OPI: What have been your core challenges during these past few months?
Greg Liénard, CEO, Lyreco: From one day to the next, we had to reverse the focus of our process management. We are used to selling what is in stock and available. Encountering so much more demand, we had to shift our resources to sourcing in order to secure product availability in the jungle of manufacturers mainly from Asia, certainly in the early days. Later, more European sourcing channels were discovered and secured.
We embraced the opportunity to launch our own brand of surgical masks. The necessity for advance payments to get production line capacity has forced us to push back these new purchasing conditions towards our customers. In the middle of the first wave, we also had a lot of uncertainties in the overall value chain, right up until the products were delivered to customers.
Simon McLoughlin, Buying Director, VOW Wholesale: The core challenge has been adapting to volatile demand and the changing situation in the supply chain. At times, it has been impossible to keep up with demand; at others, demand has disappeared just as fast. We have had multiple vendors that simply could not cope with the level of requirement we and other customers have placed on them. I don’t think we can be critical of vendors unable to deliver because they quite literally didn’t have the physical capacity. They also understood, and sometimes even helped, when we found alternative products to try and bridge the gap.
Maggie Waples, Global VP of Product Management and Marketing, Deflecto: The trends you hear in the news are true. Raw materials sourcing has presented some issues for the company, though our vertical manufacturing has mitigated the impact to a degree. Raw materials costs have gone up in some – not all – cases and we see longer lead times from vendors on certain materials. We’ve also experienced slowness in response times if vendors are shut down or have limited staff to work.
Freight costs and freight reliability have been a significant challenge both domestically and overseas across all industries. While we do significant manufacturing in the US, we also have a plant in China and do some sourcing overseas. High demand and the need for short lead times on products makes working with overseas plants and sourcing a challenge.
We are already hearing more customers ask for ‘Made in the USA’ and expect a trend back towards domestic manufacturing and a shortened supply chain and lead times. We are responding with expansion of more local production and sourcing. ‘Localisation’ to shorten the supply chain is a likely trend for some time to come across all industries.
OPI: Has your route to market for COVID-related products changed? If so, do you view that as a permanent situation?
Peter Cowan, Procurement Director, Data Direct: At the height of the COVID-19 lockdown, many organisations working in the care and nursing sectors were desperate for PPE supplies. Data Direct, ordinarily a distributor to the dealer community only, felt it was our social responsibility to support those key workers as much as possible. If they needed stocks to help save and protect lives, we made it available to them.
As a rule, and now things have settled, we are in a strong position to advise and support our dealers in finding new channels and supplying quality PPE to their customers for as long as it’s needed.
OPI: Have you had any issues with ‘standards’ and obtaining the ‘right’ products with the necessary quality control?
Greg Liénard, CEO, Lyreco: Yes, several times. We have a very strong compliancy team and been paying considerable attention to filter out all “dubious” products.
Simon McLoughlin, Buying Director, VOW Wholesale: This seems to have been the biggest learning curve for the supply chain during this period. The purchasing of many items in high demand is complex, requires knowledge, and the ability to verify products and factories. There has been misinterpretation of the relaxation of the CE marking rules by the government and some false equivalence between standards made.
I would estimate eight out of ten face coverings we were offered from UK businesses during Q2 had invalid or incorrect certification. Inexperience has played a part and too much trust was placed in factories that the certificate they were providing was relevant, valid or even real.
At VOW, we focused our sourcing efforts on existing, trusted, long-term vendors and ensuring we were visiting factories and sub-contractors before orders to understand capability, quality systems, and social and environmental issues, as well as after production to check quality. All those verification processes take time which is frustrating, but they are necessary.
Rolf Schifferens, Managing Director, Durable: To launch new COVID-19 products, we had to closely collaborate with the authorities and our legal department was very involved. As international regulations sometimes vary from country to country, it is important to understand all the possibilities and opportunities. Some countries have released regulations for a limited time at the beginning to create faster supply of, say, hygiene gels or sprays, while others have had tighter rules on items like face visors from the beginning – Scandinavia is one such example.
Maggie Waples, Global VP of Product Management and Marketing, Deflecto: No, we have not. We already have our certifications and quality controls in place for all of the materials and products we currently produce. We have long established independent testing protocols on all of our new products and we continued to follow this in the product development process. We have a few new testing and certification requirements in working with schools and the process for securing these have been smooth and predictable.
Peter Cowan, Procurement Director, Data Direct: Standards were obviously critical, especially since most of the products were medical-related. The NHS did issue good guidelines for a lot of products and these were, in theory, easy to follow and implement. However, there is a massive amount of underhanded dealing taking place involving fake documents, and even fake issuers of documents. We ensured that we learned the standards quickly, and went several layers deep in our verification of documents. If we were not totally satisfied, we didn’t proceed.
OPI: There has long been plenty of information out there about the number of bacteria on desks, keyboards, mobile phones, etc. How can these headline-grabbing stats be converted into something helpful for company leaders or facilities managers?
Colwin Chan, Group Product Manager, Avery: Manufacturers and resellers can be thought leaders within this space by helping disseminate and promote the best practices from OSHA and the CDC with regards to returning to the workplace in a safe manner.
Facilities managers and safety directors have always had to continuously and rigorously implement OSHA requirements – that’s not new. What’s new is that sanitation and disinfecting the workplace has become priority number one for both managers and employees.
As leaders, they can leverage the “all in this together” mentality as they develop a germ-prevention programme that includes a plan for assessing COVID-19 hazards and implementing controls. This includes eliminating hazards such as ensuring anyone who is sick stays home or screening before entry; installing engineering controls such as physical barriers; or requiring masks and implementing appropriate sanitation, cleaning and disinfection protocols.
Constant, explicit and transparent communication about the steps employers are taking to ensure the safety of employees is crucial. Safety signage and labelling can help communication from the top down and help employees work together to keep each other aware and working as safely as possible.
OPI: How long do you see the current demand continuing for?
Greg Liénard, CEO, Lyreco: As soon as a vaccine is available, things will normalise. However, there are many new entrants that entered the market space in an opportunistic way and they will disrupt the market’s equilibrium for some time. But these disruptions will lead to an acceleration of innovation in our industry. New dynamics and a change of existing patterns always lead to opportunities. Lyreco is ready to capture and capitalise on those to secure its leadership position.
Rolf Schifferens, Managing Director, Durable: This will depend on a number of factors. When will a vaccine be ready? How will the pandemic develop? Short-term, most products will continue to be needed. We also believe that some behaviour patterns will continue, especially in the hygiene sector. Matters of health and safety are now prioritised and will most likely stay. This will also play a strong role when employees come back to the office. All in all, we learn as we go.
Colwin Chan, Group Product Manager, Avery: We expect that the increased demand for our printable signage and chemical labelling products will continue well into 2021 as organisations remain focused on germ-prevention and social distancing.
Slowing the spread of germs must be at the forefront of operations in order to help keep employees safe until a COVID-19 vaccine has been released and fully implemented. Even after the current pandemic has subsided, we feel that there will be an ongoing heightened awareness for best practices around hygiene and cleaning to mitigate the risk of future outbreaks.
While we’re not sure that the ‘new normal’ will continue indefinitely, we believe that it will be around for the foreseeable future, ie about three to five years until there is a proven and effective vaccine. What we do know is whether a vaccine is available three weeks or three years from now, the risk of future outbreaks will leave us all with a heightened awareness for hygiene and cleaning best practices moving forward.
Maggie Waples, Global VP of Product Management and Marketing, Deflecto:
We have talked to several researchers currently conducting research on PPE and safety products as well as doing secondary research. No one has the answer to this question and the predictions change as the pandemic continues to unfold. My suggestion to our senior team at Deflecto has been to take any prediction with some degree of scepticism particularly in the mid to long term and continue to monitor the market and trends carefully.
The following is my current view based on where we are in this pandemic:
- Short-term, demand for PPE (medical and consumer) and related personal safety products such as sneeze guards, social distancing signage, and hand sanitisers will remain high through 2020 and into Q1 2021. The current return to work and school resulting in the rise in cases and deaths make it clear that immunity to the disease is a requirement before we can reduce or eliminate PPE and related safety products.
- Mid-term (2021), we expect demand for PPE/safety products to smooth out particularly in the back half of the year. Timing on consumable product lines like masks, gloves and hand sanitiser dispensers will have a lot to do with vaccine availability and proven efficacy of the vaccine. Sneeze guards, as they become saturated and readily available, and other non-consumable safety products are likely to slow down and smooth out in the back half of 2021. The open question remains on how secure consumers and employees will feel post-vaccine. If fears persist over future viruses or how long antibodies last, we may continue to see demand for PPE ongoing. E-commerce and big box retailers will make these products a permanent part of planograms and inventory. Employers will continue to source products to ensure employees feel safe and protected.
- The working-from-home (WFH) mega trend (and study from home) are likely here to stay. Early studies from Global Workplace Analytics are estimating a four-fold increase in WFH US employees (not including self-employed). We could go from five million pre-COVID to 20-25 million working from home half-time to full-time. Commercial buildings will be reconfigured to create less dense spaces and companies will shrink their real estate footprint as they move employees to a full or part-time WFH setting. Demand for higher end home office and study spaces will rise and consumers will seek more technology, personalisation and organisation in their spaces. The reversal of urbanisation, dual home offices and home schooling are interesting trends to watch that will have impact on products demanded in the office products channel. These are medium to long-term trends that will change the face of working America and offer very interesting product and technology innovation opportunities.
- I would not predict past 2021 on consumer PPE and personal safety. There is too much of this pandemic yet to unfold.