Following the event, I took the opportunity to talk to several peers from around the industry and from all channels.
Almost everybody mentioned the opportunities and challenges they encounter, and how quickly these have evolved over the last couple of years, even the last couple of months.
Both the technological and economic evolution has been so momentous that it is substantially affecting business in a number of ways.
Technology, to start with, is really impacting the type of office products customers buy and, perhaps even more importantly, the quantities they buy. The economy is only fuelling that fire: employment has decreased over the past couple of years and although it has stabilised a little, there’s no real growth expected anytime soon.
In addition to that, the economy has forced people to reduce spend and use fewer office products. The ultimate upshot of this is that customers have learned to work with less and have decided to keep it that way.
This heady combination of technological advances and an unstable economy has driven customers to buy – and demand – cheaper products. Many ‘status items’ people bought in the past from traditional categories have been replaced by gadgets like tablets and smartphones. Due to this shift, customers want to spend even less for those items they still need which is pushing down prices.
Technology is also having a big impact on how customers make a choice and where they ultimately buy. It’s made access to ‘our’ space quite easy for newcomers, leading to more – and often cheaper – competition.
Lastly, the paperless office we have been talking about for over ten years isn’t here yet but the trend to use less paper in the office is clear and will continue.
All of these points have led business leaders across the globe to reflect on what to do to remain relevant and survive in the medium term. And, like I said, the number of options available is exactly what’s causing the stress.
But it’s more than just having those options. Stress is further caused by the need to change the way they think and operate as well as the speed with which they have to do it. Except for some new online players, most businesses have seen their sales and margins decrease at a high speed. At the same time, the options to address those dilemmas require substantial investments in new tools and skills. Even once they’ve made the decision that they ‘need to act’, there is still much to consider:
• Do I invest in building/acquiring new categories? If yes, which one(s)?
• Do I hire people to build my own web solutions, do I buy/lease a solution or do I join a team that has the technology?
• Once I have the technology, I need substantial funds to invest in online marketing, SEO, search, etc.
• For those with a bricks-and-mortar presence: do I keep my store(s) going by investing in the ‘experience’ or do I divest and go for pure online? Can I do both at the same time?
• Should I invest in services? If so, which ones: data protection, shredding services, presentation design support, flower service, catering?
• Should I merge, buy a competitor or even sell my own business and start anew?
All these options can lead to paralysis and a tendency to just continue as before. Some leaders might even hope that the issues will go away again, kidding themselves with the notion that once the economy gets better, they will regain volume and be back on track!
I can’t predict the future but I dare say that they – whoever ‘they’ are – will not go away. Change has started and will continue to come in at an even higher pace than it has so far. However, it should not lead to paralysis, but to more action and quicker and better decisions made. If business leaders don’t make the decisions, they will be made for them.