Building service contractors who have noticed an increase in curiously specced, newly packaged and mysteriously changed products, from toilet paper to trash bags to cleaning chemicals, are not alone. This phenomenon is something that seems to have picked up momentum on the heels of the recession, say distributors and BSCs.

“The past year, the past couple years, it’s been increasing, with every product,” says Rene Brunal, director of operations for Beelabor Janitorial in Fairfax, Va.

Many BSCs are facing confusion about the products they’ve purchased. Chris Nolan, president of HT Berry, a Canton, Mass.-based distributor, says he gets calls all the time from customers who can’t read specs or find items or codes in the product guide.

“In our industry, product codes are very important. So a lot of times we’ll get a call from a building service contractor, asking what the code means. A lot of times we can’t find it, so we have to play private detective and go out there and help them out, make sure they’re getting what they expect to be getting at the price they want it at,” Nolan says.

The best way to know that a company is getting what it pays for, is simply to check, says Louie Davis Jr., senior territory manager with Central Paper Co. in Birmingham, Ala.

“Always get a sample case. You may have to weigh the case because, in the end, paper is always bought and sold by the pound,” Davis says.

Weighing products is sometimes the only way to know for sure, Nolan says, because it’s the one place manufacturers and distributors cannot cheat.

“The misleading [manufacturers and distributors] are the folks that make a product and don’t put the weight on the box. That’s the bottom line. I know that sounds so basic but it really is true when it comes to paper and trash bags, especially,” Nolan says.

Being a cheater paper expert is also a good way to reach out to customers who are purchasing their own products. Paul Spenard, director of business development at CJ Maintenance Inc. in Columbia, Md., recalls helping a customer by offering a supply audit. When that customer went back to their supplier, they were offered a great deal but got cheater paper in return.

“It was all about the janitorial supply company increasing its bottom line by short-changing customers,” Spenard says. “It’s just dishonest.“

Chances are, if a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. With a product like paper, distributors recommend checking the specs, measuring if in doubt and checking the weight.

Specs for toilet paper, for instance, can include any number of factors, including the type of paper used, ply, number of sheets, width and length of the sheet size or roll, and number of rolls per case.

Brunal would like there to be more transparency in purchasing, because while some off-spec products, such as liners, primarily affect his company internally, others can have an impact on customer relations and retention.

“We are affected by what our suppliers do and we are responsible to try to maintain the level of quality with less” money coming in from customers, he says.

The bulk of the responsibility for the cheater problem falls on the shoulders of distributors, says Nolan. Distributors need to educate themselves about what’s going on in the marketplace and about what they are selling, and need to be better communicators with end users.

“There are a number of true-spec products, especially when it comes to paper and hand soaps and cleaning chemicals that dispense a certain way, so we try to really go out there and promote value-added products that bring solutions into the workplace,” Nolan says. “That’s how I feel we’re winning now, is by going out there with value-added solutions.”

BSCs will benefit by opening the lines of communication with front-line employees — the ones who work directly with these products.

“Some changes happen without us knowing. and we get the comments from employees in the field,” says Brunal.

Also, communication with distributors remains key to not being taken advantage of.

“It’s by having a good relationship with your supplier that you know you’re getting what you’re paying for,” Spenard says. “That’s really what it comes down to.”

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Off-Spec: Defining 'Cheater Paper'