With product shortages a distant memory and hand hygiene a public priority, many distributors are experiencing a steady stream of hand sanitizer sales following last year's H1N1 pandemic.

At the height of the panic, distributors say product was flying off shelves. And for those who were able to meet demand, hand sanitizer sales soared. At Detroit-based Hercules & Hercules Inc., sales of hand sanitizer rose 35 to 40 percent, says president Belinda Jefferson. And at Waukesha, Wis.-based San-a-Care, hand sanitizer sales from September through November 2009 reached record highs, says sales manager Mike Griffin.

Sales To Continue

While distributors interviewed for this article experienced a surge in sanitizer sales across all industries, certain facilities stood out above the rest: schools, office buildings, and grocery stores — and to a lesser extent healthcare facilities and restaurants.

"Our existing customers added dispensers to places where they did not have them before, such as strategic locations in schools where there's no easy access to hand washing and along corridors on the way to the cafeteria," says Griffin. "Many of our grocery stores purchased stands to have a hand sanitizer for their guests as they walk into the store, and hospitals also installed stands in the lobby."

With the cold and flu season over and H1N1 no longer making national headlines, hand sanitizer sales aren't reaching record highs anymore. In fact, figures have dipped 25 percent since last November at San-a-Care, says Griffin.

But, distributors can expect sales to continue throughout the slower summer months because H1N1 made the public more aware of the importance of hand hygiene, says Linda Silverman, president, Maintex Inc., City of Industry, Calif.

"People aren't quite as vigilant as they were in the middle of the outbreak, but behavior has changed," she says. "After H1N1, everyone was carrying around bottles of sanitizer, and it became common. In schools, they're teaching children to sanitize, and people are becoming more cognizant of the importance of doing that."

As a result, customers who added hand sanitizer dispensers during the H1N1 pandemic will keep these units stocked year-round. Distributors are anticipating 2010 summer sales figures of hand sanitizer to surpass last year's numbers.

What Lies Ahead This Fall?

No one can predict when the next pandemic will occur, but distributors can take steps now to ensure that they meet demand for hand sanitizer the upcoming flu season. Finding a balance can be tricky: Distributors don't want excess product sitting on shelves, but they don't want to be caught short either.

"We like to turn our products every 35 to 45 days," says Jefferson. "Hand sanitizers have no more than a 12-month shelf life, so it's important that the stock is rotated and you move stock out once you get it in."

Hercules & Hercules relies on historical data for existing customers to determine stock levels and promotes hand-safety all year long. Still, Jefferson admits that there's a level of uncertainty when it comes to maintaining inventory for this year's cold and flu season.

"It's a roll of the dice," she says. "You have to try to presell and have existing customers on the product."

Preselling to customers is challenging but necessary, Jefferson says. Generally, customers don't want to think about ordering product until October when the cold and flu season starts. But unless distributors are proactive and encourage customers to order early, there's a good chance product supply will run out and distributors will be unable to fill all requests, says Jefferson.

However, it might be a little easier for distributors to meet orders during this year's cold and flu season because, according to Silverman, distributors tried to fulfill orders based on a panic situation during H1N1, and now there's surplus inventory.

"We've got inventory on hand, and we have more inventory then we've had in the past," she says. "At the same time, I don't want to have a five-month supply of inventory."

In addition to keeping an eye on stock levels, distributors should look to the past — particularly responses to previous flu outbreaks when they first entered the public's consciousness — to prepare for future sales.

"We had a foreshadowing of H1N1 in the spring of last year," says Griffin. "We made sure that by the time school started, we loaded in [on hand sanitizer], so we guessed right. No one has a crystal ball to know exactly what demand is going to be, so you look at what you've done in the past. We know when there's something radically different going on. You just sort of read the signs, talk to other distributors and take your best guess."

All in all, distributors are confident that they won't run into product shortages this year — or in the near future should another pandemic strike. Manufacturers have ramped up production capabilities, distributors have learned to read early warning signs, and the public is accepting hand hygiene as a way of life. This heightened awareness should lead to steady hand sanitizer sales throughout the year and decrease the chances of wiping out supplies at the first sign of a potential flu outbreak.

Kassandra Kania is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C.



The 2009 H1N1 pandemic has also helped to promote non-alcohol hand sanitizer, specifically quat-based (Benzalkonium Chloride) hand sanitizers. This option is particularly useful in schools where there is a concern about children ingesting alcohol-based hand sanitizers.

"Prior to H1N1, there was a universal acceptance of alcohol-based sanitizers," says Linda Silverman, president at Maintex. "After that, you're seeing a greater understanding and acceptance of alcohol-free, quat-based hand sanitizers as well."

Quat-based hand sanitizers have a longer kill claim than alcohol-based varieties. It can still be effective against killing germs after it has been applied to the skin. Quat-based hand sanitizers are non-flammable and also don't dry hands out as much as alcohol-based products.

Hercules & Hercules Inc. sought to educate consumers on the benefits of quat-based sanitizers and encouraged school districts to make the switch.

"We provided samples and efficacy data," says Belinda Jefferson, company president. "Some made the switch, others didn't."

Along with the increase in hand sanitizer sales, distributors sold more foam hand soap following the H1N1 outbreak, thanks to the public's renewed interested in keeping hands clean. Hercules & Hercules encouraged salespeople to sell touch-free foam soap in addition to hand sanitizer and educate customers on the benefits of touch-free restrooms.

"Hand safety is something the public needs to be aware of," Jefferson says. "The most critical thing to do is to wash your hands."

Distributors also learned some valuable purchasing lessons from the pandemic, namely not to overlook any cross-contamination-related product when stocking up on the more obvious necessities, such as hand sanitizer and soap.

"H1N1 taught us to look at the whole picture when dealing with a pandemic," says Mike Griffin, sales manager at San-a-Care. "We probably could have given more thought to bringing in disposable gloves and masks because we got caught with orders for those, and we couldn't fill them very quickly."