Selecting supplies distributors: it all comes down to value

By Gretchen Friedrich

Recently, an Australian trade publication sent out a request for comments (RFC). The editors were preparing an article about one of the world’s largest online marketers entering the B2B sector. This means that instead of selling smartphones, shirts and watches as they have for years, this online giant is going to begin marketing freestanding ice makers for restaurants and bars, warehouse light fixtures, commercial stainless-steel sinks and an array of facility and industrial cleaning supplies, tools and equipment.

The RFC posed the following two questions:

  • How should distributors react to this invasion into their traditional territory?
  • How can distributors defend themselves, hold on to market share and grow their businesses?

Churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious gathering places will be affected by the answers to these questions. Essentially, the questions being asked here are not about the so-called invasion or how distributors can defend themselves. No, the real question is, do the distributors of cleaning and other products still bring value to the church table?

The best way to address this value issue is to take a close look at the pros and cons of selecting products from an online mega-retailer versus working with a local distributor. We’ll let you decide who brings the most value.

What the Online Retailer Brings to the Table

At this time, of the 100 largest educational facilities in the country (based on enrollment), 80 percent purchase their cleaning supplies from an online giant, according to Pamela Mills-Senn at Sanitary Maintenance in her article, “Doing Business Against an E-Commerce Giant.” More than half of the Fortune 100 companies, about half of the largest hospitals in the country, and nearly half of the largest local governments in the country, are also regular online-retailer customers, she reported.

So, what is the attraction?

Although it does not always pan out as expected, the big attraction is cost savings. While janitorial distributors must purchase their products from manufacturers and suppliers and warehouse them, this is not necessarily the case with online mega-retailers. Instead, they work with third-party suppliers that ship products directly to end customers as they are sold online. This gives the retailer a significant cost advantage. They do not need to build large warehouses to store thousands of products, hire staff to work in these warehouses or hire salespeople to make the sale.

Further, many times online giants provide their customers with faster delivery at no extra charge. The goal of many is same-day or next-day delivery. While distributors can offer similar fast-delivery arrangements, invariably it is provided at an extra charge.

But here’s what church administrators should know. These mega-retailers don’t have to become experts on these products, according to Jim Peduto, a well-known author and trainer in the professional cleaning industry.

“These online platforms essentially just handle the financial transaction and ensure the product reaches the customers,” Peduto said. “They do not offer any form of product expertise.”

What the distributor brings to the table

Peduto’s comment about expertise gets to the heart of the value question as it pertains to churches and distributors. When it comes to selecting cleaning supplies online, without the help of a distributor, church administrators often make product selections using a trial-and-error method. Products are purchased based on descriptions, customer reviews and costs. However, if church administrators are not careful, this trial-and-error purchasing method can become very costly very fast.

Case in point: When the state of New York decided to transfer from traditional to green-certified cleaning solutions, one of its primary concerns was selecting a durable floor finish that produced a high-gloss shine and could hold up to heavy foot traffic. Initially, it was not believed this would be a difficult task. However, it turned out that building administrators had to try 23 different green floor finishes before they found one that met their needs.

Much of this trial-and-error purchasing — and the resulting waste — could have been eliminated by working with a janitorial distributor. Most cleaning solution manufacturers provide their distributors with what are called “sell sheets.” These sell sheets not only point out the features and benefits of a product, but also suggest how the product should be used and, as it pertains to this situation, recommends the types of hard-surface floors the product is best suited for.

Taking this a step further, some distributors now have access to online dashboard systems that help their church customers make product selections that address specific situations. What if the church has terrazzo floors? Marble floors? Wants to use only green-certified cleaning solutions?

While some trial and error may still be necessary, it is doubtful church administrators will need to try 23 different floor products to find one that meets their needs and works in their church facility.

Peduto said that the most important asset any distributor has “is an educated, well-trained staff that knows the products they sell and can educate customers about them and how to use them.”

“Very often customers are not aware of the fact that cleaning is a science, and a complicated one at that,” he added. “Having local support and expertise when called upon can pay dividends for church administrators when it comes to cleaning.”

Gretchen Friedrich is a marketing manager with AFFLINK, a leader in supply chain management and a supplier of cleaning, paper and packaging materials for a variety of industries. She can be reached through her company website at






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