Miscellaneous Items

There are certain jan/san products that will always be en vogue, no matter the year or the economy. Restrooms will need hand soap, toilet paper, and either hand dryers or hand towels — maybe both. Hallways will necessitate the use of brooms and mops. Big ticket items like autoscrubbers and vacuums will always keep floors looking their best.

In many ways it’s the stability of these products that creates a safe base for business because end users will always need to use these products and distributors will always look to sell them. However, selling brooms or soap will never raise the roof on margins. That’s why it makes since for jan/san distributors to consider developing revenue sources outside of traditional jan/san categories via diversified lines. Light bulbs, safety equipment, foodservice disposables and more — if a customer wants the product, it might be worth selling.

Charles Moody, president, Solutex, Sterling, Virginia, got into distribution in 1986 at the age of 18, and he’s seen a lot of changes in distribution in the 33 years since. He remembers when the now venerable Costco was known as Price Club and end users would flock to the wholesaler to get their toilet tissue. He remembers when Grainger became a challenger to Solutex as the company became more of a jan/san distributor.

“There have always been different challenges that have come along and I think what helps us the best is to be experts in the area where we service customers,” says Moody.

Expect Moody to stick to this frame of mind. Nothing will prevent Solutex from selling the products it knows best. However, if over the course of that customer service Solutex has a great opportunity to service a bit out of its expertise, Moody isn’t going to be afraid to explore that option.

For example, when one of the animal hospitals Solutex supplies got sick of purchasing food trays from another company, the hospital asked if Solutex would be able to supply these items going forward — just to make things easier.

Does Solutex know a whole lot about felines? Not really. But it does have a good relationship with that customer and knows how to service clients, so the distributors said yes.

Business can certainly be picked up this way — by letting the customer take the lead. These sales won’t make or break a business, but they can add extra income, improve market share or help a company stay competitive when outside companies are reaching into the jan/san distribution business.

“I grew up in the construction supply industry and 25 percent of the business was things we never stocked,” says Jason Bader, principal, The Distribution Team, Portland, Oregon, adding that requests got as far out there as motor oil or straw bale. “When a contractor says, ‘Hey, man, you need to get this off my plate,’ you say, ‘I got you.’”

One neat thing about offering diversified lines is that the degree to which a company does it is totally up to them. They could choose to only field simple orders — those easy enough that it requires just a 10 minute car drive and a credit card. Bader says a distributor could take a phone order, go to a Home Depot or whatever store stocks the item desired, and buy the product. Slap a few price points on the item to make the time of the distributor profitable and the end user gets exactly what it wanted, which is great service that takes all hassle out of purchasing.

“If you’re going to source a product for someone, get paid for it,” says Bader.

Things could also get serious enough where a distributor is very involved with categories outside of jan/san.

For example, in addition to selling jan/san products, H.T. Berry Company, Canton, Massachusetts, sells foodservice disposables such as paper plates, cups and napkins. Company President Chris Nolan says foodservice disposables are good products for jan/san distributors to sell because there is so much crossover between the two items and the needs of customers.

Some of the jan/san products H.T. Berry supplies goes to commercial properties. The majority of commercial properties, especially those with several floors, are going to have one if not several employee breakrooms. This factor alone can present jan/san distributors with an in on foodservice disposables.

Not all of those who own or operate commercial offices are going to have control of the cafeteria inside — some outsource that work. In that case, distributors are still in a good position because they could ask the customer they’re already servicing to put them in touch with the company that is overseeing the cafeteria or break areas.

“You could just be supplying coffee cups and plates for employees to use while they have their lunch,” says Nolan. “(That’s) a lot of volume.”

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Entering Nontraditional Categories Requires Good Customer Relationship