If variety is the spice of life, then housekeeping managers must feel well seasoned. When it comes to purchasing janitorial products, end users now have more options than ever, but that abundance may have some managers questioning whether more is always better.

The jan/san industry has historically been quite insular, with distributors almost always serving as the go-to source for purchasing. Today, however, big-box retailers and manufacturers are expanding the industry into a more crowded — and competitive — marketplace.

For example, the 4.2-million-square-foot Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., purchases its supplies and equipment from a variety of vendors in an effort to meet ever-diminishing budgets.

“We search for the best possible pricing through many different resources, without sacrificing quality,” says Daminga Lash, the mall’s housekeeping manager. “Each manufacturer is unique in the way that it distributes its products. Some sell directly to end-user consumers, while others consistently use distributors to handle their products.”

While choice can be a benefit, it can also make a manager’s job more difficult. Instead of reflexively calling a distributor for product, a buyer must now research each product and vendor before making a purchase. Their evaluation process includes a whole host of criteria, from price and quality to such intangibles as knowledge and service.

“The trend that I see most clearly is a growing sophistication among housekeeping managers,” says Sanford Leavy, president of City Supply Co. Inc., a distributor in Egg Harbor Township, N.J. “They are becoming better educated and resourceful. I have customers compare active ingredients on material safety data sheets (MSDS) to match up competitive products. They are expecting more support and better answers from their vendors.”

The Best Buy

Purchasing decisions often boil down to dollars and cents — a situation that is becoming more common in today’s worsening economy. When the bottom line is paramount, purchasing directly from the manufacturer is usually the most cost-effective route. It eliminates the middleman and the price markups that go with it.

Several years ago, Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, ordered much of its product direct from the manufacturers. The school, which had a large warehouse that has since been eliminated, put out bids for large quantities (i.e., semi truck loads) in order to get prices lower than distributors offered. As Ohio University learned, however, going straight to the source has its drawbacks.

“Manufacturers are good options if you can order in bulk and redistribute those items,” says Steve Mack, director of building and grounds at Ohio University. “What we failed to take into account was the amount of time, effort and money that we tied up in distributing the mass amounts of product. With the downsizing of our staff and lack of receiving room, we have not used these options as of late.”

Outsourced and unreliable delivery options, and a lack of variety or competitive options are additional downsides.

With so few end users able to place and receive large orders, some manufacturers have begun selling smaller quantities. After getting bogged down in these smaller orders, however, the practice has largely ended, although some equipment manufacturers still sell direct.

For most small to mid-size facilities, distributors offer the best pricing. Discounts for larger quantities, frequent purchases and/or on-time payment histories are additional incentives that can make distributor pricing even more attractive. And unlike manufacturers, most distributors offer free or low-cost delivery and keep many common items in stock and ready for delivery.

The Internet has made distributors even more popular among end users. In addition to being able to purchase at leisure from a bricks-and-mortar company’s Web site, there are now web-only distributors that — to stay competitive — offer lower pricing and a wider selection.

“Our maintenance operation has a contract with an online-based distributor that also carries custodial supplies,” Mack says. “We use this company when we need a small quantity quickly. They provide a 24-hour turnaround in most cases and with our contract pricing, they are very cost effective.”

Inside The Big Box

The newest option available to end users is the big-box retail store, such as Lowe’s or Costco. Not even on the horizon 20 years ago, many of these vendors are now pursuing the jan/san market. And they are winning business, particularly among smaller cleaning departments and crews.

Typically though, retail prices are higher than a distributor’s and the products that appear to be steals are often not what they seem. Big-box stores typically don’t stock the same lines as distributors so it is difficult for a buyer to compare apples to apples.

“Quarts aren’t quite quarts and gallons aren’t quite gallons,” says Don Kellermeyer, president and CEO of The Kellermeyer Co., a distributor in Bowling Green, Ohio. “On a per-pound basis, their toilet paper is almost double what we would charge but it looks cheaper because they have shorter, skinnier and lighter weight sheets, and less rolls per case. They are making out like a bandit on it.”

Couple higher prices and lesser quality with the time and expense involved in picking items up, and you might question why anyone would purchase from a retailer. But, for some small outfits, retail is the only option.

“Some small operations have no other choice than retail due to their low volume,” Leavy says. “They are forced to pay higher prices, spend time waiting in line and hauling material and do not receive any support at all.”

More often, however, janitors shop retail because it provides instant availability. Big-box shops can fill in the gaps on weekends, in emergencies, or when a distributor can’t get the product ordered quick enough.

“Retailers are good for quick, small needs in an emergency,” Mack says. “In emergencies there are occasions where we need a mop bucket or a vacuum quickly and our distributor has an extended lead time due to a backorder or other issue. If a local retailer has it in stock we will occasionally purchase through them.”

Emergencies aside, neither retailers nor manufacturers can offer the selection available through a distributor. By purchasing from dozens or hundreds of vendors, distributors can provide multiple options for every type of product. In fact, most end users’ orders include items from several manufacturers.

“The ability to choose among manufacturers and only providing what they are strong in, yields better results and cost savings,” Leavy says.

Partnering For Success

For most end users, one thing is more important than selection and, many times, even more important than price.

“Regardless of who and what you use, the knowledge and experience of your vendor is very important,” says Willy Suter, director of facilities management for American University in Washington, D.C.

Jan/san distributors focus specifically on one market and, therefore, know the cleaning business inside and out. When a housekeeping manager needs advice on which product will work best for a particular job, or which procedure is most appropriate for the task at hand, they will get specific answers from a distributor.

“Even if end users do happen to pay a bit more, the wealth of knowledge they get saves them thousands of dollars down the road,” says Richard Bestafka, president of Alan Janitorial Distributors in Ronkonkoma, N.J. “If they are incorrectly making decisions on equipment, chemicals or procedures, they will have problems they wouldn’t have had if they had come to us.”

Distributors offer many value-added services that aren’t available from retailers and manufacturers. In addition to things like warranties, repair services and detailed reports, the most important service to end users is training.

“If you give them the right advice, 99 percent of the time they will buy from you,” Bestafka says. “We offer educational classes, personal experience and trained sales people to help. We can tell them a better way to use the equipment and better chemicals to use with it. We never sell just one piece of equipment, it’s a whole package.”

Unfortunately, all distributors are not equal. Some are too large to devote a lot of time to small customers. And others are focused more on profits than service.

When Angie Wright first began as director of environmental services at Pikeville Medical Center in Pikeville, Ky., she had difficulty finding a supplier interested in helping the rural facility. Her first distributor didn’t respond to her phone calls in a timely manner and took too long to provide products and equipment.

“Now we have wonderful distributors that always stay on top of our needs,” Wright says. “We did have a small increase in price, but I feel the service this company provides is worth the cost.”

That above-and-beyond service included having the owner deliver paper supplies on a Friday at 7 p.m. to cover the hospital’s weekend needs.

Unlike retailing and manufacturing giants, distributors are more likely to have a vested interest in making sure their customers are successful. Even if end users stopped buying from them, big-box retailers have non-commercial clients to generate business and manufacturers can sell to distributors. Distributors, on the other hand, rely on janitorial buyers for their livelihood.

“Distributors get paid to make the customer happy,” Leavy says. “The distributor only makes money if the customer is happy and continues to order. The knowledge that there are plenty of competitive distributors knocking on the customer’s door is a powerful motivator.”

Becky Mollenkamp is a freelancer writer based near Des Moines, Iowa.

Out of the Blog: Purchasing Possibilities


A relative of mine works in the trades, specifically home building, and the other day we got into a discussion regarding purchasing. I quickly realized that his purchasing options were very comparable to those of a cleaning manager. He has options to purchase direct from a manufacturer, cut some corners and buy from a big-box store, or look to his distributor for the answers he needs.

I asked him the benefits to each and he had the following to say: manufacturers can be pricy, but offer nice warranties and product guarantees; big-box stores are his cheapest option and often offer a large variety of products, but provide little dependability regarding whether products are in stock and maintenance; industry-specific distributors are often comparable in price (typically between the manufacturer and big box stores), but almost always offer additional services such as training, free delivery, emergency service, accountability and reliability, which offsets the prices.

More often than not, readers comment that they find benefit from working with jan/san distributors.

Unlike big-box stores, distributors are looking to develop relationships with their customers. Because of these relationships, distributors understand the needs of the end user and provide solutions to help them succeed. For instance, turnover plagues numerous departments so many distributors offer training classes to educate new staff on how to clean properly.

Distributors are also able to make new product recommendations that can help streamline a department and increase productivity. Big-box stores are limited to those products they have in stock.

It is obvious that each purchasing option has its perks, but it is important to decipher the differences and then determine the best option for the department.

— Corinne Zudonyi