Five years after the economic downturn endangered the American Dream, causing world markets to collapse, companies to shutter their doors, and citizens to lose their jobs and homes, a new fiscal reality is setting in. 

The economy is growing again, albeit at a snail’s pace. Slowly but surely companies are hiring, budgets are bouncing back, and construction and housing are once again on the upswing. But the economy isn’t anywhere near what it used to be. Although financial analysts have said the Great Recession ship has sailed, it hasn’t disappeared over the horizon just yet — and many industries, jan/san included, still claim to be clambering in its wake.

Combined with major changes in the business, such as increased competition and advances in technology, distributors of all sizes have had to fight tooth and nail to hold on to customers. In the years following the recession, distributors have dug their heels in the ground and not only doubled-down their selling efforts, rather than scale them back, but also found new ways to expand the industry and make it more sophisticated. The hard work has paid off. 

Since 2008, when sales plunged nearly seven percent (or  $1.7 billion), the industry has experienced slow growth. According to Sanitary Maintenance’s “Report On 2012 Sanitary Supply Distributor Sales,” overall sales rose 1.7 percent from 2010 to 2012, pushing total annual sales to near pre-recession levels, higher than $24 billion.

While it may appear that the industry has returned to the up and up — many of the distributors we spoke to reported sales increases higher than the overall market — sentiment is mixed. On one hand, distributors were very optimistic about the industry’s current state. Yet, on the other, distributors expressed concern over the changing business landscape and the uncertain future that lies ahead. The market is improving, but that hasn’t made distributors feel like they are out of the woods, yet.

“It’s not going to return to the way it was,” says Paul St. Germain, business development executive for wholesale distribution at IBM. “The numbers might, but the way business is done won’t.”

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Redefining The Distribution Sales Model