Dishing the dirt
by Alison Bowie
Would you ever consider going to the toilet and not washing your hands? I thought not. Well, why then do many of us quite happily use other people’s telephones and computer keyboards without taking even the most basic hygiene precautions? Alison Bowie puts anti-microbial office products under the microscope and discusses the opportunities they present for resellers and manufacturers.
There’s no easy way to tackle this subject, so let me start by asking you a very personal question: do you wash your hands when you’ve been to the toilet? I’m really hoping that the answer is ‘yes’ and that you are currently raising your eyebrows in horror at the mere thought of committing such a dirty crime.
But consider this for a moment. When was the last time you washed your hands after using a colleague’s computer, telephone or their desk? Never or hardly ever?
Then maybe it’s time you addressed the issue of hygiene around your office where even the most innocent of office products may be playing host to some potentially nasty bugs.
Research carried out by the University of Arizona in 2007 showed that on a standard office desk, up to 400 times more bacteria could be found than in the building’s toilet facilities, and that bacteria could be spread simply by touching contaminated objects, explains Jos Kievitsbosch, Senior Category Manager, filing and plastic desk accessories, for Smead Europe BV, who says: "Office products can be a real source of microbial contamination."
He adds: "Combined with the fact that bacteria can easily survive (200) well over 72 hours on almost every surface, it is very likely that standard office products can become a source of serious contamination to office workers and their business environments."
In today’s workplace, practices like ‘hot-desking’ and mobile working, along with open-plan style offices are potentially exposing staff to more germs than ever before, says Karen Harrison, Marketing Manager, AF International, whose company is one of many now producing anti-microbial products to satisfy the needs of an ever more hygiene-aware customer.
"The way we work has changed significantly in recent years," she says. "Many companies have open-plan offices with the shared use of desks and equipment. As a result, office environments are much more polluted with bacteria, viruses, dust, dirt and germs than previously.
She adds: "Various micro-organisms can be found in offices, bacteria such as Staphylococcus Aureus, Escherichia coli, moulds like Aspergillus niger and all sorts of yeasts and fungi."
International headlines about outbreaks of MRSI in hospitals have helped fuel the debate about best hygiene practise at home and in the office too, prompting more and more end-users to demand a cleaner, healthier workplace.
And this, in turn, is motivating more manufacturers to launch anti-microbial products into the marketplace and sell through the reseller channel.
Doug Skeggs, Marketing Director at private brand company Systemcare Products believes the growth in anti-microbial products is a trend set to continue for some time and one that offers huge potential for both the manufacturer and reseller.
"We see a continual move being driven by the end-user towards more hygiene and health-based products creating a healthier workplace," he says.
"Everyone wants to work in a clean environment and in recent years there has been considerable research on how easily bugs and bacteria breed in the office environment.
He adds: "Everyone is aware of the dirt on keyboards and telephones. Personal hygiene factors will continue to drive the market forward. The end-user will ask more and more questions on bug kill.
He continues: "We always ask ‘are you happy with the hygiene habits of the other person who uses your phone, your keyboard, who you shake hands with or the shop assistant wrapping up your food?’ This certainly gets everyone thinking.
"There is no question that regular cleaning of equipment with reputable, proven and tested biocides can reduce sickness, infections and time off work through illness. With constant technological advancements and now with a billion computers and keyboards in use worldwide, let alone telephones and other items we touch in our every-day work environment, there are substantial market development opportunities."
Smead, which claims to have been one of the first companies worldwide to recognise the potential of anti-microbial products, first launched these types of products in the US in 2003, before rolling out the portfolio in Europe.
Smead Europe now boasts a full 22 SKU range of anti-microbial products "covering all major office filing functions" reports Jos Kievitsbosch, who explains: "Already during the manufacturing stage of the raw materials an anti-microbial agent is added based on silver. The silver ions prevent the growth of bacteria like MRSA, E-coli, Legionnaires Disease and others.
He continues: "Because of the way of manufacturing, the anti-microbial protection does not wear off and is effective during the full product life time."
Smead’s decision to base the anti-microbial protection on silver ions comes after its long-term use in the medical field. Kievitsbosch says: "Silver is a very well-known and appreciated anti-microbial agent with a long time proven medical track record. It has been in use safely for a long time and complies with all US and European legislation."
Contaminated office products in highly sensitive areas such as health clinics and hospitals can be a serious issue and one that was brought home to Smead staff when visiting the German Congress of Hospital Hygienists in Berlin last April.
Kievitsbosch recalls: "In a discussion about the need for anti-microbial products we came across a picture of a hospital surgery room. In the midst of all the high tech machinery and instruments were four lever arch files containing all kinds of important machine facts which were used quite regularly.
"The professor had to admit that despite extensive cleaning standards and procedures for all room inventory, there was no good solution for the lever arch files and their content, and they were most probably seldom or never cleaned.
"In the end, he admitted that a Smead file, in combination with anti-microbial punched pockets, really would make a difference."
One of the companies that has capitalised on consumer demand for more hygienic working environments is Durable, with a range of initiatives including its Computer Cleaning Week campaign.
Launched to educate consumers about the benefits of effective computer cleaning, the campaign has provided resellers with a range of marketing initiatives to grow sales.
In 2007 Computer Cleaning Week reached an audience of 31 million, with a co-ordinated campaign on local and national TV and radio, plus extensive press coverage.
Durable’s Stewart Anderson explains: "Computer Cleaning Week produced our best ever results, with a sales out value increase of 56 percent on 2006."
Anderson believes that the issue of hygiene in the workplace will continue to dominate the health, safety and security sector as long as consumers are made aware of the dangers of bacteria levels on keyboards, telephones and computer screens.
And he sees the SOHO (small office, home office) also driving demand for these types of products.
He explains: "There has been a dramatic rise in use of this product in SoHo markets and with the increase in ‘hot desking’."
Durable works hard to stay at the forefront of new product development and as OPI went to press was about to publish extensive new research focusing on consumers and work habits, launched to coincide with the Computer Cleaning Week 2008 launch.
This will be followed by a raft of new products in the Autumn.
Although unable to disclose details of the new items, Anderson says: "Durable is just about to launch a new range of products that have significant and improved consumer benefits to protect against harmful and dangerous bacteria, so watch this space!"
Driving home the benefits of buying hygiene products is crucial for resellers wishing to grow sales in this area, stress manufacturers.
Karen Harrison sees the sector as very healthy currently, with no sign of a let-up in consumer interest.
She explains: "As end-users are educated and are aware of the bacteria that grows and spreads within their working environment, the product sector continues to grow. It continues to be healthy as good working practices become the norm and a healthy working space becomes more important to people."
Fastest growing areas for AF globally are currently Eastern Europe, China, India and Far East countries. "As their economy grows and awareness builds from education through media and exhibitions, AF sales are growing at a rapid rate," she reveals.
At a time when companies may be operating on minimal staff levels, the last thing a managing director wants is employees calling in sick all the time. Dealers can use anti-microbial and cleaning products to bring this issue to the fore and demonstrate the importance of maintaining clean, healthy working environments in order to keep employees fit and well, say suppliers.
Stewart Anderson explains: "Easy and instant spread of bacteria and viruses causes significant loss of work days to employers that could so easily be avoided with some good and constant housekeeping.
Purchasing and using effective computer cleaning products are simple tasks with long lasting benefits."
According to Office Germs Research released in February 2006, around a quarter of a billion working days were lost through ill-health across Europe in 2005/06.
Louise Shipley, senior European Marketing Manager office productivity for Fellowes Europe, explains that the company’s Virashield cleaning product range has been designed specifically to break down germs and viruses and work towards longer protection.
She says: "When office illnesses break out it is imperative to protect employees’ health. Virashield can help prevent contamination of many different types of germs, bacteria and viruses including the common cold, flu virus and e-coli."
She sees many consumers now wanting to use the same products in the home as they do in the office and vice versa.
Shipley adds: "The main impact has been in terms of product sizes and convenience for travelling. This can only develop the sector more in the future. Equipment cleaning applies to the personal games players on the PC as well as the home computer user cleaning the screen and keyboards."
In terms of geographical growth areas for these type of products, hot spots include Spain, France and Germany, she reveals.
Another company convinced of the importance of anti-microbial products is Stanley-Bostitch. It currently offers a range of specially treated office products including staplers, punches and pencil sharpeners.
Trade partner Agion Technologies supplies the anti-microbial agent – silver. The patented technology, described as "nature’s antimicrobial", "provides built-in protection by naturally and continuously resisting the growth of microbes".
SilverClene24 is a liquid disinfectant and virucide that harnesses the natural, safe, antimicrobial properties of silver, says the company’s website. When used according to directions, it instantly sanitises surfaces and keeps them 99.999 percent sanitised for up to 24 hours after application.
It has been proven effective against dangerous bacteria, viruses, and fungi including microbes such as MRSA, VRE, HIV, Influenza, Rhinovirus, Poliovirus, and Trichophyton mentagrophytes (athlete’s foot fungus).
With natural antimicrobial properties, it’s colorless, non-corrosive, non-flammable and odorless, states Agion.
Research published by the company has turned up some interesting facts about bugs in the office and home which could be useful for dealers hoping to strengthen their sales pitch to customers. These include:
• Only one in five people wash their hands after eating or shaking hands
• Nearly 60 percent of consumers are concerned about micro-organisms in their day-to-day lives and are extremely interested in protecting surfaces from bacterial and viral ‘bugs’
• More than 20,000 germs per square inch are found lurking on an individual desktop
• Cars are the moldiest form of transportation, with potentially millions of bacteria living on door handles, seat and floor
• Germs often gather on the outside of women’s purses, especially on the bottom
• Hospital keyboards are a recognised source of hospital acquired infections
• Infections are reported to be spread via the hands and gloves of health care workers, on their uniforms, on stethoscopes and blood pressure cuffs and bedrails
With so much consumer awareness about hygiene in the office and home, just how can dealers ensure they are up-to-speed with the latest developments and pass on their knowledge to customers to win the sale?
Harrison believes it is up to the reseller to ensure its customer has the right product for their needs.
"It’s important for the end-user to have a cleaning regime which fits in with their working practice and equally important for them to use the right product for the right job," she stresses.
"Normal cleaning agents are not good to use on office equipment. They may contain abrasive chemicals that can attack sensitive surfaces. Specialist cleaning products are required to ensure equipment is safe and that users have a clean and germ free working environment."
Like Durable with its Computer Cleaning Week, AF has focused on educating the consumer through its Scary Facts campaigns, plus offered free samples and training to resellers.
She adds: "AF works hard to help resellers promote the range the right way to increase their sales. We work very closely with resellers in order to educate them in how the products are used and where."
The business also works on link selling where appropriate. Doug Skeggs of Systemcare Products also urges dealers to ensure the claims being made by manufacturers on their products are correct.
He explains: "As with all growing categories, many claims are made on products and it’s important that the user/dealer asks to see data that substantiates the claim being made on the label."
In the US, this is controlled by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). He explains: "This is a very good effective process which controls the use of particular ingredients and the claims made.
He adds: "The European Union is working towards a similar system which will effectively reduce the number of biocides in the market that have no efficacy data supporting them. We welcome this tighter regulation coming soon to Europe as a necessary action to control the import of unregulated chemicals and products."
Fellowes’ Louise Shipley agrees that one of the main challenges facing dealers working in this product sector is to stay up-to-date with regulations.
"The dealer needs to understand the products and the issues relating to regulations and labelling," she comments. "Some products being imported from less well regulated regions of the world do not always comply with local, stricter regulations as far as labelling and chemical makeup is concerned."
Another major challenge for dealers selling this type of product can often be finding the most influential person in the organisation who is likely to help them win the sale.
Jos Kievitsbosch of Smead Europe explains: "The challenge is to bypass the traditional office products buyer and speak directly to people in the organisation whose job it is to fight microbial infections or who are responsible for (legal) health issues. They immediately recognise the problems, know what it is all about and will help to convince the buyer.
He adds: "Smead has developed sales materials and offers product training to dealers to help them master the situation and become experts themselves."
Looking ahead to the next 12 months, Kievitsbosch anticipates continued expansion in the product sector across Europe and in
"We see a growing awareness in the market on the dangers and cost attached to microbial contamination problems," he says.
"All countries and markets, regardless of their economical strength, face the exact same problems and offer the same chances for success."
Fuelled by media reports of increased hospital infections, dealers will be presented with plenty of opportunity to sell anti-microbial products to hygiene-savvy consumers.
He says: "Anti-microbial products with their added value can give new sales values to the dealers. It gives the opportunity to make new customer calls, position the dealer as innovative, offering real solutions. Vertical markets like the medical industry are really very large and offer new opportunities including standard office products."
Helping to bag the bad guy
Security and tamper-evident specialist, Debatin UK is seeing healthy growth in all its main product areas due to a combination of tough economic conditions and the increase in internet purchases through sites like ebay.
Sales Director Peter Holloway explains: "We have seen fantastic organic growth in the use of the products we supply due to online sales and ebay. Resellers are seeking new ways to market and are exploiting the internet online boom, and we are increasingly seeing our products being sold online by e-tailers. The internet has given us the opportunity of working with smaller customers who ask us to complete the delivery to their end-users."
With consumers under increasing financial pressure, the temptation to break the law is often too strong to resist, reports Holloway who is seeing a rise in sales of tamper-evident products.
He explains: "Sales continue to increase in tamper evident product sales as times get tough and unfortunately more people turn to crime. Also, with the credit crunch, we see more people using cash as they try to gain control of their finances, again leading to an increase in the amount of cash bags required."
Sales of tamper-evident products have also been fuelled by the continuing rise in identity fraud, with many people seeking to protect personal documentation.
Debatin UK operates in a range of key markets including forensics, the police force, airlines and airports, banking, local government, pharmaceutical and prisons.
"We are experiencing good growth across all markets," says Holloway, who adds: "An unfortunate area of growth (for some) is our parking ticket envelopes (above). We are now supplying many councils and parking control companies with envelopes you may find on your windscreen. Sorry!"
Debatin has also capitalised on the legal changes regarding tamper evident containment of duty free purchases on connecting flights.
He explains: "Our security tamper evident bags (STEB) have been widely accepted by many airlines and duty free retailers."
Environmental issues continue to influence the product sector too. One new line which is becoming increasingly popular is the Green Line, "created with the environment in mind."
Included in the range is the Climate Saver Bag – a product produced from renewable material which is carbon neutral and biodegrades by composting – and the Resource Saver Bag produced from post-consumer content which saves on raw materials.
Holloway continues: "Although we are still waiting to see a breakthrough to mass sales of biodegradable products, we are increasingly receiving enquiries about our Green Line range. However, this still remains a niche market due to the increased cost of production."
Another new product to look out for this year is DebaBreathe – Debatin’s new product for the police and forensics market. "The product will be used for the secure and tamper-evident collection of wet evidence. Currently they use a paper bag!"
For those who enjoy writing, ergonomically designed writing instruments will become practically indispensable in future. Anyone frequently required to write for extended periods of time is quite familiar with the symptoms of fatigue and the tension that can go along with it. There can be a number of causes for this. It can be caused by improper holding of the writing instrument, a poorly designed writing instrument that makes writing or holding the instrument difficult and/or an unfavourable writing environment.
The innovative Staedtler triplus products stand not only for relaxed and easy writing, drawing, colouring and marking, but also impress through their attractive and functional presentation as a set in the Staedtler Box. The very name tells what sets apart the triplus series of writing instruments from the rest: an ergonomic, triangular form that ensures a comfortable, relaxed grip and thus promotes effortless and easy writing. Precise guidance of the writing instrument is supported by the non-slip surface. The triplus series makes writing effortless and versatile, because there is always an appropriate writing instrument for every occasion.
This year’s special edition of the Staedtler mobile office continues the success story of the award-winning Staedtler triplus series. This handy travel set contains three triplus fineliners, a triplus ball ballpoint pen, a triplus micro mechanical pencil with 0.5 mm line width and a triplus textsurfer highlighter. And so that you really have everything you need with you, the triplus mobile office also contains one pad of self-adhesive notes and brightly coloured index tabs.
The triangular design has long been established as the ideal form for writing instruments. Through the triangular shape the pen fits perfectly into the position of the fingers, thereby ensuring relaxed and easy writing. The pens cannot turn while writing, and the muscles of the hand remain loose and relaxed even after frequent or extended writing, drawing or colouring.