Then there’s the cutlery—one possible change is going to be that each spoon is wrapped or some companies will be using single distribution dispensers. There will be little changes to the way things are done and there will be products to sell as a result.”