The Race is On

Home / Cover Stories / The Race is On
The Race is On

Jan/san is becoming an increasingly important part of the office supply dealer’s mix, and we are becoming increasingly adept at winning customers from other resellers, Lisa Veeck explains

Outsiders might think that the COVID-19 pandemic is what encouraged office product dealers to throw their hats into the janitorial supply ring. But nothing could be further from the truth. A healthy competition between the two industries has been underway for years, with each trying to convince customers that it is best able to handle all their supply closet needs.

More recently, big box giants like Staples, which had been slowly but steadily moving into the jan/san space, accelerated the race by boldly claiming top spots in the jan/san supply world. Office supply wholesalers began stocking copious amounts of jan/san, while their top management graciously accepted board positions in once jan/san-only associations. Traditional office supply groups hired facility management experts to help their members maneuver smoothly into the jan/san market. Then came COVID-19, which convinced dealers hesitant to cross the janitorial supply border that staying out of the product category was no longer an option; it was survival.

While the dust has by no means settled, it appears that the office supply industry is clearly in the lead. However, given the challenges of capturing market share, it is far too soon to definitively call the race. With this in mind, let’s look at why some independent office product dealers have made the leap into janitorial supplies, as well as some of the issues they face.

Diving in

“It was easy—like taking low-hanging fruit,” recalls Chris Miller, CEO and president of Yuletide Office Solutions, Memphis, Tennessee, of the company’s move into the jan/san sector. “The janitorial industry is way behind in technology and we got orders there on time—overnight, even—which many janitorial companies don’t do.” This “low-hanging fruit” now accounts for 35 percent of Yuletide’s sales.

When IQ Total Source, Tempe, Arizona, started selling jan/san supplies in 2014, the category accounted for five to 10 percent of its sales. Today, that stands at 50 percent, according to chief culture officer Ryan Puccinelli. He thanks the wholesalers for encouraging IQ to break into the market. “Back seven or eight years, S.P. Richards and Essendant made strong declarations that the independent dealer community needed to start selling these products,” he says. “We saw the wholesalers move in that direction. Office products were going down. We have the distribution model and are in front of the customers, so it was a logical pivot.”

Puccinelli thinks changes in jan/san formulations also helped: “I’d say 75 percent of janitorial products are not technical and chemicals aren’t unnecessarily intimidating because they are less technical than they were. A lot of chemicals today use the same ingredients and three to four chemicals provide all the solutions customers need, from floors to glass cleaning to disinfection.”

According to Mark Whitlow, president of Office Products Alliance, Kansas City, Missouri, “It was easy to move more into the market because we have had our customer base for 27 years. Secondly, we are fully automated—not to the level of Staples, but for independent dealers, we are on top of technology. We have great automated distribution and warehousing, and a great website. We have all the infrastructure in place, so we can distribute the products customers need quickly and efficiently to make us competitive.”

However, Whitlow also knew what he didn’t know. “So many people wanted to do business in this channel, but we were not experts or price competitive,” he says. “We really needed an expert on staff—someone who understood and was able to dive right in. So we hired Vince Rossetti, who has more than 20 years’ experience, and now we are immersed in it.”

Pre-Rossetti, jan/san accounted for eight to 10 percent of the company’s sales; today, that has increased to 18 to 20 percent. “I think 10 percent growth on a $10 million business in just three years is pretty good,” Whitlow says.

Looking forward, Whitlow expects that annual growth of three to five percent is realistic and suggests this upward trend should continue: “I certainly believe jan/san is an area of growth. As a matter of fact, I can see a day of almost getting out of office products and doing more jan/san. Of course, everybody defines ‘jan/san’ differently, so I am including break room, food service disposables, etc.” The company also continues to expand its customer base. “We are calling on restaurants daily,” he says. “Six months ago, we had never called on them. We might have sold them office paper, but now we are selling them napkins and disposables.”

In 2013, well before the pandemic, 1st Source, Minneapolis, Minnesota, started selling jan/san products. “We look for trends and could see office products were dropping 2 to 3 percent a year,” says CEO Greg McLeod. “So we were looking to diversify and sell larger, profitable orders in other verticals.”

In 2013, jan/san accounted for about 5 percent of 1st Source’s total sales; today, that figure is around 45 percent. “If we hadn’t gone for success in jan/san, I don’t know if we’d still be around,” McLeod admits. “During the worst of COVID-19, our office products dropped 80 to 85 percent, so if it weren’t for jan/san then, we wouldn’t be talking. Most of those orders, 85 percent of the janitorial supplies we were selling, we were able to grab ad hoc; and thank God we were. But those orders are not going to repeat.”

Like Whitlow, McLeod sought out seasoned assistance: “We’ve had a jan/san specialist on staff for three years and we noticed a big improvement in sales. It’s a credibility factor with big customers. Without the expertise, we didn’t have a high success rate of closing deals. We are looking to bring another specialist on board and anticipate it will create a good return on investment next year.”

McLeod believes the relationships office supply dealers build with their customers is another reason why they are succeeding in jan/san. “In some cases, we caught our jan/san competitors asleep at the wheel,” he explains. “We were able to introduce a new product and introduce savings. There are many worthy competitors and some have been selling jan/san for generations. But we are used to interacting with clients multiple times a week in office products. It’s easier to raise our hand in new areas because there is a comfort level with our existing relationships. They trust us.”

However, not all independent dealers that moved into the jan/san space thought it would be so easy. “We started selling jan/san about two and a half years ago—about six months before COVID-19,” says Dave Siefring, president of Total Office Source, Cincinnati, Ohio. “We didn’t know it, but it was good timing. A serious opportunity to sell to one customer is what forced our hand to explore the opportunity. We were hesitant at first, to be honest. We feared starting to sell and upsetting our customers by overpromising. We needed to know we could do it first. We had to be sure we had vendors and knew who our competition was. We asked a lot of questions. What should we stock? What are the most popular items? What are the price points?”

Yet Siefring also thinks the office supply industry has advantages over its traditional jan/san competitors: “The janitorial industry is very much behind in technology; its software is older. The vendors aren’t in a hurry. With Essendant or S.P. Richards, you order today and get it tomorrow. With companies in the janitorial industry, like R.J. Schinner, it comes in Tuesdays and Fridays; you get deliveries twice a week. Everything is at a slower pace than in office products.”

Carolina Business Supplies Inc., Charlotte, North Carolina, started focusing on janitorial products in 2018 and sales in the sector have grown from 5 or 10 percent to 25 percent. But the pandemic hurt the company’s jan/san revenue—a seeming rarity.

“We decided jan/san was the way to go after larger customers and we were doing really well before COVID-19,” says vice-president Randy Dixon. “COVID-19 set us back because our largest customers are commercial office spaces and they were empty.” Burt Reese, the company’s sales manager, elaborates: “Our biggest sellers are paper products, but if people aren’t in the buildings, they aren’t using the restrooms.”

Supply chain: for better or worse

“During COVID-19, it was easy for us to swing into PPE because the only thing we weren’t already selling was masks,” says Miller. But while pivoting the company’s focus was straightforward, finding product during the peak of the supply chain crunch took some doing. “There were three of us sourcing supplies,” he recalls. “We were getting gloves and wipes from Turkey. I was driving three hours to Hot Springs, Arkansas, going from store to store to buy all the supplies I could because most had limits on how many of these items you could buy. I’d go on the weekend and buy from five or six stores to send the backorders out on Monday. We were a lifesaver for a lot of companies.”

Few dealers escaped supply chain troubles during the worst of the pandemic; and not all believe things have improved. “It is not getting any better,” reports Whitlow. “I hope it will turn the corner by the fourth quarter, but the significant price increases aren’t helping. Customers were used to inflation and price increases during the shortage, but they are starting to grumble more. Personally, I don’t know if there are as many supply chain challenges now as there are price increases. I think too many are taking advantage and padding the coffers.”

Puccinelli agrees: “The pandemic has affected everything and certain items remain challenging. But we are starting to see a slow improvement in inventory replenishment, with both wholesalers and manufacturers. I think there will remain an ebb and flow for the first part of 2022, but we’ll see the global supply chain back to normal in the third and fourth quarters. I feel good about the position we are in today; but six months from now, who knows?”

Siefring suggests supply chain issues have led to “long delays getting product. We used to call our vendor and get 95 percent of the order. Now we are increasing inventory. For potential new clients, you need to have product.”

But McLeod for one is cautiously optimistic: “I think it is slowly getting better, but I’m afraid to jinx it. We try to be true to our primary partners, but to protect ourselves and our customers we have to buy from R.J. Schinner and through ISG.”

Miller thinks that “the supply chain is already back in the swing of things, but the pricing is not stable. Materials cost more to source through wholesalers.”

Up for the challenge

Most office products dealers have noticed differences between how the office products and jan/san industries do business and are trying to adjust accordingly.

“There’s so much product variation,” says Siefring. “Can liners in 0.3 milliliters and 0.5 milliliters; gloves in vinyl, nitrile or powder coated…With office products, there is much less variation.”

And even the same product can have different price points. “When we sell can liners in the office products industry, the expectations are different from the jan/san market,” he explains. “In office products, they are add-ons. Janitorial orders are larger and customers are more knowledgeable about them.”

Delivery frequency also has required some adjustments. “We went from buying product and having it delivered next-day to buying and having it delivered in three weeks,” continues Siefring. “We weren’t stocking items, but it forced us to if we wanted to deliver complete orders the same day instead of delivering the office products and waiting three days to deliver the janitorial products. We had to learn about our customers’ needs and start planning ahead. Now, I tell my higher-volume customers, ‘We need to know what you need and how much, and we’ll stock it.’ Then, when they call and order, we’re ready to send it tomorrow.”

For Carolina Business Supplies, sourcing and order volume have likewise proved a challenge. “We are used to getting product from our wholesalers; but for janitorial, you have to shop different sources to compete against Office Depot and Staples,” says Dixon. “It’s hard to compete selling wholesaler brands, and we aren’t going to reach the volumes required by chemical suppliers like Betco and Spartan. S.P. Richards carries Solaris and Solaris has bent over backward to help us.”

According to Dixon, ISG has also been a tremendous help. “ISG’s Frank Hoard is very knowledgeable and helped us a lot with getting product and answering questions,” he says. “A lot of our jan/san comes from negotiated regional distribution center programs from S.P. Richards and Essendant, and ISG has been instrumental in helping with these. It’s been a great resource.”

Switching the sales pitch

Yuletide’s Miller acknowledges: “It was harder for us to get into the janitorial manufacturers, being an office products company. So we hired a specialist, Allen Chapman, who had worked at Corporate Express. He had relationships with the manufacturers that helped us get in.”

According to Miller, Chapman also helped convince his reps to get behind selling janitorial supplies. “At the very beginning, I asked how many wanted to sell jan/san and they all looked like, ‘Help!’ But Allen went with them on sales calls. That really helped.”

Office Product Alliance’s jan/san expert similarly inspired the company’s outside sales reps to start selling jan/san. “They weren’t confident about selling it until Vince came on board and was right there on sales calls to answer questions,” Whitlow says. “But that’s the same with office products: if you try to sell toner but aren’t confident in what you know about the product, you can’t sell it that well.”

Puccinelli reports that securing rep buy-in has “not been that challenging. For our senior sales reps, it’s more about having a little different conversation with customers.”

At 1st Source, it was likewise a question of belief. “There was some reluctance from our reps—mostly a function of being unfamiliar with the products on a meaningful level and a lack of confidence we could compete,” explains McLeod. “They thought the competitors had it all sewn up. I told them, ‘Don’t give the competitors too much credit that they all have their house in order.’ Once we started to get wins and began building our résumé, it gave them and me confidence.”

Dixon acknowledges that some reps at Carolina Office Supplies have had difficulty shifting gears: “Some of our veteran reps don’t understand janitorial products and they don’t want to learn. It’s a different language, a different buyer. There are so many variables in jan/san; it’s not like buying a pen or a Sharpie.”

Reese chimes in: “Randy challenged me to talk with customers. At first, I was hesitant, but he showed me the figures. I saw we were selling $6,000 to $7,000 in office products, compared to $30,000 in jan/san and packaging. As a quasi-commissioned salesperson, when I saw the dollar signs, it was enough for me.”

Sizing up the competition

When it comes to the competition, tech giant Amazon does not seem to be a serious threat. “Amazon is not a factor in jan/san—not yet,” says Siefring. “But you’d have to be crazy not to expect it to become a factor at some point because the company is in everything. And if it had a more aggressive sales force and was more focused on the commercial, that would hurt.”

He goes on to suggest that what sets independent dealers apart is the same for both the jan/san and office supply industries. “We separate ourselves from Amazon and others with service and product knowledge,” he explains. “We do face-to-face meetings with customers when we can, to build loyalty. Loyalty for any supplies is not as strong as it once was and Amazon is one reason why. People buy at home and take that same mindset to work. There are less people skills, no interaction; people seem to do everything by numbers. It takes some time to learn needs, but we hope the hard work pays off in a relationship. Face-to-face communication is becoming a lost art and I believe those who have mastered it will rise to the top.”

Dixon thinks service is what keeps Amazon at bay: “Janitorial B2B is about service. You can have the right product and selection and be price competitive, but it is still about service. Staples does a good job of it; Amazon does not. Amazon will deliver product to the lobby. We take it to where customers want it; we put it in the supply closet.”

Puccinelli also contends that Amazon is not as big a threat in jan/san as in office products. “We don’t lose a ton of jan/san business to Amazon,” he says. “It’s more residential and not commercial. Plus, the big manufacturers in jan/san, such as GOJO and Kimberly-Clark, are very protective and don’t sell through Amazon.”

But that’s not to say there aren’t other major competitors in the field. “On the West Coast, the biggest competitors are WAXIE and Brady,” he reveals.

Whitlow agrees there is competition, but sees a definite space for independent dealers in the market. “Amazon is a little bit of a competitor, but not much,” he says. “It chases the onesies and twosies of residential orders. We do not. Staples and Office Depot are more into jan/san than office products and are competitors for larger accounts, but they don’t work with the small to midsize accounts. And the independent jan/san dealers focus more on commercial cleaning customers.”

In fact, the lack of Amazon competition is what motivated Carolina Office Supply to enter the jan/san marketplace. “Amazon sells some of the smaller soaps and some chemicals, but not much,” explains Dixon. “We went after the market because Amazon wasn’t there and its delivery isn’t set up for it. A box of pens will fit in a van, but it’s hard to get five cases of toilet paper in one. We have three or four different types of delivery vehicles to fit where we are delivering.”

For McLeod, Amazon is the least of his competitive worries: “I distributed some in the past through Amazon’s warehouse just so I would know how it operated and see how it affected B2B. It may be taking a bit out, but not enough to change what we are doing. Our biggest jan/san competitors are still the big boxes, like Staples and Office Depot; but also the Graingers of the world and regional powerhouses, like Tennant and Hillyard, which are good at what they do. For industrial, we compete with Uline. I have a lot of respect for that company.”

Interestingly, for Reese, Uline spells opportunity. “If a customer is buying from Uline, which has higher prices, we know there is an opportunity for us to sell at a good margin,” he says. “We come in with S.P. Richards, Solaris and others, and can be competitive. The customer gets more selection and good management, so it’s a win-win. Also, we have found customers buying office products from Uline. We didn’t know there was business slipping out the back door. Janitorial products have gotten us in the back door to see it.”

Advice from the trenches

While most office product dealers have started selling some form of janitorial-related products, the dealers we interviewed have advice for suppliers that have not fully committed.

“Ask the questions,” Puccinelli advises. “It’s not as scary as it might seem, especially the way our industry is going. We pigeonholed ourselves into office products, but you have to realize Staples is the number one largest supplier of janitorial products.”

Siefring echoes this: “Don’t be scared; there’s an opportunity out there—jump on it. It’s not that hard. Ask questions; lean on your vendor sales reps.”

Miller also favors a “go for it” attitude: “Jump in with both feet! You can’t go halfway. Make mistakes, but learn from them. Get another notch in your belt.”

“Getting into the jan/san market is easier than some,” concludes McLeod. “But first of all, you have to have an appetite for diving into things. As they say, ‘Don’t let perfect become the enemy of good.’ Otherwise, my advice, in no particular order, is to bolster your risk tolerance. You don’t have to know it all. Start the conversation with your customer and find a way into the industry. Some independent dealers are killing it, better than me. But many are afraid of jeopardizing their other business. I never lost a penny by raising my hand and asking to talk about jan/san. Also, diversify your supply chain; be sure to have enough sources. Finally, be willing to invest. It’s normally scary but especially now, when people are watching pennies from the pandemic. But invest now, so when things pick up, you are ready. Find the right people and get serious.”


Lisa Veeck is associate editor of INDEPENDENT DEALER magazine and the owner of Clean Communications, a full-service content-generating firm specializing in the office products, cleaning and maintenance, and healthcare fields. She can be reached at or (773) 484-7412.