The safety product category promises more sales with existing customers, while at the same time it opens the door to whole new customer groups
Dealers looking for a way to make up for declining sales of office products need to take a hard look at the safety category, which offers some real growth opportunities according to Bobby Grizzle, regional sales manager at Office Solutions, Yorba Linda, California. “The office supply category is shopped very competitively,” he suggests, “but safety doesn’t get anywhere near the same sort of attention from buyers.”
Grizzle came to Office Solutions five years ago after selling office products for one of the big box players. “Every end user in the world shops office supplies on Amazon and every other website out there to find the best price for a product,” he says. When it comes to online purchases of disposable gloves or other safety products, he believes not many buyers drill down to compare pricing.
It is not uncommon for the safety buyer to be the same person who buys facility supplies, which creates openings for dealers with already established janitorial identities. “Most of the time janitorial buyers are involved in safety,” says Mark Leto, vice president and general manager at Louisiana Janitorial and Facility Supply, a division of Louisiana Office Solutions, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
“We need to go in there and make sure they understand we can be the source for safety products,” Leto says. He suggests it’s a bigger stretch for customers to jump from office products to safety than from janitorial supplies to safety. A lot of customers are used to buying their safety supplies online or from a catalog, he says. “If you are from JanSan they’re thinking maybe you can supply them. Safety is a growing category for us and we are nowhere near our potential.”
Gloves are a staple
The safety category is anchored by glove sales. “We sell gloves from disposables to industrial gloves,” says Leto. Gloves and protective wear are required at the chemical plants common in southern Louisiana. One popular product is a relatively new line of disposable Tyvek protective wear that’s worn once and then thrown away. “We stock some gloves, safety glasses and three different sizes of disposable coveralls,” says Leto.
At Workplace Central, Newtown, Pennsylvania, disposable gloves have become a solid seller and the dealer has moved a number of glove SKUs into inventory. “In addition to gloves we have had success with first aid kits and first aid refills,” says Leo Winkel, business development manager-facilities. Regular sellers in the safety assortment at Workplace Central include hearing protection, eye-wash stations, respirators and personal protective vests.
Eakes Office Solutions, Grand Island, Nebraska, has a well-established janitorial division and finds that janitorial sales lead readily to safety sales. It is definitely an area that janitorial salespeople investigate when they look to grow sales, suggests Natasha Seacrest, office products manager. A separate janitorial division with six specialists was created and a janitorial division manager was appointed at the beginning of the year.
“We have used S.P. Richards’ safety catalog for the last three years, and in the last year we have started to get more direct relationships,” says Seacrest. “The glove category would be our highest selling item.” Eyewear is the second biggest seller. It is the glove category, however that propels safety sales for most independents.
Emphasis on safety
The U.S. market for personal protective equipment, which broadly covers safety products, was estimated at more than $12 billion in 2015, according to Global Market Insights, Inc., Selbyville, Delaware. Emphasis on employee health and safety, combined with rising industrial injury and fatality rates, drive market growth. The safety glove market is estimated at $2 billion annually. The gloves ensure clean work environments and protect against heat, cold and harm from abrasion, disease or chemicals. Global Market Insights suggests the glove market could triple in size by 2023.
Gloves are not only the top sellers in the safety category. They also compare favorably to other products that dealers commonly handle. “Paper and toner are the two largest commodities,” says Grizzle. A carton of paper that weighs 50 pounds goes for around $30; a carton of disposable gloves weighs just a few pounds and goes for about $35, he points out. A friend who works for a disposable glove maker told him the California market took about $500 million worth of gloves annually. His idea was to develop a focused campaign to go after the safety glove business.
Grizzle’s friend suggested the public sector as a ready market for glove sales. Grizzle worked with Lyra Madding, marketing director at Office Solutions, and came up with a campaign to target glove buyers at schools and municipalities. “We picked four glove SKUs: latex, blue nitrile, black nitrile and powder-free gloves and put together a flyer and pricing strategy,” says Grizzle.
“We priced our flyers aggressively and when prospects looked at their current pricing, we saved them three to four dollars a box,” he says. A landing page was also established so customers could click on the link in the flyer and compare attributes for all of the gloves. Competition for glove sales came from large industrial distributors who had never had to go toe-to-toe with an independent office supply dealer before.
Grizzle’s team started to call on customers with the glove flyer in the second quarter of last year. “We went to the same customers we had sold office supplies to and knocked on the door of the facility guy, told him we sold gloves and asked him to look at our pricing,” he says. Office Solutions was able to work with direct pricing obtained through its janitorial subsidiary that in almost every case beat the price customers already paid.
“For three quarters of last year glove sales revenue grew by 46 percent,” says Grizzle. Now the other sales territories at Office Solutions are using the same promotion to grow glove sales and open safety discussions. “What we’ve learned over the last eight months is when we go in and sell gloves it starts a conversation,” says Grizzle. A conversation with the safety director helps open up the category to further sales. “And the margins we’re enjoying on this commodity are much better than margins for copy paper.”
Take the safety challenge
Terry Hammond, sales manager with A-Z Office Resource, Memphis, Tennessee, aims to get his salespeople focused on asking the right questions in their efforts to grow safety sales. Before coming to work for A-Z three years ago, Hammond spent decades selling for an independent jan-san distributor. Now he manages a sales team of veteran office products salespeople who find the new safety vertical a challenge. He maintains you don’t have to be an expert to sell safety products but you do have to meet with the right person.
“Most of the safety directors that I talk with are happy to see us,” says Hammond, “I don’t think they get called on that often.” Most of their purchases are done over the internet, reports Hammond, who says he finds safety directors open to answer questions and willing to explain, for example, the difference between cut-resistant gloves and puncture-resistant gloves. Once discussions of that sort take place, closer ties become possible, which invariably lead to discussions of safety product availability, he adds.
Hammond suggests that safety is an untapped category. “Our salespeople have been out selling copy paper, toner, paperclips and folders, and haven’t been talking to the right person for safety products,” he says. “Because it is untapped and relatively new to them it appears to be more of a challenge.” The biggest obstacle to overcome, he says, is to walk through the door asking questions.
If you call on a service industry buyer, make that call with some black nitrile gloves in your pocket, he suggests. “Put a large pair in one pocket and an extra-large pair in the other and go in and ask for the customer to try them,” he says. “Build a relationship with the safety director, and they can teach you a lot,” adds Hammond.
Who are the buyers?
If there is a someone at the company being called on with the title of safety director, that is definitely the person to talk with. But what if there is no safety director? In medium-sized and larger companies without a safety director, the person buying safety products isn’t likely to be the same person who purchases office supplies.
“Sometimes it is the purchasing department, but more often than not it is a warehouse manager, food manager or occupational health and safety director,” says Winkel. Some customer types such as warehouses and manufacturing facilities typically buy more and more complex safety items. “But just about every customer from schools to healthcare to office buildings buys some first-aid or safety supplies,” says Winkel.
A focus on safety products has yielded some success at Workplace Central. “Our bigger accounts are definitely coming to us and asking for assistance,” says Winkel. Obtaining sustained growth with safety products has been more of a challenge. The biggest obstacle is that people continue to think of the dealership as primarily a source for office supplies. “Our job is to spread awareness and make our end users understand that we are in that market,” says Winkel.
So much of the opportunity for safety supply sales depends on the area being served and what businesses are located nearby. Other occupations and industries besides manufacturing can offer opportunities for safety sales.
“Most of the time we talk to a facilities person but there are cases where they have safety coordinators,” says Seacrest. Human resources can get involved when the products purchased are required for employees to perform their jobs. The market covered by Eakes is largely rural which offers a ready market for safety products.
When opportunity knocks
“We have had the most success with agricultural businesses such as grain elevators and livestock facilities,” says Seacrest. Originally targeted as a customer group for janitorial supplies; once that business took off, safety products were a natural next step. Chemical sales presented cross contamination issues and safety routines and products were required. “Farming is still one of the most dangerous professions,” she adds. “As far as safety goes there are definitely opportunities there.”
Likewise, Louisiana Janitorial and Facility Supply has opened customers in its market to the availability of safety products. “This market has always been strong on safety because this is a blue-collar market with manufacturing,” says Leto. “Chemicals and related products are very strong here.” Safety products have been offered by the dealership for three or more years but it is primarily in the last year that sales have started to take hold.
Safety is different from other categories in that the buyer doesn’t necessarily base a purchase decision on personal preference. Sometimes safety sales are mandated.
“When it’s safety related it could be insurance or OSHA requiring it and they are forced to comply,” says Leto. Lately the dealership has seen growth in disposables such as inexpensive eyewear that’s used once, then discarded. These are given to visitors with a need to enter the premises.
An additional safety product that dealers have found success with are first aid kits and kit refills. In the case of Office Solutions once again geography comes into play. “California, where we live, is known for earthquakes,” says Grizzle. “If you look at offices out here, they typically have first aid kits readily available on every floor.”
Office Solutions has begun to sell first aid backpacks which are among some of the latest products in the safety category. “Our wholesaler has some incredible offerings in first aid from refills in a box to the latest offering, which is backpacks,” says Grizzle. The backpacks have enough supplies for five or six people for a couple of days and are well-suited for any disaster situation. “It’s another product in the safety offering that we have spent some time and energy developing,” he adds.
More support needed
Vendor support on safety sales and marketing is a mixed bag. “It’s been kind of a weak category for our wholesaler,” says Leto. “They don’t spend a lot of time promoting safety, but I give them credit for increasing the product selection.” The dealership purchases gloves direct, other items from a safety products distributor and fills in with items from the wholesaler. “Local availability of wholesale items has been great. They are available on a quick turn basis from Dallas or Houston,” he says.
Safety training is another area where dealers suggest additional support would be helpful. To get a salesforce that’s comfortable talking with customers about safety requires at least some knowledge base. “Having experts available for training or joint sales calls, whether it’s a distributor or manufacturer’s representative, is key because this stuff can get a little specialized,” says Leto.
“Salespeople can be intimidated by not understanding product differences. And that all comes back to training,” says Leto. Some support is a factor of how much product is purchased direct. The glove supplier has provided training and provides sample, which have both contributed to sales growth. “For us to get to the next level and get more vendor training we may have to start buying more product direct and stocking it,” he adds.
Quarterly sales meetings at Eakes are when outside speakers are brought in and different safety vendors have made presentations. Many safety products are not too technical, so knowledge often comes down to learning about the best questions to ask to move the conversation along, says Seacrest. Asking if the prospect has a safety plan is always good to lead with.
At A-Z Office Resource, Hammond is impressed with customer responses on the availability of safety products when he is in the field. And he gets in the field a lot. “Every time I ride with a salesperson and we call on customers, it amazes me to hear a customer say ‘I didn’t know you carried that,’” he says. A response like that reinforces the need to educate salespeople so they can educate customers. Once salespeople get comfortable selling the category increased safety sales are sure to follow.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.