Category Update: Classroom shake-up

Despite budgetary constraints, the education sector offers a rich bed of opportunities to suppliers that can keep up with the pace of change.

The education sector globally is undergoing something of a revolution. Technological advances, curriculum changes and new learning methods are being swiftly adopted and even the layout of the traditional classroom is changing to encompass new ways of teaching. For those suppliers nimble enough to meet the ever-changing needs of schools and colleges, this expansive category represents a fertile area in which to do business.

“The biggest challenge we face is keeping up in this market,” admits Beth Wright, Chief Commercial Officer at visual communications vendor Bi-silque. “Its rapid evolution and the development of new products to meet specific needs is a demanding challenge. Nevertheless, the recent recruitment of specialist education sales teams by many of our reseller partners is allowing us to bring products to market in a focused manner. Education is a very attractive market for increasing our sales volume.”

Exploiting opportunities

Tim Beaumont, Managing Director at UK dealer group NEMO also sees 2017 as a very good time to capitalise on a number of educational supply opportunities: “There were some pressures on the sector in 2016 caused by government austerity budgeting, the influence of living-wage increases, and problems implementing the funding for the new 30-hours of early years childcare. These, coupled with slowdown influences on business from Brexit concerns, have caused some casualties and consolidation in the supply sector. For those that remain this has created opportunities that we’ll now seek to exploit with our membership.”

European statistics provide some intriguing insight into future projections for this sector. The under-five age group are the pupils of the future and data shows that, on average, this group is expected to show a decrease up until 2030. However, in many key north-western European markets such as the UK, Belgium, Switzerland and Scandinavia, this trend will move in the opposite direction meaning this pre-school cohort will grow. This will provide significant growth opportunities for educational sales in these countries. 

In addition, kitting out classrooms with the latest products is expected to accelerate. Currently, one-in-four classrooms across the world has an interactive display, but by 2019 this will increase to one-in-three. Teachers are certainly backing this development. A recent survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit showed that 90% of educational leaders believe that technology has already made them more imaginative and creative at work. 

And the traditional classroom, with students’ desks aligned in rows in front of the teacher, also appears to have had its day. The physical teaching environment is changing, spaces are no longer static and need to be easily adaptable to fit a range of activities and pedagogical methods. 

The new classroom is expected to be more of a learning studio – a place where knowledge is created and not just consumed – with key activities centred on interactivity, flexibility and adjustment to group work. 

Problem-solving, team-working and communication are the skills that are currently most in demand in the workplace and will be increasingly integrated into teaching practices and the educational environment. 

As Nicole Esser, Marketing Intelligence Manager at Germany’s Legamaster, explains: “Products that support the development of collaboration and communication skills of students are in demand. Despite the strong technological developments in the education segment, we still see opportunities for traditional equipment. A creative atmosphere can be built around technical devices used in combination with things like whiteboards, flipcharts, workshop boards and other tools that are really tactile to stimulate creativity among students and positively influence effective team-working.”

Flexibility, mobility and adaptability – similar to the office environment – are becoming key. Amy Kiefer, Director of Marketing at Mayline and Safco, says: “Teachers are demanding options such as standing-height tables and mobile desks with casters. Students are also being provided with adjustable-height desks and perch seating is becoming a popular alternative. Active seating, such as our Zenergy Ball Chair, allows students to sit and bounce keeping them actively engaged to help facilitate better learning.”

Scope for innovation

New teaching techniques are being introduced as well – this includes ‘Flipped learning’ whereby the typical lecture and homework elements of a course are reversed. Short video lectures are viewed by students at home before a class session, while in-class time is devoted to exercises, projects and discussions. Bi-silque’s Wright is aiming to tap into this opportunity: “We’ve launched a complete education package incorporating interactive solutions and software that fit perfectly with this new pedagogical approach. It’s known for improving students’ critical thinking skills, increasing participation, engagement and motivation to improve learning outcomes.

“2017 is going to be rich in innovation, with many new improved education products launched that incorporate more relevant features and unusual, but smart, solutions such as antimicrobial properties for more hygienic use.” 

Wright adds: “A huge challenge in this market is the considerable diversity in the type of products needed within different countries – they all require specific solutions and often very different certifications. We have to adapt and develop innovative solutions that are able to meet the requirements for every country.”

And not all countries are proceeding at the same pace either, says Esser: “The level of adoption of these innovative products varies enormously by country. The UK and the Netherlands are far ahead of other European countries with, for example, older interactive whiteboards already being replaced by new touchscreen flat-panel displays. Germany is on a slower path – the market here is growing and offers large potential. Further steps forward can be expected as a newer generation of students, parents and teachers becomes more accepting of modern developments.” 

Money talks

All that said, all these innovative educational products cost money and there’s no doubt that the limited budgets that teachers have to work with is adversely affecting sales, with many suppliers that OPI spoke to on both sides of the Atlantic mentioning this effect. 

It’s certainly having an impact on spending patterns as Ken Newman, Director of Marketing at Zebra Pen in the US, explains: “Budgetary constraints are a constant challenge. We’re actually seeing a growing personal spend from teachers to ensure that their classrooms are properly stocked for their students. Additionally, more and more of the supplies burden is being pushed to the home, with students and their parents asked to purchase their own materials.”

In that context, the emergence of Amazon as a supplier to the school market is also causing a major shakeup. As US education consultant Jim Benkovic states: “This is a real game changer. Individual schools and districts have always used a series of local or national dealers for product support. But that is changing and they’re now going directly to Amazon and receiving exactly the same products as before. As this new trend continues to grow dealers will be under increasing pressure not only to remain profitable but to survive as a business.”

Indeed and as reported in OPI, Amazon Business is likely to eat a very substantial part of the pie as a result of US Communities awarding the e-tail giant a multi-year online marketplace contract that gives Amazon’s B2B arm access to public agencies such as schools, school districts and higher education institutions.

Despite these headwinds the education sector remains an area with excellent opportunities. With the right approach and the ability to adapt to the category’s rapid pace of change significant sales are possible for all channel participants.

Seasonal sales

The back-to-school (BTS) period has traditionally been seen as the most important sales time for the education sector, but increasingly that is being edged out by other seasonal drivers which are having an effect throughout the year.

Pentel’s Marketing Manager Wendy Vickery says that the company sees the end of the financial year, around 1 April, as an important time: “This is when people have unspent budget to use – we call it ‘Tax Time’. Also, because of the nature and profile of our product range, ‘back-to-college/university’ is actually bigger than BTS and then, of course, there’s ‘Exam Time’ which also offers a major opportunity as students equip themselves for this important period.  

“It’s all about identifying the right product for the right age group and meeting each seasonal opportunity effectively with the right range – back-to-college/university, for example, requires a more sophisticated selection of products than BTS.”

A time and a place

This concept of time and place – and appropriate type of product for it – is also picked up by Ken Newman, Director of Marketing at Zebra Pen in the US. “For writing products, the BTS months of July and August are still critical and will continue to be the most important selling season,” he says. “However, post winter break – in late December/early January – is when kids restock on a whole range of items, especially college students going back for the new semester. This is another seasonal opportunity to expand our reach.”

And while Tim Beaumont, Managing Director at UK dealer group NEMO, agrees that Q1 and Q3 respectively are the peak quarters for its members to supply the education market, there are other seasonal opportunites, such as Easter, Halloween and Christmas which can tap into specific classroom project work. As such, he adds, “we supplement our catalogue with new products and promotions throughout the year”. 

There are other – sometimes surprising – seasonal sales swings that can be harder to predict. As Mélanie Martins, Digital Marketing Manager at CEP Office Solutions in France, explains: “This sector can depend on French politics. In 2016, the government decided to change the whole curriculum and all the school text books had to be re-edited and reissued. As such, schools spent their entire budget buying these new books and delayed all other purchasing decisions. The school supplies list was also sent out very late to parents, who then bought everything at the last minute, causing a big sales spike.”

Technological impact

As with many OP product categories, technology is having a significant impact on the education sector. OPI speaks to Stuart Bleese, Technology Category Manager at EVO Group, about the effect this is having on sales and the types of product that are in demand from a UK wholesaler perspective.

OPI: What are the main drivers behind the increasing take-up of technology products in the education sector?

Stuart Bleese: This sector is embracing technology more than ever before. Children are familiar with technology from an early age and students quickly become comfortable with new developments. Educational establishments now have to keep up with this pace.

Changes to the national curriculum are also driving change – the introduction of 3D printing, programming and app creation mean that the products to support these must be bought. The latest technologies now have a pivotal place in the education environment.

OPI: What specific product types and brands are gaining traction?

SB: Items such as Genee interactive boards, HUE animation cameras and Kensington docking stations are particularly in demand. But overall, any product that can offer the two target audiences – students and educators – time-saving benefits are very popular.

With school staff in mind, machines such as Brother’s Direct Scan Solution, for example, enable users to store documents – student records, attendance registers, school-trip forms, etc – digitally rather than manually filing hard copies. This saves time and helps schools comply with national pupil safeguarding and data protection laws. Additionally, it reduces paper usage and increases space availability by reducing the need for filing cabinets.  

OPI: The sector spans a broad age bracket from nursery through to higher education. That must have an impact on the type of products needed?

SB: Yes, technology requirements differ significantly depending on the age of users. In the early-learning years ergonomics and aesthetics play a key role. Interaction is important when it comes to capturing a young child’s attention and the use of products like interactive whiteboards and animation cameras are encouraged. Devices must also be robust which leads to a demand for tough, durable and often waterproof products. This opens up further sales opportunities for complementary protection products such as cases, screen guards and carry bags.

Among older students technology usage is obviously higher than their younger counterparts, with increased ownership of portable devices such as tablets, laptops and smartphones. There’s also a thriving market in compatible accessories such as cables, cases and headphones. 

Teachers, meanwhile, are using products such as interactive boards in conjunction with tablets to engage and interact with these older students and there are many educational software packages and apps available to assist pupils of all ages with their learning.

OPI: What are the key future technology trends set to take hold in this sector?

SB: Life is becoming ever more harmonised with technology through the use of physical devices or via virtual innovations such as cloud storage. Schools and academies are not immune to these changes and are increasingly taking control of their own budgets enabling them to prioritise the adoption of these developments. 

Resellers looking to target this sector should note that technology is not only being purchased by IT and science departments – it’s now used by teachers in all subject areas as well as by administrative staff.

In the short term, I believe wearable technology and the use of virtual reality (VR) headsets will become far more common. Students will use VR to explore different aspects of the world without ever leaving the classroom. Smart watches will also make major inroads, with alarms, reminders and timetable changes all electronically communicated to pupils. Similarly, students will be able to digitally interact with their teachers, whether they are in the classroom or not.