Navigating products in today’s marketplace is becoming more difficult for everyone. On a consumer level, it’s felt at the supermarket, where a box of cereal is a bit lighter, the carton of juice isn’t so full, and a package of bacon is smaller; or at restaurants, where portions on a plate have shrunk but prices haven’t.

In the cleaning industry, in which pricing can be extremely competitive, the costs of materials that go into the manufacturing of paper products, plastic liners and some chemicals have increased. So when the prices of those items don’t go up much or at all to reflect those increases, it is worth it to do a bit of investigative work. In other words, a “great deal” may not be what it purports to be.

How BSCs are getting cheated

From fewer rolls of paper per case and smaller rolls of paper, to poorer quality and product inconsistency in liners and chemicals, certain aspects of purchasing have become very frustrating, says Rene Brunal, director of operations for Beelabor Janitorial in Fairfax, Va.

The company orders through distributors, at least one of which it had to cease its relationship with over questionable products and subsequent customer service issues. Beelabor has also sought out new products over quality issues after front-line employees alerted corporate staff of changes.

Diplomatically called “off-spec” and casually referred to as “cheater” products by cleaning industry professionals, this trend started with paper products and liners — and it continues, as pricing pressures have only increased.

Cheater paper, which has been an industry buzz phrase of late, isn’t a new phenomenon, but it does seem to be where it all started.

“In my opinion, it’s been going on forever — well over even when I began in the industry 13 years ago,” says Chris Nolan, president of HT Berry, a Canton, Mass.-based distributor. “But it wasn’t as common as it is now, no question. And it’s expanded to a huge amount of items. … I would say in the last three years it’s been very prevalent, to the point it’s filtered into basically almost all aspects of our business.”

The word “cheater” implies deception. But that’s not necessarily correct in all cases, says Nolan. While packaging and labeling may be misleading, it just takes a bigger commitment to finding the details of products than was necessary in the past, he says.

“A lot of new case packs have come into the industry, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” he says. “It’s just that sometimes, when you’re pricing things out versus a competitor and they’re writing in just a generic code or spec, it doesn’t line up. You’re not comparing in an apples-to-apples scenario.”

The change in case packs represents one of the more major shifts in how some distributors are hiding the facts, says Louie Davis Jr., senior territory manager with Central Paper Co. in Birmingham, Ala.

Not only are some paper products being tweaked in sheet size and sheets per roll, but now, assumptions can’t be made about case packs.

“For years, on standard tissue, it was always a 96-roll case pack,” Davis says. “The major manufacturers changed and went to an 80-roll case pack and now when it comes to the converters who primarily are producing and supplying the cheater sheet product, you don’t know what the heck you’re getting.”

BSCs need to therefore pay attention, he says, since invoices don’t always include much more than a number of cases and price per case.

Most distributors are not intentionally trying to mislead buyers, Davis says.

“The message for the buyer is, be careful about what you’re doing,” Davis says. “Pay attention to what you’re getting, and don’t assume anything.”

Not only can attentive purchasing help weed out distributors that don’t have a contractor’s best interests in mind, it can also help build relationships with those good distributors.

“Most of your good distributors, they became a good distributor by being fair and honest,” Davis says. Even for small-to-mid-sized BSCs, who don’t typically order from the major paper mills, it pays to negotiate with distributors to get pricing down.

BSCs are likely familiar with some cheater products, but they may not be aware of the breadth and extent of it in the same way a distributor is, Nolan says. BSCs just don’t always have the time or resources to pay attention to specs of every single product they purchase.

And sometimes, BSCs simply don’t care about anything but the price. But contractors would benefit from reading the fine print and knowing the specs of those supposedly cheaper products.

Standard toilet paper rolls, for example, have long been sized at 4.5 inches x 4.5 inches, and 9-inch jumbo rolls have been 1,000 linear feet long. But standard rolls have in some cases been reduced to 4.5 inches x 3.5 inches and jumbo rolls have been fluffed to appear to be the same length, but are only 800 feet long.

For end users who are only concerned with product codes on purchasing forms, these details could be easily missed as it is assumed the standard measurements apply.

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Cheaters: How To Avoid 'Off-Spec' Paper Products