Hi-tech margin

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It’s taken days, if not weeks, to put together that important report and now it’s ready, just before deadline. As usual, owing to your increasing workload, you’re working right up to the wire. Just time to print this out for a last check and it’s all systems go. You hit the print button and wait with eager anticipation at the printer. Nothing happens. The minutes tick by and your blood pressure rises as you glance at the clock. You’re stuck in the dreaded print queue behind goodness knows how many others and time is rapidly running out.
Does this scenario sound familiar? I’m guessing that many of us have experienced situations like this at one time or another.
And it’s these situations that are not only fuelling major changes in office culture and practice, but also driving demand for a new generation of machines like the multifunctional peripheral (MFP), claim some machine manufacturers.
Workers have never had it so tough in terms of managing and delivering multiple projects on time.
With employers striving for maximum productivity and efficiency, they are looking for reliable, cost-effective machines, and many experts believe that multifunction devices may hold the key.
Traditionally, all-in-one products may have been seen as something purely for the small office/home office (SoHo) sector, but now their appeal is widening, reckons Phil Jones, sales and marketing director for Brother UK.
As confidence grows in MFPs in the home, this feel-good factor is now filtering through to the office environment, adds Jones, who says sales figures, particularly among UK IT resellers, are very encouraging.
"We’re seeing very positive growth, particularly in laser MFPs," he reports. "Overall the market has grown 38 percent. Figures show sales of mono laser MFPs were up 38 percent in the first quarter of 2007, compared with the same period last year. IT resellers doubled their sales from 12 percent in Q1 2006 to 24 percent a year later."
Confidence cycle
This is in stark contrast to inkjet machines. IT resellers accounted for only eight percent of UK sales of these products in the first quarter of 2007, says Jones. The majority of sales were through superstores such as PC World and supermarkets, as well as other electrical stores.
So why are laser MFP products selling so well? Jones believes it has a lot to do with "the confidence cycle".
"There are more and more MFPs available now and technology in these machines has broken free of the ‘Jack of all trades’ label that has been around for years," he explains.
"MFPs are incredibly good, robust machines, and the fear from some quarters that these would not make the grade has not been proven. They are building up a good track record."
Growth is also being fuelled by interest from bigger corporates shifting away from a central hub system, where workers all work from one device. Instead they are opting for a more localised system of workgroups, with smaller numbers of employees using several machines dotted around the office, says Jones.
He adds: "The corporates are taking it more localised. One of our customers, a major blue chip, asked us to decentralise its fleet into smaller workgroups, allowing us to give every five people access to a device. This allows people to work more quickly and efficiently. The increase in productivity can be major."
The growing role of MFPs in today’s working environment is also evident to Mike Wright, director of marketing communications at ACCO Europe.
"MFP sales growth is driven in part by the SoHo and personal office phenomena as opposed to the more traditional ‘shared’ concept," he says.
"We believe strongly in multifunctionality as a concept and it is already present in many of our leading binding models."
The claim that an MFP can save space in a small office or home office has proved a powerful sales tool in the SoHo sector, but now manufacturers believe it’s not only the decreased footprint of these machines that is appealing to large organisations.
Major impact
Darren Cassidy, director and general manager, office group, Xerox UK and Ireland, is in no doubt as to the impact multifunctional devices are making.
"One major trend in the office machine is an increasing demand for multifunction devices that streamline workflows by combining all or a selection of these office products into one unit. In doing so, they save on expensive office space, reduce maintenance and contract costs, and improve productivity," he says.
The MFP also holds another major ace up its sleeve, says Phil Jones – it’s better for the environment, he claims.
"MFPs have just one plug and therefore one energy source," explains Jones. "Single devices could add up to three or four different sets of emissions. Resellers can use this to promote the product to customers who are aware of environmental issues and want to buy ‘green’."
Cassidy adds: "The annual energy consumption of a Xerox WorkCentre or WorkCentre Pro multifunction system is approximately 50 percent less than the combined annual energy consumption of the individual Energy Star qualified copier, fax and printers it replaces."
So, with MFPs buoyant, what about the health of the machines market in general?
Nils Becker-Birck, marketing manager of Snopake’s Swordfish brand, is pretty optimistic all in all.
"Compared to other segments in the field of office products, the machines sector is still one of the few growth drivers," he says.
"Shredders and laminators in particular have developed from purely office-based products into ‘mass market’ consumer goods. They’re therefore sold increasingly through the same channels as other consumer electronics, such as cameras and DVD or MP3 players."
The company is seeing good growth, particularly with its shredder range, reports Becker-Birck.
"The media coverage on identity fraud has turned into a significantly longer lasting phenomenon than many in the industry expected. As a result, we find that people are now trading up from low-end five-sheet strip cutters into mid-sized cross-cut shredders," he explains.
To capitalise on this, the company plans to add one new shredder model for each quarter in 2007.
Mike Wright believes there are plenty of positive market indicators.
"I’d say the current health of the machines market can be regarded as fit," he enthuses. "With the mix of rapid changes in technology and working patterns in developed countries, plus the explosion of commercial and entrepreneurial activity in particularly former Communist parts of the world, there is no reason to complain."
Despite the constant threat of price erosion, commoditisation and competitiveness, Xerox’s Cassidy believes there are still positive signs for resellers, with the SMB market showing significant growth.
The freeworker
Responding to resellers’ feedback, Xerox moved into the market last September and boosted its product range again in February.
Cassidy adds: "There is also a big push for A3 colour at the moment – another core market on the rise. In 2006 we saw real growth in sales in this area and we are keen to build on this in 2007."
Social and technology changes such as broadband and wi-fi are also having a major impact on the machines sector and giving birth to a new type of customer – the freeworker – reports Jones.
The freeworker is someone who works away from the traditional office occasionally, but not often enough to register on governments’ data for mobile/home working. Only teleworkers working more than one day a week out of the office are included in statistics, claims Jones.
"Wi-fi and broadband in particular are very much influencing this sector," he says. "They are enabling people to have a truly mobile workforce. At a time when we are trying to get the work/life balance sorted out, this technology is enabling people to do the same work at home as in the office."
According to statistics presented by Jones at an OPI conference two years ago, within the next 15 years, 520 million people across Europe will fall into the freeworker category.
He sees this as a tremendous opportunity for the trade. "This social evolution, driven by the products and services that we provide as an industry, is going to produce big rewards for those people who address this interesting market.
He adds: "What is evident is that there is a massive gold rush awaiting those companies that seek out and market to this group."
However, the SoHo market can be a tough nut for resellers to crack. Jones explains: "Generally speaking end users who are responsible for their own budget end up in stores like PC World while corporate SoHo means customers buy products through their company. The traditional dealer can find it hard to get into the home office marketplace unless they have a retail shop front."
He adds: "People don’t want to wait for a product and the internet is fuelling this ‘I want it now’ mentality. The SoHo customer makes a lot of impulse decisions.
"Resellers need to adopt a consultative approach to selling to talk to their customer and take advantage of this emerging trend."
So what of the future for office machines and what challenges will the next five years pose for the reseller?
Aggressive offers
Nils Becker-Birck of Snopake is reluctant to pinpoint any one issue. "I wouldn’t want to make any more predictions about the development of the office machines segment as a whole," he says, but adds: "The average office products dealer must compete against aggressive offers from large national retail chains and price aggressive internet offers. No dealer is too small to grow the business online and some of our regional accounts are selling more products online than they do in their high-street stores."
Wright believes there are several major factors vital to a reseller’s success in the machines sector.
"Knowledge, technical expertise and a full understanding of the relationship between machines and consumables," he says. "Most resellers are either reluctant or unwilling to grip these essential differences between office machines and more traditional OP products. It needs more willingness and partnership between manufacturers and resellers to crack this issue."
And where will the biggest machines growth come from? "The growth in printer sales is a dynamic that has obvious signals," Wright continues. "We see that as driving any post-print activity or dynamic. It has implications for any category that is remotely involved with communication or security."
Jones is quick to name colour laser MFPs as a key area for the future. "The emerging market is the colour laser MFP. Colour laser technology can be quite slow, but we now have a second generation of buyer that really wants to speed things up.
"We want to give them a faster machine, and in the summer we will be launching a really fast range of colour MFP products."
With price erosion being one of the major issues in the machines market, and Jones reporting a 12 percent price deflation in the UK currently, he believes resellers need to maximise margin in add-on sales.
"We offer a consumables recycling programme for resellers. They get the used consumables back from the customer and then we pay the reseller to get them returned to us. It’s things like this that can really make a difference.
"If resellers are able to sell extended warranties, supply OEM cartridges and introduce the recycling element, then by being smart, they can make good margin."