Whatever ‘business as usual’ was in early 2020, it came to a sudden halt in March for most of us. Sales of traditional OP – certainly through the established distribution channels and perhaps to the benefit of online operators – plummeted when large swathes of the global workforce were sent home and into various lockdowns.
Several segments have fared well as a result of the homeworking trend. But there is one category that has moved to the top of the agenda and become relevant to every conceivable customer group: health and hygiene.
It encompasses everything from all manner of jan/san products to PPE, signage and safety equipment. Demand for these items in the early days of COVID-19 was ferocious and the need immediate. So much so that manufacturers in this up-until-now mostly adjacent segment in our space were inundated with requests for products that have long been in their portfolio, but where historically demand has been steady and continuous. Most vendors, predictably and understandably, couldn’t keep up as supply chain disruptions occurred all around the world.
GOJO – best known perhaps for its PURELL hand sanitiser range – ramped up production at all its manufacturing facilities when the scale of the pandemic became apparent. By March and despite record-breaking production levels, the company said it had to prioritise the distribution of key products to ensure hospitals, first responders, and critical infrastructure providers could access the items they needed. It was simply overwhelmed.
US-based Deflecto is another well-established brand in our sector – albeit in a different sub-category – and it has certainly risen to the challenge. Not all parts of its portfolio have done well in the past few months, but the company has launched an impressive 50 new products in a very short period of time.
As Maggie Waples, Global VP of Product Management and Marketing, says: “Sneeze guards are popular and are used in a wide variety of contexts including retail, grocery, drug store chains, businesses, municipalities and schools. This product category was literally born out of COVID and did not exist six months ago. Demand for these products continues and the supply chain is new and without any major leaders, so the results are significant to the company.
“Signage, meanwhile, is part of our core business, but we expanded it into social distancing signage such as floor markers, seat and water cooler signage to help companies and schools easily communicate available seating and distance.
“We also manufacture anti-fog, disposable face shields (non-medical) and have used our sourcing expertise to contract with the NHS in the UK to supply masks.”
Antimicrobial and antibacterial have become big terms again and are being used in an ever-growing range of applications, by Deflecto and many other operators.
Specialist of technical cleaning equipment AF International has seen vastly heightened demand for antibacterial products, in terms of workplace and home office cleaning supplies, as well as PPE such as safety glasses and hearing defenders. Marketing Manager Julia Vorley comments: “Technology cleaning has become hugely important as tablets and smartphones have functioned as a lifeline to the outside world.”
Unorthodox supply chain
The sheer scale of demand meant that the reseller and wholesaler communities in our sector typically couldn’t fulfil customer requests through the usual routes. Frank Hoard, Director of the Facility Supply Channel at US dealer group Independent Suppliers Group (ISG), says: “As vendors could not meet the pandemic demand, new suppliers have stepped in with alternative product to help bridge the gap.
“As of August, the disposable gloves market, kitchen towels, disinfecting aerosols and disinfecting wipes were the products hardest to come by. It has meant that the independent dealer channel has moved towards far more self-sufficient and unorthodox supply chain options.”
Gloves, by all accounts, has been a particularly difficult sub-category – a “nightmare” as several dealers reported. One of ISG’s vendor partners, meanwhile, according to Hoard, compared the disposable glove supply chain to a fish market, with different brands, fluctuating availability and pricing that had to be secured literally every morning.
He adds: “From 27 July to 10 August, disposable glove pricing increased by more than 80%. Indications are that it will increase further until the end of the year. It’s incredibly difficult for dealers to explain that volatility to their customers.”
At the other end of the spectrum, overcapacity is an issue too. Face masks are a good example of this, explains VOW Wholesale’s Buying Director Simon McLoughlin. “Understanding the trends within the trend has been a real challenge. The high demand for face coverings has seen three different product areas growing, spiking and declining at various times. These are disposable respirators and medical masks, disposable civilian masks and reusable civilian masks. The same can be said of the sanitiser market with individual, desktop and bulk fill products trending in several ways. The net effect was an often over-inflated view of anticipated and future demand that led to the current overstocking.”
A move away from tried and tested sources of supply, which so many resellers had to explore, has also meant the risk of procuring fake and fraudulent products. Masks not meeting standards they were approved for by the relevant regulatory bodies, false claims on packaging or hand sanitisers that include dangerously high levels of methanol are all examples of at best unethical, at worst health-threatening opportunism.
Ongoing education and meticulous verification processes are vital for everybody, but most definitely for those new to and uninitiated in the hygiene and PPE game. Data Direct is one such operator. Based in the UK, it’s known as a distributor of copier and printer supplies, consumables and associated value-added services. But when COVID hit and the need for PPE became apparent, the business adapted quickly to support its 600+ dealers that urgently required these items not only for their employees, but also for an increasing number of their customers.
Securing reliable, quality-assured products from trusted sources was a priority for the purchasing team, says Procurement Director Peter Cowan. There were other challenges too, as he explains: “The whole process has a been a big learning curve. The problem initially appeared to be availability, but in actual fact, it was more a case of tactical logistics that was required. Our usual partners were able to help us overcome these barriers. Another huge obstacle was the availability of space on vessels and planes, and the resulting exorbitant pricing to secure that space.”
Data Direct has further branched out into uncharted territory with the recent launch of a new COVID-specific item called the Hygienehook. Created by its in-house product designer, the Hygienehook is designed to help people open, hold and close doors safely, without ever touching them directly. The product has received considerable coverage in the mainstream media.
New, pandemic-related R&D has become imperative, especially for vendors that were historically more at home in the severely declining traditional OP categories. Germany’s Durable has done just that. As Managing Director Rolf Schifferens points out, items like its name badges have taken a real hit, as they’re typically used for events which are non-existent right now.
But the company remains upbeat and embraced the challenge, according to Schifferens. “Our experience has been positive. We have created a special task force to ensure speed and a special focus on potential products in order to be quick to market.
“We launched a number of new items, spearheaded by face visors and hygiene dispensers. Based on our core competencies, we have also created other solutions to help companies reopen and meet the requirements set by local authorities. Demand is coming both from our existing partners as well as new entities.”
Sign of the times
As mentioned earlier, Signage has become another main component of this COVID world, in terms of social distancing as well as the labelling of products. Avery has been developing its industrial product range for years, so is ideally placed to support its reseller partners with adhesive safety signage items. Where the vendor has seen particular spikes in recent months too, however, has been in the area of chemical labelling goods.
As Group Product Manager Colwin Chan says: “With the need to disinfect every area of our work and home life, transferring and diluting concentrated disinfectants into spray bottles has become more and more common. We’ve seen demand dramatically increase for chemical-resistant labels for 32-oz spray bottles used in manufacturing and medical facilities, warehouses and offices.
“In the workplace, identifying chemicals in secondary containers like spray bottles is a critical safety component. They must have labels compliant with OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard as well as correct Safety Data Sheet information. We have noticed not only a rise in the number of labels sold, but also access of the Global Harmonised System Wizard and templates on our website as they are being used to customise and print individual labels.”
Health and safety at work – and that workplace is often still at home right now – goes way beyond cleaning needs in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. Employee mental well-being aside – a completely different and huge issue not covered in this feature – the realities of so many homeworkers have also meant considerable opportunities in other areas. One of these is ergonomics.
Fellowes Brands’ Johan Hereijgers, Global Market Senior Director of Work Solutions, explains: “As staff are now working from home with a longer term set-up in mind, we see that they want to get more organised and comfortable. It isn’t working for people to have monitors set up on boxes, for example. As a result, we are witnessing a shift towards better home office ergonomics.”
There’s no doubt, however, that there’s a real need to fill offices with people again, from a psychological as well as economic viewpoint. But to do that, staff need to feel safe to return (see also A deep dive).
Appropriate signage, perspex and acrylic screens, re-configured spaces, temperature checks, not to mention a severe uptick in all things cleaning, will contribute to that feeling of being looked after properly. As Mike Booth, Global Market Director of Air Treatment at Fellowes says, a side effect of the new COVID and ultimately post-COVID office has also been a much bigger focus on air purification.
He asserts: “HR professionals, facilities managers and business leaders across the globe are all facing the same challenge: how can we safely reoccupy the workplace and protect our most important assets – our people? We believe air hygiene is as critical as handwashing and surface sanitisation. This is backed by experts in the field who are advising organisations to consider the use of localised HEPA air filtration as part of a re-occupancy plan.”
Cleaning focus: here to stay
Everybody is talking about the future, the dreaded – or is it highly anticipated – ‘new normal’. The resounding consensus from everybody OPI talked to, not just for this feature, but several other health and hygiene-related articles in this issue, is that, even if and when COVID doesn’t pose a threat anymore, the sharpened focus on all things health, hygiene and safety will stay.
That means sustainable sales from these categories which have forged their way into our sector so vigorously. It has also resulted in a considerably better educated consumer and supplier base across the board and, as such, better preparedness for whatever may come next. Those factors combined, plus a hopefully happier and healthier workforce, surely is a good thing.