Perspectives: Sales Growth--Where The Real Opportunities Lie

Over the years, I have often been asked my thoughts on the real, total sales revenue of our industry. My standard answer is to recite findings from PPAI’s most recent Distributor Sales Volume survey. If you ask me today I would tell you that distributor sales reached $21.3 billion in 2016. (See page 46 for PPAI’s annual sales volume study results.)

I have a high degree of certainty around this number for two reasons. First, we use a highly regarded and independent outside research firm that has designed and developed mature research processes and trusted methodologies to obtain and secure reliable sales data from a wide range of industry distributors.

The second reason is that while we use different survey methods and source only a partially overlapping pool of respondents, ASI’s sales volume figures consistently run in line with our own findings. While our totals may be off a few hundred million dollars in any given year, we are directionally in-line, and there is generally only a low single-digit percentage difference.

The emphasis on the word real in the first sentence is not a frivolous use of type but my effort to underscore a cause of considerable confusion and consternation. I’ve learned that what people are asking for is the total dollars spent on anything and everything that carries a logo or is used for branding regardless of the sourcing channel or distribution.

Unfortunately, we do not have that answer.

The challenge for PPAI—and really for any organization trying to gather that data—is first, that certain data don’t exist. Moreover, even the best minds with whom I’ve discussed this issue say that even if the data did exist, while interesting, it would have such a wide margin of error it wouldn’t be nearly reliable enough to be actionable.

When I give the long, real answer to the question about industry sales I explain it like this: as an association, PPAI recognizes two mostly distinct universes of product sales that are largely dictated and defined by how the product goes to market. The first universe we call our ‘industry,’ which we define as a promotional product delivered to buyers through the traditional supplier-to-distributor-to-buyer distribution channel. The second and significantly larger universe we call the ‘marketplace.’

The marketplace includes our smaller industry sales volume as well as the sales volume for all other products regardless of how they make their way to buyers and then into consumers’ hands. In  this case, our industry is a subset of the overall marketplace.

PPAI is the nonprofit trade association that represents the industry—the companies and the professionals that provide products and services, and deliver value to their customers through the supplier-distributor distribution channel.

While the Association cannot and does not dictate and demand exclusivity to the channel, PPAI and a number of industry service organizations require that companies wanting to join our industry must demonstrate they have the means and the experience to support our industry’s supplier-distributor channel. For PPAI, that is done through verifying the company’s physical presence in the U.S., Canada or Mexico and by meeting a minimum annual sales requirement in promotional products along with membership in a recognized regional association or having a SAGE number, or by providing five qualified product invoices or purchase orders, or five reference letters from PPAI members.

In my discussions with suppliers and distributors over the years, I’ve heard estimates that the total marketplace revenue is 75- to 100-percent larger than the industry sales volume. If this were to be true, then the total marketplace for promotional products could be as high as $42 billion.

If you agree with the industry vs. marketplace line of reasoning, I don’t think you’d dispute that there was a time when the size of the industry and the size of the marketplace were more similar in size than today, and that the marketplace vs. industry sales volume difference has increased disproportionately over the past few decades with the advent of the internet, online providers, globalization and changing buyer demographics.

I will not debate that there are certainly qualified and verified industry suppliers and distributors large and small that work outside our channel and ‘go direct’ (whatever that means) but I believe those represent only a smaller portion of the sales volume difference.

There is a more significant catalyst.

A few years back at our North American Leadership Conference, an event that draws our industry’s brightest and most innovative thinkers and entrepreneurs, a featured speaker was a former record company executive whose business was displaced and disrupted by the advent of digital downloads and streaming music. He observed and commented that, like the disruption of the traditional music business, the people and companies that will disrupt our industry are not at industry functions like NALC—they’ve never heard of the event and probably are not aware that our industry even exists.

I look back on changes that have occurred over a few short years since and I realize that our NALC speaker was right. Buyers of promotional products can seamlessly search online, order products from anywhere in the world and have them decorated and delivered, in many cases, in less time than it took to work through our industry’s innovative thinkers and entrepreneurs, a featured speaker was a former record company executive whose business was displaced and disrupted by the advent of digital downloads and streaming music. He observed and commented that, like the disruption of the traditional music business, the people and companies that will disrupt our industry are not at industry functions like NALC—they’ve never heard of the event and probably are not aware that our industry even exists.

I look back on changes that have occurred over a few short years since and I realize that our NALC speaker was right. Buyers of promotional products can seamlessly search online, order products from anywhere in the world and have them decorated and delivered, in many cases, in less time than it took to work through our industry’s of using trusted industry suppliers, and creative and consultative promotional consultants. They have not been made aware of the exponential positive impact that our industry professionals can have on their campaigns, and in growing and protecting their businesses.

Obviously, I wish our industry sales volume was growing faster—as fast as the marketplace demand for promotional products. But that won’t happen if we keep operating the same way. The opportunities this new, wider, well-informed and tech-savvy marketplace presents will require us to be better storytellers about the value of our industry, the benefits of working with trained and creative promotional consultants, and the power of promotional products.

We have a number of initiatives under way that will do just that, and they require a concerted effort by all of us to get involved and engaged. We will discuss this in future columns.

filed under july-2017 | ppb
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