It was two days of alarm, reassurance, ideas and collaboration at the OPI Global Forum, held in May in Chicago, Illinois. About 100 top executives of the office products industry attended from North America, Europe and as far away as New Zealand, representing a wide spectrum of channels. While we can’t go into the details of the forum due to Chatham House Rules that were enforced, below are some of the themes and key points discussed.
The new buyer
A term frequently mentioned was Generation Y – people born between the early 1980s and the mid-1990s. This group of people is tech-savvy, having grown up alongside the internet, more likely to expect flexible working options and “within five minutes will expect to be running the company”. Generation Y is bold, is forward thinking and is now in the office, purchasing and making decisions. The group’s influence on the products and services that OP provides is going to be significant.
The fact that more and more women are making purchasing decisions was also highlighted. One presentation revealed that more than 70% of purchases made on the contract side in the US are authorised by women, but the traditional shopping experience provided by many OP resellers is not geared towards this audience, and is “far from enlightening”.
A final trend highlighted in this area is that of design. It is proven that “people feel more connected to a workspace when they have access to good design” – just think how attached people are to their Apple products. The OP sector needs to “bring brands to life and give them meaning”, and give traditional products more significance. Some of the most successful brands are already doing this.
The launch of AmazonSupply.com was a hot topic circulating the room. “For manufacturers Amazon is an opportunity; for resellers it’s a threat,” said one executive, and wholesalers also sit on the more pro side of the fence given that for some Amazon is a significant customer. The e-tail giant’s foray into the B2B arena sparked many discussions that went into the early hours, given its influence on the evolution of the channel.
Another online trend that featured highly was mobile commerce. This may have been a surprise to some present, given that survey results from one presenter suggest that more than 50% of senior OP executives don’t believe mobile technology will take a significant share of the B2B OP market within five years. However, several presenters suggested that making purchases on a mobile device – which, incidentally, is already straightforward using an Amazon app – is the platform of the future. Again, think Generation Y.
Social media reared its head, although presenters were mixed as to its benefit for the OP industry. The question “is OP sexy enough for consumers to engage with its brands?” was asked by several delegates, and discussions debated the pros and cons of getting involved. However, “our brand image is becoming what consumers say about us,” said one presenter, and social media is often where they say it. There’s no denying the power of a referral via word of mouth for business – “likonomics” as the presenter termed it.
Many attendees voiced the opinion that pressures created by “tailwinds”, rather than the “headwinds” of previous years, are steering the OP industry on a new course. Some believed that the industry is “shifting from products to services” and channels are evolving as consumer habits change.
Talking of service offerings, the growth of managed print services (MPS) could be another defining influence on the industry. MPS is both an offensive and defensive measure, said one presenter – it will capture more customer share and protect existing accounts. The argument was that OP resellers can’t sit by and let other competitors – of which there are many – capture the MPS market, or they will be locked out of contracts for many years.
An animated panel discussion on the evolution of the channel was one of the highlights of the forum. It is no longer “the” channel but lots of channels, said one panellist, and communication problems are stopping products from getting to the market. The dealer needs “to add value to the end-user, and we will add value through innovation” was the message from one manufacturer and we need to dispel “silo-mania” said an independent dealer.
The resounding takeaway for all attendees was that given current pressures, “the pilot lights” of the industry must join together to develop new business strategies and partnerships for the good of the channel. There was an atmosphere of concern over the challenges that surround OP, but also an atmosphere of determination and even, some might say, excitement about new opportunities for those who seek them.