Category analysis: Antimicrobial

Antimicrobial products often face critics and advocates in equal measure. OPI finds out what's new, topical and challenging in the sector

There are many facets to antimicrobial products and their credentials. Are they environmentally sound; do they give value for money; are they harmful; do they, quite simply, work? 

In March, a primary school in the UK was closed for two weeks after an E.coli outbreak; this was followed by a “deep clean” of the whole school and the availability now of antibacterial hand gels in all classrooms. In the same month the University of Texas was close to becoming the first campus in the US to ban antibacterial soap after students voted unanimously to remove the product and use “ordinary” soap instead.

Better hygiene

According to Drew Bowers, Marketing Director at US vendor Samsill which makes a range of business accessories, media storage products and ring binders, the biggest growth potential in this sector is in the medical, food processing and shoes/apparel industries, with the main drivers for antimicrobial products being improved health, sanitation and hygiene. 

The fact that sales in the OP industry – or some categories at least – are down, can be attributed to the continuing sluggish economy, says Bowers. “We have seen a slowdown with development in the antimicrobial sector within the OP category over the past 12 months. Over the past three to five years there had been significant growth with new product releases and new competition within specific categories. We’ve noticed a reduction in both. 

“This has been primarily driven by the fact that these value-added products do come at a premium and in difficult economic times cost often outweighs benefits for the consumer. Once the economy starts to improve I think we will see growth once again in the OP category.”

That said, there’s no doubt that the US has the most ferocious appetite for all things antimicrobial. Alliance Rubber Company, for example, first introduced its antimicrobial range in 2007 and has, on average, doubled sales every year since. Austrian stamp manufacturer COLOP also regards the US as a huge market as Marketing Manager Gerald Binder says: “The highest importance of and acceptance for antibacterial products is without doubt in the US market where our partner COSCO is very successful in selling protected stamps.”

Binder adds that since launching its stamps with Microban antibacterial protection 18 months ago, this feature has become a definite USP for its self-stamping Classic Line range. “The figures for this stamp line are very encouraging and continuously increasing, which is why COLOP decided to equip another ‘heavy-duty’ line with technology from Microban. Now the entire COLOP Expert Line is provided with Microban antibacterial protection as well.”

Binder, along with many manufacturers, regards the medical and education markets as two of its main target groups. The classroom has become a big focus. Like in the office where hot-desking has become the standard, a whole variety of products are shared and touched by hundreds of different people on a daily basis. Add to that the fact that children are a veritable hotbed of germs and bacteria due to their play/work frequency and their still developing immune system and it’s no wonder that companies see a captive audience here.

For Acme United Europe, the back-to-school season has become a significant driver for its antimicrobial products. Georg Bettin, Sales & Marketing Director Europe Office Trade, says: “We continuously invest in product range development including antibacterial products. Our stationery range with Microban antibacterial technology began with children’s scissors, but has grown to include a whole assortment of desk accessories.”

Customer awareness

Stanley Bostitch too has extended its range of antimicrobial desktop products to the classroom, most recently with pencil sharpeners including its new QuietSharp Glow Classroom Electric Pencil Sharpener with a replaceable cutter cartridge. 

Consumer awareness with regards to protection from germs has certainly increased manifold over the past few years. The same, however, cannot necessarily be said for consumers’ understanding of the products’ pros and cons. Ambiguous labelling, confusing regulation and media attention have all contributed to customers having a hard time making an informed decision about all things antimicrobial.

Samsill’s Bowers explains: “There are huge challenges in regulation and getting information to the consumer. In order to stay within the US Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, for example, we’ve had to adjust product packaging and marketing materials this year. Both limit the type and amount of information we can share to help consumers make an educated buying decision. There is a great need for a certification process so that our customers such as Staples, OfficeMax, United Stationers and SP Richards and the end-consumers can trust that our product works as advertised and is safe for use and for the environment.” 

Wash hands

Personal hygiene statistics rarely make for happy reading (and are also frequently lied about). According to the UK National Health Service (NHS), about half of all men and a quarter of women fail to wash their hands after they’ve been to the toilet. It’s certainly an unpleasant fact, but it’s also potentially dangerous, especially in environments such as the office, schools and hospitals for example, where people frequently share space and equipment. Germs can stay alive on hands for up to three hours and salmonella, campylobacter, MRSA, flu, diarrhoea, sickness and impetigo, not to mention the common cold, are just some of the viruses and infections that can be passed between people who do not wash their hands.

Joe Drenik, Marketing Communications and Services Senior Director at GOJO Industries, says: “The trend today is to promote hand hygiene and make it readily available to help fight the spread of germs. We are seeing more and more businesses place PURELL dispensers at the restroom exit near the door. Strategically placing a PURELL Advanced Instant Hand Sanitizer dispenser at the door serves as a reminder to practise good hand hygiene.”

The dirty facts

A recent poll by AF International of about 1,000 UK office workers who regularly use a variety of technology products such as PCs, laptops, tablets and smartphones as part of their work makes for some stomach-churning reading. Here are some of the key points revealed in the survey:

45.8% of the businesses surveyed are cleaned on a daily basis while 23.6% are only cleaned weekly. More surprisingly, 15.8% of respondents’ office quarters are only cleaned once per month

61% of office workers are provided with a dedicated dining area at work, but two-thirds of all employees are actually allowed to eat at their desks 

47% of employees eat at their workstation on a daily basis while an additional 30% have lunch at their computer at least twice a week

45.2% of survey respondents are concerned about germs and viruses spreading around the office while 67.6% just accept that they are likely to catch whatever cold and coughs are going around. 

AF describes the results of its survey as “alarming”, especially when a firm does not provide an equipment cleaning programme for its staff. Indeed, many firms regard it as the responsibility of the employee to keep valuable technology products clean – a surprisingly high 29.8% – rather than making it part of the office cleaner’s remit. 

It’s also important to note, says AF Group Marketing Manager Karen Harrison, that one size certainly doesn’t fit all when it comes to cleaning equipment. “As technological advances have taken place and equipment has become more complex and therefore more expensive, the cleaning products have had to change to become effective cleaners to suit a purpose. What you use on a telephone would not be the same solution you use on a high quality screen, smartphone or tablet screen, for example.”