Distributors, Stymied By Loss Of Mainstream Business, Pivot Quickly To PPE
The past two months have been devastating to many distributors as prospective orders evaporate and sales continue to flatline. But for those distributors that can pivot to selling personal protective equipment (PPE)—including face masks, face shields, gloves and gowns—business is hopping.
The creative forces behind Imprint Engine, a St. Louis Park, Minnesota-based distributor that experienced huge annual revenue growth in recent years by landing big-name clients, saw an opportunity to provide personal protective equipment and jumped at it.
Zach Sussman, a partner in the firm, says he was able to source the products from existing suppliers and transition into the new space quickly. The opportunity opened up when one of his manufacturing partners in the Twin Cities started producing face shields that were needed by first responders and contacted him about joining in. Sussman used his network to connect with clients in need of the products.
“Many of our medical clients for PPE were referrals through our personal and business networks, they were not existing clients,” says Sussman. “We put out the word via social media, which eventually made its way to medical organizations in need of PPE. Many of our PPE clients outside of the medical field have been existing clients of ours, like a well-known rideshare company, a well-known meat processing company, and Minnesota-based Snap Fitness, who required PPE to safely operate their businesses.”
Sussman says his biggest learning curve was about the products themselves. “The nice thing about the pivot to PPE is that it didn’t require a major change to our core business model. The biggest challenge was the massive learning curve of educating ourselves on a completely new product offering. It involved a lot of 12-14-hour days for our team as we established our supply chain and educated ourselves on all of the regulations and certifications around PPE.”
It was time well spent as the demand for face masks is expected to continue to rise as they become required in public places at least through the next several months.
“We anticipate demand for PPE will be the new normal for at least the foreseeable future, and we’re already seeing that demand increase as our clients are starting to look at plans to re-open their doors,” he says. “One of the biggest adjustments we’re making to our PPE planning and business model is to purchase inventory of high-demand items like hand sanitizer, gloves and medical masks. We have historically not been interested in taking inventory risk, but with PPE having the supplies in our warehouse, ready to ship, can make the difference between winning or losing a deal. So, we feel it’s critical to invest in inventory of these supplies and have them on hand ready to ship, instead of placing orders at the time of purchase and waiting 10-12 days or more for them to ship from China. Many people don't realize how limited the availability of PPE is, but now that they are recognizing the necessity of these items to get their businesses open, the need is immediate and those who have inventory ready to ship today will be the ones winning the business.”
Until a couple of months ago, Trevor George, CEO of Sterling Heights, Michigan-based distributor Trevco, and his team were selling promo apparel and accessories, and life was good. Then the pandemic hit. Orders for the usual products stopped and his business quickly declined by 60 percent. For three weeks, he was in shock and survival mode as he worked to save the company. The wake-up call came from his wife, Morgan, who urged him to try to provide needed goods at a local hospital. George came through with 250,000 face masks but Morgan was certain her husband and the business were capable of much more. “For two weeks, she bugged me,” he says, so he called a manufacturer he’d worked with, a local textile company, and asked if they could make 100,000 masks a week. The answer was yes.
In four days, George and his team built a website called MaskClub.com, obtained approval for over 100 of the company’s licensed brands and then partnered with a first-responders' children’s organization to receive the donated masks—for every mask sold, a medical-grade mask is donated. The site was launched the next day, April 10, and quickly went viral. “To date we’ve donated 100,000 medical-grade masks, so you can do the math,” he says. “And I owe it all to my wife—she was adamant that we did something, and not just to create business but to help at the same time.”
MaskClub is at 10,000 subscribers and growing, and George is focused on building out memberships. “We are going to launch an exclusive members-only design section where they’ll have access to exclusive art and brands. The whole reason we started the subscription model is that we don’t think masks are going anywhere—at least until there’s a vaccine.”
The masks are washable, reusable and appeal to an emerging consumer trend—a wardrobe of masks to match outfits, moods and destinations. “I’m looking at how we onboard more brands and give access to cool, new designs while giving them a chance to support it and have fun at the same time,” George says, adding that Trevco will retain its core promo business but sees MaskClub as a division of the company now.
Not only was George able to save and grow his business by delivering a high-demand item in a unique way, he is employing more people than before the pandemic. “This is the best part—we were a 150-person company and furloughed close to 100 people,” he says. “We have brought almost every person back and hired over 30 new people.”