While sales of PPE helped many dealers survive the pandemic, safety has long been a worthwhile category. As Lisa Veeck discovers, in a world that is more health conscious than in pre-COVID-19 times, now is a great time to consider its potential.
Better safe than sorry” is a familiar cliché; but for a growing number of independent office supply dealers, “better safety than sorry” would be more apt.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, sales of safety equipment—specifically, personal protection equipment (PPE)—kept many dealers afloat.
“Safety supplies wasn’t a new category for us; but PPE—like masks, gloves, disinfectant, surfactant and wipes—really helped us during the pandemic,” says Greg McLeod, CEO and president of 1st Source Business Supplies, Minneapolis, Minnesota, expressing the sentiment of many, if not most, independent dealers. “Those products saved us: they helped us compensate for the drop in sales in our regular office products, breakroom and furniture.”
For 1st Source, there’s more to safety than just PPE, however. Pre-pandemic, the company was selling other safety items, such as eye and ear protection and smocks. “We started selling safety because we were seeing a steady decline in traditional office products and were looking for a new category,” McLeod explains.” But the decision was more market driven, prompted by customers rather than some grand vision. Some customers were unhappy with their current safety supplier and saw how we got them their office products and janitorial supplies and asked if we could help with their safety supplies. So, when the pandemic hit, we had some connections. It was still tough to find sources and get the PPE shipped, and we still had to find new sources; but it helped that this was not a new category for us.”
Safety was likewise an existing category pre-pandemic for Office 360, Indianapolis, Indiana, but it really took off as the virus took hold. “Before COVID-19, we sold gloves, but it had been at the back of our minds that we should focus more on safety for growth,” says director of branch operations Rayce Nahmias. “During COVID-19, it was like the wild, wild West: every day was a new adventure. We went from selling no masks to a huge increase in sales; the same was true for hand sanitizer and disinfectant. It was an acrobatic event to get your hands on these items. Our purchasing department did a great job getting product and avoiding scams. We’d get emails saying, ‘So and so—insert country—has access to 1 million masks. Send money upfront.’ We got good at knowing if it looked too good to be true, it was too good to be true, so we didn’t get burned; but I am sure some dealers did.”
A safe twist
Certain Supply, Irvine, California, had never sold safety products pre-pandemic—in fact, it didn’t even exist. It was founded during COVID-19 to help fill the PPE void. “Founder Dave Aquino was COO of Shark Ninja and had left to explore other options,” explains Mary Tucker, Certain Supply’s chief revenue officer. “Dave is a supply chain expert who was concerned when people couldn’t get the basic safety supplies they needed. He grew more alarmed when he heard of nurses in California wearing trash bags because they couldn’t get isolation gowns. He saw the supply chain was broken and knew he could get these items. So he opened Certain Supply and contacted his friends worldwide, who started shipping the PPE.”
Certain Supply sells to dealers only. “We work with independent dealers,” continues Tucker. “Our largest customer block is comprised of ISG’s members. We formed a partnership with ISG. The partnership has been a blessing for us, as it helped us form relationships quickly with its members. We drop ship and blind ship to the dealers’ customers. An ISG member will call us and say, ‘We need a pallet shipped to XYZ company, but we’d like the customer to think it’s coming from us.’ That’s what we will do. We don’t sell direct; we are not interested in competing with dealers for their customers. We only want to sell to dealers.” Certain Supply made such a good impression on ISG members that it was named ISG 2020-21 Supplier of the Year.
But just because demand for PPE has now begun to drop off doesn’t mean Certain Supply is closing its doors—far from it. “We are pivoting as customer demand for PPE wanes because there is still great demand for safety items,” Tucker says. “We sell COVID-19 test kits. There continues to be a surge in COVID-19. Although the symptoms are milder, people still don’t want to be taking it to school or work. We also sell backup power supplies that hold enough power to start a car and are compact enough to hold in your hand. You can even take one to the airport. It has several USB ports and a 110-volt outlet. If you are caught in a storm, you can charge a phone with it; it has enough power at home to keep a refrigerator running for a few hours.”
Dealers agree that sales of pandemic-related safety supplies have dropped significantly. Yet, like Tucker, most dealers view safety as a category of continued opportunity—especially because what it encompasses seems limitless.
“I tried to figure out what exactly our sales in safety are and it was difficult because what constitutes safety—especially since COVID-19—is a blurry line,” says Nahmias. “There’s PPE that was needed during the pandemic: gloves, masks. Traditional products include bloodborne pathogen and eye washes, fire extinguishers, harnesses and knee pads. Then there are air care and floor mats—which are also really about safety because they protect customers and employees from slipping and falling.”
While the products may differ, Nahmias believes there is a commonality among those who buy safety supplies. “Safety people have different things they care about,” he suggests. “They don’t care as much about price. They want something that works, that fixes a problem. They want to make sure their employees are happy. They are willing to pay more for knee pads that won’t need to be replaced in three weeks. They want a comfortable, quality harness. They want to take care of their workers—and for good reason. Someone could get hurt. Also, the employees who use safety items are often the more highly trained workers. Employers want to keep them, especially in today’s market. High-quality safety equipment is another way to show employees you care versus trying to save the company a few pennies. And if someone slips and falls because there aren’t good wet floor signs, they could get hurt and be out of work—and the company could face a potential lawsuit.”
Another plus to selling safety is while Amazon has a presence in the category, overall, the dealers aren’t worried, seeing it as more of a B2C safety seller than B2B. McLeod went so far as to say: “Smaller safety orders, like a box of ear plugs, people may buy from Amazon. But with the larger customers we focus on, its name never comes up.”
According to Nahmias, Office 360 sales reps have embraced selling safety items and the whole company is helping spread the word: “Our sales reps don’t always have time to talk safety with each customer, but they reference it; and I am the product category manager, so I can answer questions. If customers have questions or want us to, we will go to their site and do a safety survey. They also can come to our showroom, where we have a whole section on safety—whichever works for them. Our marketing department has also gotten more involved. We have a blog and have had articles like ‘Five Best Safety Practices.’ In October, OSHA issued new requirements on what needs to be in first aid kits, and we had a blog on that.”
Fits like a glove
Most dealers say their biggest customer verticals are manufacturing and industrial, although some are looking into other potential segments like healthcare.
And product-wise? “Gloves are the single biggest seller,” reports McLeod. “We sell a lot of nitrile gloves, a lot of latex and some vinyl; but overall, I’d say the breakdown is 80 percent nitrile and 20 percent latex. We also sell some leather and work-type gloves. Our biggest customers are heavy and light manufacturing and food service. One of our accounts is North America’s largest vegetable food processing plant. To give you an idea of the size, they have a 1 million square foot refrigerated warehouse—the largest refrigerator in North America. The plant workers use a massive amount of different-colored gloves in all sizes—a different color for each food in case people are allergic to certain ingredients, for example. And the plant operates 24/7. It would be catastrophic if they ran out of gloves, since the FDA won’t let them operate without them. The business would be shut down. We created a vendor-managed inventory program for them. We drop ship pallets of gloves with 4,000 to 6,000 gloves at a time straight from the supplier and never have to touch them. For a small company like us, it’s golden.”
Gloves come in exam grade and industrial grade. Interestingly, most companies opt for exam grade even if they don’t need the higher quality and even though it costs more. McLeod explains why: “Most food processors and others buy exam grade, erring on the side of caution. During the pandemic, manufacturers virtually stopped making industrial gloves, knowing what was selling. If there is another pandemic, most manufacturers and food plants won’t want to risk running out or having to switch to find exam-grade gloves.”
A safe start
For dealers considering entering the safety market, McLeod offers some advice: “First, reach out to different contacts within your existing customer base because different people are making the decisions than those who buy the office products or furniture. Go beyond the front desk. The people purchasing safety items are mission critical and familiar with the EPA or FDA requirements. They will have titles like general manager, plant manager or maintenance supervisor. Then establish a relationship with a good supplier. It’s taken us a few years to learn the category and find the best suppliers and pricing. But it’s been very good for us. And there’s a lot of money to be made in it.”
Nahmias believes dealers that aren’t selling safety are missing out. So what first steps should they take to enter the market? “The same way you get into any category,” he says: “Ask where they are buying their safety supplies and what they are buying. If your contact doesn’t know, they will know who does. When you find the right person, ask questions. ‘What kind of gloves are you using? Do you work with hot stuff? If not, you are spending more money than you need to by buying heat-resistant ones.’ Safety is not crazy complex. You don’t need to read manuals. Rely on your wholesalers—they can provide a lot of information and are a lot of help.”
Nahmias even suggests exactly where newbie safety sellers should start: “First aid is a great way to enter the market. All customers you talk to must have a first-aid kit because it’s the law. Some will go to Costco or Sam’s Club and pick it up; but I will ask, ‘Do you know it is a requirement to have certain things in the kit?’ To which they answer, ‘No, not really.’ I’ll ask, ‘Did you know you can get a hefty fine from OSHA if you don’t have the required items?’ Again, they’ll say, ‘No’—so I offer to show them. We carry the First Aid Only smart compliance kit. It contains everything required, with room to add things. The supplies come in one box, with a card for each section that shows when half of that item has been used and it’s time to reorder. In big companies, we collect the cards from each department and they receive the supplies the next day. It is much less work than having Cintas come out and charge X dollars; and they always have what they need by law.”
Tucker believes safety offers dealers a chance to broaden and deepen their customer bases. “There’s a good opportunity to look for organizations in the community that are interested in safety,” she says. “It enables you to get a foot in the door with new customers and start conversations with existing customers.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 773-484-7412.