Personal view: Steve Harrop


What have the Romans ever done for us?

by Steve Harrop
Before Christmas I was at home watching that great comedy sketch by the Monty Python team: "What have the Romans ever done for us- If you’ve not seen it take a look at the sketch – it’s available on YouTube. I spent some time reflecting on how we improved added value to our members and weren’t purely seen as agents of price alone.

It seems that many buying groups are suffering at the moment from the feeling amongst some industry players that their time has come.


The changes – mostly negative – in the economy, marketing factors, the need for lower costs, and perceived self interest of the owners are the main reasons for their forthright (and usually anonymous) views.
Listening with a real sense of fun to the earlier mentioned sketch, I can’t help but feel the same way as Xerxes:
Reg: "All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us-
Xerxes: "Brought peace-
So what has this got to do with buying groups? Well, the late 1980s and early 1990s saw the invasion of the big box players (in the UK) such as Viking and Staples. The past decade has seen the rise of the contract stationers.


Panic ensued and, working as I was in the 1980s for the largest wholesaler then in the UK office products industry – Spicers – we reacted accordingly and plunged/encouraged many dealers into the safety net and security of the buying groups. Looking back it all made sense and, no surprise here, to me it makes equal if not more sense now.


Buying groups like Office Friendly provide the many core functions of a corporate group – the wholesale deal, the varied and deep levels of promotional activity, networking activites throughout the year, marketing publications of the highest quality and lowest cost, as well as IT solutions (such as Office Friendly’s email marketing programme Maxemail, on a truly affordable basis).


At Office Friendly we’ve also introduced what we consider to be one of the industry’s most innovative and first dealer-focused environmental programmes, So-Go-Eco.
However, as with all things, change is inevitable and buying groups and dealer associations cannot and should not stand still. We need to redefine our role and unveil a completely new kind of service.


At a crossroads


We are at a crossroads in our industry, caused by economic uncertainty, real logistics cost implications and, in the case of Office Friendly, a swing in corporate ideology by our main partner and supporter VOW.


Buying groups need to pursue initiatives that provide a service which will reinvigorate the members who endorse it, provide new selling opportunities and much required training support. We need to bridge the gap between manufacturer and reseller that has widened in the last 15 years.


The major players are changing and Office Friendly and its fellow groups must adapt along with them or else the decline of the Roman Empire – the dealer, reseller faction – might well start here.


The lessons we have learned over the course of a harsh 2009 are not unique and for dealers the net of the group remains an extremely positive factor in survival and future development. It’s all about evolution.