With today’s increased focus on health and wellness, it should hardly be surprising that this is an area where savvy independent dealers are entering, expanding and sometimes even revisiting their offerings.
A breath of fresh air
“About five years ago, Fellowes suggested we should be trained to sell the company’s certified Aeramax air purification units,” explains Gary Trowbridge, CEO of Palace Business Solutions, Santa Cruz, California. “Our biggest customers are school districts. We sell to about 41 of them, which includes about 400 schools. But when we went in with the air purifiers, the schools pretty much laughed in our face. They told us if they wanted fresh air, they would open the window or turn on the air conditioning. I thought getting trained and selling the units was not a good move for Palace. Then COVID-19 hit.”
Soon indoor air quality (IAQ) was on everyone’s lips. “This was especially true in schools,” says Trowbridge. “Unions were demanding proof of IAQ, with teachers refusing to return to work without it. Fellowes was ahead of the game. Many air purifiers make promises, but Fellowes had the only unit certified to refresh the air five times per hour.”
The frequency of air exchange became an even more significant selling point when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made its recommendations. “The school districts had all that assistance money from the government,” Trowbridge says. “So, some districts invested a lot of money in upgrading their HVAC [heating, ventilation and air conditioning] units, as it seemed the simplest thing to do. The only problem was that a HVAC system will exchange the air three times an hour at best. The CDC recommends at least five exchanges per hour. Also, if the air temperature is already just right, there’s no need to turn the HVAC on.”
Sadly, some districts also made purchases based on misinformation. “One district spent about $150,000 on a system with a UV rating that was ‘guaranteed’ to kill COVID-19,” Trowbridge recalls. “But when the union wanted proof, there was no proof that UV killed COVID-19. Of course, every school district knows the others in California. No one wanted to make the same mistake as ‘that district.’”
Trowbridge admits the Fellowes units are more expensive than most; but as he likes to tell his customers, “‘Buy your second air purifier from us first.’ They will buy a cheaper unit thinking they are saving money, and then it doesn’t work, or it isn’t certified and doesn’t have the proof the unions demand—so they buy a second Fellowes one. It costs more but is a superior product, so it’s worth it.”
According to Trowbridge, Fellowes will be coming out with a new air purifier next month that attaches to HVAC systems but runs independently. This will allow the purifier to monitor the IAQ and turn on and off as needed without activating the HVAC.
Air purifiers are also a top seller in the health and wellness category for FSIoffice, Charlotte, North Carolina; and here too, the big sales are to schools.
“Air filtration has been a big success since the end of 2021, with 90 percent of the business coming from schools,” says executive vice president Beth Freeman. “There was a lot of press regarding air quality in the education sector and during COVID-19 a lot of government funding went to schools. And we are finding there is still a lot of funding on the table because some of the schools weren’t sure how to spend the money. We were proactive: we worked with Fellowes reps to help schools identify what qualified for what funds. We partnered with some of the schools to put in air purifiers district wide. One contract was for $1 million and another for $.75 million. One district put the purifiers in all at once; the other we delivered in stages. Other schools would install them in a certain number of classrooms for $20,000 to $50,000 orders—definitely much higher orders than office products.”
Just say no to PFAS
Greg McLeod, CEO of 1st Source Business Supplies, Minneapolis, Minnesota, sees another health and wellness trend that has emerged of late, especially in the food service industry: the move away from per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
PFAS are synthetic chemicals linked to severe health problems such as cancer, hormone disruption, immune system suppression, decreased vaccine response and reproductive problems. PFAS are commonly used in everything from cookware and cosmetics to carpets, firefighting foam and thousands of other products, including food packaging. Several large chemical companies are involved in PFAS lawsuits; while at the time of publication, 11 states had adopted a law that bans or restricts the use of PFAS in food packaging.
“The big trend we are seeing is PFAS-free and we were way ahead of it,” says McLeod. “We got out of selling Styrofoam and wanted something better. You can get fiber-based clamshells and other food service containers, like those made out of sugarcane; but the liquid and grease would leak through, so manufacturers would spray them with PFAS to prevent leakage. The irony is, people were using these to be better for the environment, but they were sprayed with a horrific, cancer-causing chemical. We have been selling food service disposables that are compostable, biodegradable and/or recyclable, and PFAS-free.”
According to McLeod, the company sells many other products—“2,000 plus”—that fall within the health and wellness category, including ergonomic furniture and computer accessories, sit-to-stand desks, antifatigue mats and screens, and even ergonomic staplers.
Working in comfort
“Ergonomics is an area we are doing really well in,” enthuses Michael Witt, chief operating officer of Blaisdell’s Business Products, Richmond, California. “Since COVID-19, a lot of people here are still working from home, which has hurt our office supplies sales. Being in the San Francisco Bay area, working from home is not going away. We needed a new revenue stream. Adrian, who has been with us for 20 years, got trained and certified in ergonomics and we let our 2,000 customers know that we have this new service. She goes to customers’ offices for people with carpal tunnel or back and wrist issues, and often does five to 10 evaluations in one office. HR departments have embraced the service. It cuts down on workers’ compensation claims, which are through the roof in California. The service has paid off tremendously for us. We did seven-digit sales last year.”
The sector has done so well that Blaisdell’s opened a showroom devoted to products designed to make work life more comfortable. “We sell things like ergonomic chairs and keyboards, sit-to-stand desks. Customers can visit the showroom to check out the products and get a demonstration. We even deliver items to customers’ offices and let them test them for a week.”
Freeman agrees that ergonomic furniture, like sit-stand desks and chairs with lumbar support, have also done well in the health and wellness category. “Eight or nine out of 10 of our larger furniture projects have some kind of health and wellness aspect—at least a sit-to-stand option,” she says. “We are also seeing more consideration of health and wellness on the front end of projects. Things like antifatigue mats and hand sanitizer stations are included upfront and not as an afterthought, which is good from a sales standpoint.”
Breaking away from the norm
Another area where Witt has seen growth in the health and wellness sector is the breakroom. “About four years ago, we started supplying companies daily with fresh fruit and vegetables and dairy,” he says. “We partnered with a produce company that opens between 2:00 am and 3:00 am Our driver arrives at 5:15 am, fills the truck and delivers it. We’ve had a good response to the service from customers and have done very well with it. In the breakroom, we still do a lot in this area, although with fewer people in the office—not as much as pre-COVID-19. But it helps that we are in the San Francisco Bay Area, where everyone is into health and eating well.”
Coffee and flavored and injected water have also been breakroom stars for Blaisdell’s. “We have more than 200 coffee units in the field right now, whether it’s Bunn, Keurig or bean to cup,” says Witt. “We also have partnered with a company that provides eight different flavors of water to which people can add things like electrolytes and vitamins. We have 25 to 28 units out, and they aren’t cheap. But we’ve done well with that because once the machine is there, it’s an automatic reorder; they need flavor packs.”
Still running its course
According to Freeman, while sales have dropped off some, the company is still stocking more personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks, disinfectants and hand sanitizers than pre-COVID-19.
McLeod agrees and goes on to explain why PPE sales have remained strong for 1st Source. “A lot of people sold tremendous quantities of things like gloves during the pandemic, but it was already big for us before the pandemic hit,” he says. “We sell to many healthcare, infection control and food service entities that must be FDA [Food and Drug Administration] compliant. We provide socks, beard and hair nets, and products for biomedical manufacturers’ cleanrooms.”
For some, the continued sales are surprising. “Something we are still doing well with, which I thought had run its course, is COVID-19 tests,” says Witt. “We have some customers buying them monthly.”
A different pitch
Most of the dealers agree that health and wellness requires a unique sales approach compared to office products. “It can be different at times because they are not the same type of buyers,” says Freeman. “A standard office products buyer purchases a product because someone needs it. They are not as concerned about the product itself. In health and wellness, there are usually different stakeholders, like HR, that have a workplace safety mindset. When ergonomics comes into play, that audience is more concerned about the product features and benefits for the employee. Absenteeism and productivity are hot-button topics with this audience, and you can have those conversations on how the product meets those needs.”
McLeod also believes there are sales differences, which he likes. “Health and wellness is less commoditized, less transactional, than office products,” he says. “Also, fewer companies are going after the market, giving us more opportunities. Things like having to be FDA certified or dealing with safety issues mean you are usually dealing with more senior decision makers than office products, where they are more likely to delegate this to a purchaser. Healthcare accounts and food manufacturers have products they need to stay legally compliant or they will be shut down. It’s selling at a higher level to people who are more likely to value the relationship you build with them. Being involved in something mission-critical to the environment and people is nice; and it’s more fun selling these products than selling 12 staplers.”
Something else most dealers agree on is that while Amazon and other big box stores present some competition in the health and wellness arena, this is far less intense than with office products.
“Someone might need an air purifier for the office or even an ergonomic chair or sit-to-stand desk to work at home and get it on Amazon,” Freeman says. “But a school district isn’t going to buy $100,000 worth of air purifiers from Amazon. It’s a big investment and there’s much more to it.”
According to Trowbridge, Amazon is part of the reason why Palace delved deeper into schools and the health and wellness category. “Amazon does homes well,” he explains. “The closed offices from COVID-19 hurt us, so we pivoted more toward schools. We started adding more verticals to schools, like medical kits. Schools must always have medical first aid supplies on hand or they will get fined. If a child gets sick and they don’t have the right supplies, it’s a problem. So, we partnered with a company that makes medical first aid kits, and when each supply in the kit is halfway gone, there is a tab reminding people to reorder. They go online and punch in the numbers of what they need. They can order once a week or once a day. We did $35,000 in medical kits last year and $50,000 in refills.”
While the last couple of years haven’t been easy, it’s evident that some independent dealers have found a path to continued success in health and wellness.