Category Update: Shades of grey

Traditional office supplies are often referred to as 'core' OP, but is that still the correct terminology when the category has been in decline for so long?

The topic of the traditional OP category draws diverse opinions. Some view the sector to be in terminal decline, while others will tell you it’s in a robust state of health. Is it possible to reconcile these polar opposites? It turns out that the truth isn’t black and white, but more nuanced by many shades of grey.

A recent survey by Epson UK lends weight to the conclusion that the traditional OP market is far from dead. The data shows that even among the millennial generation of 18-24 year-olds, 73% say they still like using ‘analogue’ products such as pens and paper for thinking creatively. Additionally, 82% of British start-ups continue to use traditional office products on a daily basis, with only 1% of these saying they had gone completely digital.

Simon McLoughlin, Traditional Category Director at UK wholesaler VOW, points to a sector that reflects this encouraging picture. “The traditional office products category is in good shape and the pace of change is quickening,” he says. “We are seeing simplification and consolidation in some declining sub-categories, but this is coupled with an increasing commitment to supporting and pushing innovation through.”

Travel across the Atlantic to São Paulo in Brazil and you get a similarly upbeat report from Jaime Nascimento, Export Manager at traditional OP manufacturer Acrimet: “We are very well positioned in the US, UK, Europe and in all Latin American countries. Dealer participation in traditional OP sales has grown and e-commerce sales are expanding significantly too. We’re focusing on the growing importance of winning customers at the point of purchase and adopting a blended strategy that appeals to all sales channels. We’re particularly intent on improving our in-store service and the overall customer experience.”

However, speak to Mélanie Martins, Digital Marketing Manager at CEP Office Solutions in France, and you get an entirely different impression. She portrays the sector as being locked in a continuing downward spiral: “As in previous years this market is still declining – down a further 5.4% again over the past year. We expect a similar decline in 2017, but thankfully the decrease is slow which gives us time to prepare for the transition.”

A question of trust

A core message emerges from those companies that remain upbeat about this category. They all resolve to leverage their brand values and concentrate on themes which reinforce the narrative of being suppliers of quality products that consumers value and can rely on.

In Japan, manufacturer CARL is fixing its attention on producing highly-valued, innovative products that can cross over from the existing B2B office supplies market and also appeal to consumers looking for items for personal use. As the company’s Brand Manager Ada Ma explains: “Our mission is to emphasise the fact that our output represents high-quality, superior technology, reliability and products you can trust. In this sector you have to captivate and inspire people and provide them with the items that help them work, learn and live comfortably.”

The result is a new line of hole punches – called Mr Punch – that features an alumite alloy plating and a double-lever mechanism which reduces the effort required to punch holes. The product has just been awarded a Red Dot design award for 2017. The company has also launched a number of storage and dividing products as it looks to move out of the office and into the home organisation category.

The focus on trust and loyalty is equally central to Acrimet’s ethos. “Our brand is well known for delivering high-quality products, backed up by a strong customer service reputation and an excellent sales team,” says Nascimento. “Acrimet is now 45 years old and customers have grown up with our brand and continue to have a lot of faith in the quality of our products. This, coupled with the company’s consistent investment in product innovation and improvement, gives us a distinct advantage over the competition that is constantly forced to play catch-up.” 

Packing a punch

Playing to its strengths is also the strategy of Rapesco in the UK. While recognising that demand for traditional OP has been falling, Group Trading Director Ken Trenberth is sanguine about the sector as a whole and remains positive about the company’s prospects. “Rapesco is bucking the trend,” he says. “We’re continually improving and adding to our range and demand remains buoyant. We’ve launched over 150 new stapling and punching products over the past 12 months and nearly all our products come with a 15-year, no-quibble guarantee which is clearly marked on the packaging and advertising – this helps customers identify that Rapesco is a brand that can be relied on. 

“We’ve deliberately stepped back from the private label market where product quality has been driven ever lower in an effort to chase a reduced price point. Consumers are now becoming wise to this and are looking for quality, design-driven, sustainable products and that’s what we give them.”

He adds: “Our new Soft White ECO range is a first to market and is proving to be a huge success both in the UK and across the world where demand for environmentally-friendly, high-quality products remains very strong. The larger economies in Europe as well as  the US present the best opportunities for growth as these markets prefer top quality and have a
 real fondness for
 British designs.”

It’s interesting that CEP’s attitude again differs quite considerably here, as it believes brands are not majorly important in the desktop accessories sector. “The most important element is offering the best value for money and, as a consequence, private label is a serious alternative,” says Martins.

This general ongoing trend towards private label is reflected in many countries throughout Europe. 2016 sales data from retail research company Nielsen shows that the market share for retailer brands increased in 13 of the 20 countries it tracks. In France, volume share has climbed over 35%, in Germany it’s now over 40%, whereas it’s reached a record-breaking 46% in the UK. Countries in Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and the Mediterranean region also all posted market share gains.

But while traditional OP sales are declining overall, Martins refers to several other growth opportunities that manufacturers can tap into and CEP has done exactly that. She says: ”We have enlarged our range to encompass hygiene, reception and breakroom products, for example. We also see opportunities in new technologies, such as Qi wireless charging and LED lamps.” 

Consumer engagement 

Marketing traditional OP products to a younger, more tech-savvy and digitally-aware audience is uppermost on the minds of some people OPI spoke to.

Rapesco believes that it’s leading the way with its direct consumer engagement programmes via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. It also has its own YouTube channel that’s currently hosting over 230 videos. “This has all been hugely successful at targeting consumers of all types,” says Trenberth. 

“The younger generation consumer is particularly keen to participate in our digital media competitions, with many sharing our messaging around the world. Product data, content, imagery and video are all available for any market and reseller, with multiple language translations ready and waiting for partners to use.”

CEP is taking a different approach to getting its product message across in this digitally-connected age. “What we have started to do is to answer comments posted on the Amazon website,” says Martins. “This gives consumers a professional and positive image of our company that we hope they’ll remember when they next come to make a purchase.”

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There’s a sense that the traditional OP category has been ‘talked down’ over recent years and is suffering from a certain negativity and an incorrect perception that it’s dull and boring. But you only have to look at events like The Stationery Show in London or indeed some trendy and fashionable retail outlets such as Smiggle or Moleskine to realise that there are two sides to the coin.

“It’s really important how we label and brand this category,” explains VOW’s McLoughlin. “The terms we use such as ‘traditional’ or ‘core’, and even ‘office products’ are pretty uninspiring ways to describe things. And while the term ‘stationery’ has seen something of a renaissance in the public’s mind, the industry perhaps hasn’t embraced that positivity. Personally, I think the whole channel needs a greater level of support, with activities that give better backing to brands and trade-up programmes.”

Overall, it seems this is a sector that’s a long way from breathing its last and that, despite difficulties, still has much to offer. The final word goes to Trenberth who sums it up succinctly: “We can’t hide from the fact that this market is tough, but this strengthens our resolve even further to keep on with innovating and designing new products and finding new customers and markets to sell them to.”