The COVID-19 pandemic left a lot of businesses and workers scrambling to make the home-office connection. This created a prime opportunity for many independent office product dealers to delve deeper into the technology accessory business. The dealers we spoke to acknowledge that while this isn’t what kept their doors open during the shutdown, the stay at home orders boosted sales and presented a chance to expand their offerings in this less traditional product space. With many offices now reopening, those same dealers aim to accelerate this growth.
The home-office connection
Forms & Supply, Inc. (FSI), Charlotte, North Carolina, carried computer accessories—including keyboards, printers, cables and more—before the pandemic, but COVID-19 took sales to the next level. “During the pandemic, we probably sold three to four times as much in this category, as people shifted from offices to working from home and needed to get equipped,” says executive vice president Beth Freeman. “Sales of these items peaked in April-June  and started to fall in the fourth quarter once people got set up at home and had what they needed. Of course, technology equipment has a considerably longer life than commodities like paper. But sales in the technology category are still higher than they were pre-COVID-19.”
Freeman believes tech sales should pick up again as people return to the office. “I think we are looking at a hybrid work environment, with people working from home some days and the office others,” she predicts. “People will have what they need, like webcams, in one place or the other; but they won’t want to carry them back and forth. They need good video capabilities both in the office and at home.”
Ryan Puccinelli, chief culture officer for IQ Total Source, headquartered in Tempe, Arizona, says his company experienced a similar spike, followed by a leveling off, of tech accessory sales over the same period: “During the pandemic, we saw a good increase in computer accessories due to people working from home. Now people are moving back into the office, so we are seeing a slight slowdown in virtual accessories.”
He believes this trend was inevitable. “Zoom will not be the norm forever,” he says. “Humans crave in-person interaction and our salespeople want to see people face to face. Sales in the technology category will slow down a bit, as most of these things are already in the office and companies won’t need to duplicate them.”
For Creative, based in Richmond, Virginia, business boomed during the pandemic. “Our AV [audiovisual] business went crazy during COVID-19,” reports president Carl Hooper. This uptick is especially interesting as although the company sells a myriad of technology equipment, much, if not most, of it is embedded in office furniture.
“We sell power and data supply cords that can be customized into tables,” Hooper explains. “In older boardrooms, there would be computer and AV equipment in the middle of the table with cords running to power outlets. Today, boardrooms have monitors in multiple places and need to be set up for whoever is using them.” This can include customizing tables—even to the point of cutting multiple holes for power sources—and adding automatic doors that close flush with the table when the technology is not needed.
The boom in business during the shutdown meant that in many ways it was business as usual for the Creative team. “We have about 90 employees,” Hooper says. “We had to place a few on short furloughs and then had an alternate-day schedule. But management never left the office. We had sanitation kiosks and followed all the safety protocols, but we never closed our doors. We specialize in creating office interiors—in showing people how to open their doors. So we figured we should lead by example.”
But just because Creative’s managers didn’t leave the office themselves doesn’t mean they haven’t adapted their business model to serve those who did and are now returning. “It started before COVID-19, but in the last six months, with people coming back into the office, touchless technology is really taking off,” enthuses Hooper. “It’s ‘Alexa, turn on the lights; connect the room.’ It’s all voice and no touch.”
Hooper divulges yet another surprising truth about the company’s operations: “We market online; we post things almost daily on social media—but we don’t sell online,” he says. “We go see clients, or they come to see us. If you want a blue chair that goes up and down, that is easy to buy online; but an office workspace is customized. If you don’t measure, if you don’t see how a space is populated, someone will not be happy. People like to kick the tires.”
With a 30,000 square-foot showroom in Richmond and smaller sales offices only an hour or so away, Creative has plenty of space for customers to do that kicking. And those same customers will usually have a clear idea of what they are looking for before they set foot in the showroom. “Today’s customers, especially younger clientele, do their homework online and are 60 percent on their way to a decision before they walk through the door,” he says. “Younger-generation buyers don’t want to talk to anyone. They use [online] like the catalogs of the past. Google knows all.”
However, what Creative customers often don’t know is how to use the technical equipment—something Hooper says the company is committed to addressing. “We refuse to sell anything that customers don’t know how to use,” he says. “We do a lot of business in the educational sector. How many different professors use the equipment in a classroom? In how many business meetings are the first 15 minutes devoted to getting the technology running? We are adamant about providing training. It’s something that is hard to get people to want to do, but we have our ways. Ordering pizza and training over lunch can get you a good audience.”
Inevitably, some dealers saw a decline in the tech accessory segment during the pandemic. Jaret Lyons, vice president of sales and operations for Emerald Business Supplies in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, reports that these sales slipped from 7.8 percent of the company’s total revenue in 2019 to 6.5 per cent in 2020. But the modest drop is not so bad when you consider the company’s main customers had to shutter their offices for more than a year. Two of the company’s top sellers were “12-foot HDMI cables and eight-gigabyte flash drives”—suggesting not everyone had an established home workspace and was equipped to transfer files from one computer to another. And up to 60 per cent of these sales were done online.
The shift online has been even more pronounced at IQ Total Source, according to Puccinelli: “I’d say 99 percent of our B2B business is online now. We are not an e-tailer; it’s just what most of our customers want.”
Source Office & Technology, an office products dealer based in Golden, Colorado, sells printers, computers, copiers and nearly every peripheral tech accessory that goes with them. According to president David Sass, copier business picked up about 40 percent during the shutdown—despite the fact that the company doesn’t sell home copiers.
“While other places were selling masks, we were selling copiers,” he says. “Nearly 85 percent of our copiers are leased and the leases expire whether there are people in the office or not. When leases are up, we install newer models that are more efficient. So it saves customers money and they get new units. Plus, it’s easier to remove the current units and install the new ones when there are fewer people in the offices.”
Sass believes this trend will continue into the future. “We sell the units with a five-year service contract and print services will increase as people return to the office,” he predicts.
The Amazon effect
Notoriously, Amazon has been one of the biggest winners of the COVID-19 pandemic. Freeman acknowledges that the Internet titan “is definitely a challenge”—and one that she believes holds dealers to a higher standard. “There is a certain acceptance with consumers that if they buy a bad tech product from Amazon, it does not make Amazon bad,” she says. “But in B2B, if a person buys a bad product from a dealer, it can spoil the relationship and future transactions. Amazon offers an unlimited assortment of products. Office product dealers’ inventory is somewhat limited, and they need to be sure what they carry is a reputable product they can stand behind.”
“Amazon is great for a lot of reasons,” acknowledges Lyons. “But it is not great for most industries, because it knocks out a lot of the smaller mom-and-pop companies. If you aren’t losing tech accessory business to Amazon, you have had to reduce pricing.”
Lyons goes on to suggest that communication is one way to fight back. “Most people assume Amazon has the lowest price, when in fact that’s not always the case,” he says. “And like Amazon, most office product dealers offer free delivery. It’s is up to the sales team to communicate this information.”
For Sass, Amazon is less of a threat—at least on the copier side of the business: “Amazon greatly impacts our traditional office products business; we match all Amazon pricing and service knowing the margins will erode. But that’s okay, because we use office products as a platform to sell copiers and copier services. Amazon does not affect our copier business. We use the office products to build relationships, then sell copiers.”
Hooper likewise acknowledges Amazon as a definite competitor, but less so when the numbers get higher. “Amazon’s OWL—a camera that turns its head and focuses on the person speaking—is currently popular,” he says. “It’s light-end AV technology and works fine when there are just two or three people in the room; but not when there are more. But people need to know how to use technology. You need the expertise to make it work—and that is where we shine.”
Most of those interviewed agreed that competition from Amazon isn’t the only challenge for dealers selling tech accessories.
“We get our traditional supplies from S.P. Richards,” says Freeman. “For office products and jan/san items, you can go to your primary wholesaler that you have a good relationship with and it’s a seamless flow. There’s next-day delivery and so on. But tech accessories aren’t the normal channel; they are a gap category. If you go to your traditional wholesaler, the prices will be too high. You need a tech-specific supply chain partner that has its ducks in a row. You need to invest more in inventory to get customers products the next day like they are used to; and if you don’t invest in inventory, you need more lead time. To be a cost-effective option in this category is the biggest challenge, I think, for independent dealers.”
Lyons would agree, pointing out that while independent dealers usually go through wholesalers S.P. Richards or Essendant, the latter don’t usually stock these items, so dealers end up paying more—which makes it hard for them to compete on pricing.
Another issue that Hooper highlights is expertise. “It’s not rocket science, but you need some technical expertise, or to have someone on staff who does, if your customers don’t,” he says. “They all have day jobs, so they want us to set the technology up because it’s easier and we are more efficient at it.”
Despite the challenges, many dealers believe the payoff from selling tech accessories is well worth the effort.
“There’s a definite opportunity to capitalize in this category,” Freeman suggests. “In the past, most customers got their accessories from tech-specific suppliers, and many still can. But often, a worker needs a cable to hook up a second monitor or a wireless mouse. Sometimes, there is internal bureaucracy; or getting IT involved makes it more complicated. It’s easier for them to get the items from their office products supplier, who is already delivering products. It’s a matter of convenience.”
Her advice for new dealers looking to enter the tech-accessory field? “The key is to find the right wholesaler,” she says. “You want a partner that offers you a decent price point. You won’t be the low-price option in this category, but you need to be reasonable. Also, what you focus on can be key.”
Puccinelli believes the return to offices will be good for tech accessory sales and business overall: “More people in the office will help us get back to a quicker sales cycle, as well as increase our revenue, because there will be more bodies consuming what we sell.”
Hooper is highly optimistic about the potential the tech category offers moving forward. “There’s a great opportunity in selling products as we do,” he says. “I wholeheartedly encourage dealers to get involved. Tech office furniture makes sense and is a profitable investment. It’s low tech and a way to make customers happy and make money.”
But Hooper would caution against wading too deep into the AV IT waters. “I’d suggest office product dealers think long and hard before building an AV IT business,” he warns. “AV IT is very different—it’s very specialized, and it is becoming even more so. Products change and improve at a much faster pace. Also, engineers are trained differently and it costs more to have the right people. You have to be willing to invest. But there’s more money for all if you have the right people on staff.”
Lyons thinks that timing could be an issue for new dealers looking to enter the field. “I believe these kinds of purchases have reached their peak,” he says. “I don’t think sales will be increasing. As people return to offices, where they already have cables and webcams, and those working from home have already bought them, I see the sales volume of these items going down. So if you are not already selling tech accessories, I don’t think it’s the best time to start.”
In Sass’s view, however, the timing for certain devices has never been better. “I advise all independent dealers to expand into selling copiers and other tech accessories,” he enthuses. “We are starting to sell wide-format devices and 3D printers. There are so many expansion opportunities in technology beyond copiers—it’s a whole new frontier. I believe it is the future of office product distribution. I hope more dealers consider this strategy, as it is very lucrative.”