Final word: Rick Marlette

Choose your true colours.


At United Stationers’ recent Vision show, I was acutely aware of a growing red/blue split in the US office products industry. Red is the colour of wholesaler SP Richards’ logo while blue is the colour of United Stationers’ logo; I just found it easier to start identifying these wholesaler alignments as red/blue versus spelling out or saying the whole name.

At Vision I caught myself several times staring at particular attendees as if they were these red floats bobbing along in a sea of blue. What are they doing here, I thought?

It’s not just dealers anymore. Most service providers in the industry show pretty obvious red/blue alignments. Some try to hide it, claiming instead to be neutral, but it’s not hard to spot. You could argue that the top two buying groups in the US are also split along colour lines. Recent news from the UK seems to point to a similar division. While the two largest US groups are holding a joint convention next year, they appear at least to remain split when it comes to a red/blue bias.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that I am starting to notice this split more and more. Your colour choice is becoming the determining factor in who you are, where you are going, and how you’re going to get there.

These ever-clearer divisions come about at a time when some continue to demonise and vilify the wholesalers. For a dealer, this is equal to cursing the ground you walk on. Any honest dealer will admit that the one thing that they could not survive without is the wholesaler. As a dealer, you could dump all other relationships and survive with a single wholesaler relationship. It is this potential of thriving through a single relationship that is very upsetting to some. It is, after all, putting all your eggs in one basket – which makes such decisions supremely important.

I still have dealers ask me to help them determine if red is cheaper than blue and vice versa. Who has the best cost? I believe this to be an exercise in futility and one I refuse to take part in. Things change so rapidly today that by the time a thorough and comprehensive evaluation can be completed, the pricing is different. This is exactly what dealers sell against all the time. There is more to consider than price alone – and this comes from a person who makes his living selling pricing data.

Yet all too often, many dealers fall into the same old trap. I knew one dealer that told a large customer: “Don’t you realise that the big box is going to get that pre-bate back many times over?” And then turned right around and made a similar shortsighted decision when it came to their business.

This industry will change more in the next five years than it has in the last 30. Locking into a five-year agreement with the wrong partner will be the difference between failure and success. This is especially true if you make that decision for the wrong reasons. If a few dollars one way or the other sway your decision, you’re telling me that you are already hurting and probably won’t make it.

Where do you see the industry in five years? What are the trends? Where do you want to be in five years? Now, who is the best wholesale partner to get you there? These are the questions to ask, not what their price on copy paper is.

If any of us are going to survive the next five years, we are going to have to work ever closer with likeminded partners. No one is perfect and no one has a crystal ball, but there are probabilities of what the future will look like. Turning honest and forward-thinking evaluations of our businesses into swift actions will be the ultimate competitive advantage.