By Lisa Veeck
Few things are more conducive to learning, training or simply imparting information than visual communication products. And with more people working remotely post-COVID-19, how best to share information has become an increasingly pressing issue. One of the most popular products in this regard is the once-humble whiteboard, which now comes in a wide range of sizes, materials and options—from metal, melamine and glass to standard, customizable and “smart.”
Despite all these possible variances, most independent dealers find them an easy and profitable sell—although that’s not to say it’s without its challenges.
Visual communication products, primarily whiteboards, account for about 1 to 2 percent of the overall business of AAA Business Interiors, San Francisco, California; and the majority of those sales are seasonal.
“We sell whiteboards mostly to schools and government agencies,” says vice president of sales Bill Jones. “Schools order them at the start of the new school year; and we just sold $80,000 worth of whiteboards to our largest account, the Department of Energy, in August/September. Government agency budgets end September 30 and they have to ‘use it or lose it,’ so internally, they usually have a July/August order cutoff so they can order in August or early September. The nice thing about whiteboards is they are usually higher-ticket sales.”
Great Falls Paper and Supply, Great Falls, Montana, also sells a lot of whiteboards to the federal government, thanks to its General Services Administration (GSA) contract status. President and owner Mike Flaherty agrees that the sales tend to be higher dollar amounts: “I sell a lot of Mastervision Bi-silque whiteboards; and I sold the first 65-inch smart whiteboards in the country—I sold three of them and they go for $2,500 each. I also recently sold 190 glass boards for about $25,000 to a U.S. Air Force base in the Middle East. Our most popular size is four feet by eight feet standard boards that sell for about $400 each.”
At Indoff, Inc. in St. Louis, Missouri, visual boards account for 25 to 30 percent of the company’s total sales. “The whiteboards have really taken off for us,” enthuses Dave Fite. “We’ve been the primary vendor for one of the largest auto parts chains in the country that has been headquartered here for 30 years. It has 6,037 stores nationwide and 200 more under construction. We sell the whiteboards for every store—about 3,000 a year. We sell mostly standard whiteboards, but we’ll sell any type they need. The company uses some interactive boards in its corporate offices. I couldn’t care less if I sell another stapler in my life. Just selling boards provides a very good living.”
Fite believes Indoff’s success in the sector is due to maintaining quality and listening to customers. “The biggest reason we’ve been successful is not selling cheap generic products where issues can arise and sticking to our customers’ needs,” he explains. “We’re not like some stores where you go in for a toothbrush and they try to sell you everything. We find their needs and stick to them. Technology has changed and some of it has passed me by. But most big companies know what they need. So we get them what they need, how they need it, when they need it.”
Eakes Office Solutions, Grand Island, Nebraska, has been selling interactive whiteboards for seven years, but the focus has really ramped up in the last three. The company carries the Sharp Aquos line in all sizes, from the 22-inch desktop to 80-inch and larger displays. In fiscal year 2022-23, the segment accounted for 5 percent of sales in the company’s technology services department.
“Eakes’ print and technology divisions work hand in hand selling whiteboards,” says managed print product manager David Lehy. “The print division handles a lot of the sales and marketing aspect with customers. The tech services division does some sales as well. But the tech team can install and configure and train customers how to use them, which is a big differentiator from the competition in our market.”
Eakes’ major interactive whiteboard buyers are K-12 education and small to medium-sized businesses and municipalities, including law enforcement. “We are not in a metro area, so there is a lot of sharing of resources among the different counties,” explains chief technology sales consultant Christian Pohlenz. “If there is a raid, the interactivity allows them to all be networked together to share information without driving 50, 60 or 100 miles.” According to Pohlenz, the pandemic helped fuel interest in the boards, especially among small to medium-sized businesses.
Lehy is struck by the diversity of these businesses and their uses for the boards: “You wouldn’t think of a heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) company using them, for example. But we have one that uses it to display the information its workers need for the day.”
Pohlenz elaborates: “We installed a 75-inch board so the HVAC workers can touch it first thing in the morning and see what calls they have and then prepare their trucks accordingly. It saves them driving back and forth for additional supplies, and they can be networked to their tablets. It also helps with training: they can learn how to install new furnaces or plumbing, and several workers can do recertification testing all in one place.”
“Easy-peasy” for some, but not all
Jones reports that AAA Business moves a lot of standard whiteboards, but has found selling the interactive versions challenging. “It’s not for the faint-of-heart office products rep,” he warns. “We talk to schools about them and they agree they are very cool. But they have standard IT departments and installing them is too complicated, so they usually go with standard boards.”
And even the standard options can pose challenges. “The biggest one is finding customers’ needs and how the board can help create efficiencies,” explains Pohlenz. “There’s no silver bullet for all. You have to take the time to find the best board and solution for them based on their needs.”
Jones continues: “You really need a domestic source for the big year-end sales. You can get one or two boards from wholesalers, but they don’t stock quantity. Importing them from far away can take three to four weeks and that won’t do, because orders are usually placed early to mid-September and they have to be delivered by September 30. We received a $50,000 order for boards in two sizes. No one in the supply chain could fill it and importing them would take too long. We contacted Brett Doyle, our rep from Mooreco, and the company had them built and assembled for us.”
Similarly, Flaherty would contend that the challenges are virtually nonexistent if you have the right manufacturing partner. “I should say selling them is hard, so not all the dealers will sell them,” he jokes. “But I’m not like other office products dealers because I have a janitorial background and only got into office products because of my GSA contract. The truth is, I have absolutely zero knowledge of whiteboards. But most of the time, the big customers know what they want. They call and say, ‘I need this in this size,’ and I price it and get it to them. If they have a question or want to know the difference between two boards, I contact the manufacturer and ask and get back to the customer with the three main differences. What customers want in visual communication items is the same as what they always want: they want service; they want you to make it easy for them to buy from you.”
Lehy has some sage counsel for dealers looking to succeed in visual communications—an area he expects will continue to grow throughout 2024: “Locate a good partner. We are really proud of our long relationship with Sharp Electronics. The company offers very innovative products and is very committed to this segment of business. Its purchase of NEC reflects this. It expanded its offerings and gives us new projectors and auxiliary products outside of the displays.”
Pohlenz advises: “Check the extended warranties the supplier offers—especially for boards by K-12, which are used more heavily. Purchasing an extended one upfront can limit a dealer’s exposure. If something tragic does happen to the board, you’ll have more leverage if there is an extended warranty.”
Pohlenz also believes having employees who understand the technology is vital. “It’s crucial to have some people on staff with more knowledge and a higher comfort level with the boards,” he says. “You need experts who can go to the space and get the boards installed correctly, to ensure the customer gets the full benefit of the boards.”
Lehy would agree: “You need a marketing and sales side and a tech side. Our salespeople know enough to ask questions to determine customers’ needs and then turn it over to Christian and Jeff in our technology division.”
And Jones is on the same page. “You need an interactive specialist,” he insists. “Saying office products salespeople will sell the boards is like saying they will sell computers. Sales can get us an introduction, but you still need a dedicated person who knows what he or she is talking about.”
But not everyone sees a need for a specialist. “My advice is to ask the manufacturers for help,” says Flaherty. “They will provide it.”
Fite concludes by advising: “Buy quality. Whether ceramic, glass, interactive or whatever type, buy boards that will hold up for the business. Customers want quality, good pricing and what they want, how and when they want it.”