As COVID-19 crept in and impacted all aspects of our lives, PPE was displayed on a global stage due to its importance in protecting everyone – from those on the frontline to the most vulnerable in society. A new term to many, PPE was now on the tips of millions of tongues, and very quickly topping shopping lists.

With this key role in the pandemic, came opportunities and challenges. Ones that have shaped what is important to businesses operating within the market since. Now, as we emerge on the other side and reflect, many PPE businesses have adopted new perspectives on the industry and ideas on how things are likely to change going forward.

So, what does the post-covid landscape look like for distributors? As longstanding experts in the field, we spoke to some of our Eurosafe members to get their views and their predictions for what is just around the corner and beyond.

A wealth of new customers

Before the pandemic, a select few workers needed to wear PPE, and it was relatively straightforward to acquire. In a matter of weeks, demand skyrocketed, and PPE products became indispensable supply items. Normal market dynamics ceased to exist while the disposable market went wild.

This brought a significant boost to sales for some PPE products. But the newfound demand also brought its challenges.

New customers were getting in touch with distributors. With little familiarity with PPE, they were looking for guidance.

They wanted to move quickly, so businesses adapted with much shorter onboarding processes. Knowing that this speed is now possible, some are assessing how they can improve their process in future, while balancing a need for customer servicing.

Although now, a lot of this demand has since dropped off, PPE should still be front of mind as it now holds a much more prominent place in the market. More than ever, people understand its importance. While face masks and other respiratory protection were the products of late, strategies for adapting to the next normal will depend on individual businesses’ specific positions within the PPE market.

“It’s funny, the pandemic was easier to manage in many ways than normal trading conditions. Every customer was seeking the same commodity. Say you managed to get hold of Nitrile gloves, you could fix a problem for a high proportion of your customer base at once. Now we’re back to fighting individual fires for individual customers.”
Jonathan Hall Managing Director, Eurosafe member organisation Consumables Solutions

Customers expect more

Post pandemic, with a wider market of users and people using PPE more frequently and for extended periods of time, requirements are becoming more personalised.

Consumers want PPE that is better performing, more wearable and in some cases, more stylish. On top of protection, functionality and comfort are growing needs. There are opportunities for distributors to specialise and take advantage of these needs by sourcing product innovations and encourage end user adoption. Clients are looking for that expert view as they make more considered plans for their PPE going forward.

“Whatever you do, you have to do it well. And we do it well with a narrow focus. We focus on what we feel we’re strong at. You should be an expert in what you offer – that way you can stand over it.”
Donal O’Sullivan Managing Director, Eurosafe member organisation O’Sullivan Safety

Distributers know where they stand with suppliers

As COVID took hold, the PPE market became a ‘sellers’ one. 

With this came a host of changes when it came to sourcing suppliers. Brand new manufacturers and suppliers were rushing to fill the gaps in a highly volatile market and as demand pushed up prices many saw the opportunity to make money. It was often difficult to locate reliable suppliers of PPE for those high-demand products and, when they were found, prices were far higher than usual. At this point, the benefits of being part of a buying group shone through. 

‘We had to work very hard to secure stock and we had to realise that it was going cost more. Eurosafe’s strong supply relationships with the leading world manufacturers paid dividends to us during this time. We had more leverage as a group than we did as individuals.’
Martin Ross Managing Director, Eurosafe member organisation Ross Safety & Survival 

When it came to existing suppliers, many PPE businesses found that the pandemic brought a valuable lesson on the importance of having a reliable product supply in place and a backup should things go wrong. 

With unprecedented demand, supply was under more pressure that anyone could have imagined, and so some suppliers chose instead to go directly to customers. This took many distributors by surprise as they looked for alternative sources. As a result, the pandemic may have weakened some connections, but it made others much stronger. Some suppliers really came to the rescue with much-needed support, giving distributors greater confidence, which they’ve returned with ongoing loyalty. 

Everyone sees the value in being risk averse 

In dealing with PPE, distributors are well aware that risk exists in the workplace. Now they’re making moves to reduce the amount in their supply chain. In the post-pandemic PPE era, they have time and space to reassess supplies, both internally and with clients, so that their product supply is more reliable going forward. By ensuring they have relationships with backup suppliers, they’ll have greater confidence and be able to act fast should certain products be put under pressure again in the future. 

‘We’ve always been very aware of the need to have multiple supply chains – the message is now easier to convey to our customers because we’ve all been through these headaches together. It’s a much easier conversation to have.’
Jonathan Hall Managing Director, Eurosafe member organisation Consumables Solutions 

Other distributors are seeing this as a reason to diversify their offering, exploring new products that align with their existing range. 

Customers are also becoming more risk averse. For a growing number, it’s not all about price, it’s increasingly about the peace of mind that comes from knowing their employees are safe and their supply is reliable. The pandemic also brought the conversation of overseas sourcing to the fore. With numerous news reports on shortages and negative experiences, customers have a desire to support local businesses and the economy. 

Sustainability is high on the agenda 

Unsurprisingly, years of high volumes of disposable PPE, customers are looking into more sustainable options. The hunger for greener products was there before the pandemic, but is now much stronger on the other side. 

‘The focus is now back on highly sustainable products. We should embrace that and get in front of it as the desire is only going to grow going forward. We need to push the circular economy, making better quality products that last longer.’
Martin Ross Managing Director, Eurosafe member organisation Ross Safety & Survival 

In terms of innovation and creating new solutions, it will be a long-term shift. In the short term, it’s about working with what’s available now and discussing these options with your customers. Distributors need to be well informed on the options out there and be confident on their credibility in order to best advise on the alternatives and if appropriate, source them. 

While there is increasing interest in reusable and more sustainable PPE options, there are obstacles to adoption and an increasing prevalence of greenwashing. Educating consumers is vital in ensuring this doesn’t evade choices. 

Be wary of greenwashing. When it comes to products, we’re dubious. We always make sure to verify and ratify before we present anything to the customer. It’s a learning process for distributors too.”
Jonathan Hall Managing Director, Eurosafe member organisation Consumables Solutions

As a buying group, consisting of experienced experts, Eurosafe is in a position to present a united voice and put greater pressure on suppliers to back up their green claims and offer more sustainable product alternatives. 

Going forward, when speaking to customers, it’s important not only to talk about those proven sustainable options. It’s also valuable to have conversations on how your business drives sustainability in other ways – whether that be consolidating deliveries to save fuel emissions or going paperless. Sustainability is the sum of many parts of business operations. 

Questionable quality in the market 

Quality is the bedrock of PPE, and the pandemic made this even more evident. 

With the emergence of new ‘pop-up’ PPE suppliers, there were many cases where quality issues came into play. Upon delivery from some of these less-experienced suppliers, end consumers were not getting the quality they expected or paid for. Some products weren’t meeting the strict industry safety and quality standards, but were being sold as genuine. The confusion and changing guidelines for PPE use further complicated matters. There were cases of expired, inadequate and deficient supplies. And in the midst of pandemic panic, these issues weren’t being picked up. 

The word needs to get out there that people should be careful what they’re buying. Suddenly there were all these products flooding the market that weren’t compliant. Those problems still exist today.
Donal O’Sullivan Managing Director, Eurosafe member organisation O’Sullivan Safety

But now as things have begun to settle, there is time to address these concerns. As trusted distributers, Eurosafe members don’t want to be tarred with the same brush as these lesser suppliers. 

‘We stuck to our core principles of only selling compliant product and products that passed the standard. We were acutely aware of sub-standard and non-conforming product in the marketplace. We steered away from that and steered our customers away from it to make sure they were fully protected.’ 

Martin Ross Managing Director, Eurosafe member organisation Ross Safety & Survival 

These subpar products are still out there, ready for unsuspecting users to order. That’s why education is key in the coming months. Informing customers on quality and the marks they should be looking out for will help them be more confident and informed on what they’re buying. It’s all about spotting and avoiding those that seem too good or too cheap to be true and Eurosafe members are in a great position to share their trusted knowledge. 

The rise of online 

‘It’s very easy to sell a product online, even easier to buy one. But it’s not always the right one. The online descriptions aren’t always enough for customers to make decisions.’
Donal O’Sullivan Managing Director, Eurosafe member organisation O’Sullivan Safety 

Like most products, PPE saw accelerated online sales during the pandemic. An online search was the first port of call for those looking to buy and online retailers were delivering in bulk to businesses and end users with a few clicks. 

Again, uninformed decisions lead to PPE choices that were not fit for purpose. But it can be hard for traditional businesses to compete with the convenience of online. 

Online is here to stay, so distributers should be ensuring their websites are fully equipped to deliver an online service. But to compete with online, such businesses have something that should give them the upper hand – service. 

Service sells, so it is likely that we’ll see distributers building and making service more of a feature in future. In addition to selling products, there is opportunity to devote more resource into providing education and solutions – they are the experts in the industry and it’s time to make the most of that. There’s a greater need to differentiate through innovations in service, product and sales channels and garner customer loyalty in return. 

Training is a top priority 

With quality concerns, a world of buying options and newbie consumers in the PPE market, people are looking for consistent communication on PPE guidance and clear training on the safe use of PPE. 

A lot more sales are being completed over phone, over screens and online and this is set to continue. There’s a need for expertise and sitting down with the customer to understand their needs.

The biggest challenge is having the right people who are professionally trained to talk to customers. It’s very easy to walk into a shop and see them selling face masks or respirators, but many times they haven’t a clue what they’re really selling. That’s the beauty of the Eurosafe members – you’ll get the facts from us. ”
Donal O’Sullivan Managing Director, Eurosafe member organisation O’Sullivan Safety

Looking ahead 

When it comes to PPE, the future is in the hands of customers and their ever-changing needs. It has certainly become more of a priority for many businesses as understanding and awareness of PPE’s importance rose significantly throughout the pandemic. 

By monitoring the trends, PPE industry players should be taking the proactive approach, rather than the responsive one. 

‘I think everything is still quite short-sighted at present. Because the war is impacting now on other commodities, it makes those pandemic-focused PPE products feel far more settled. Attentions are focused on the next challenge, but we should be looking at all our supplies with the same light.’
Jonathan Hall Managing Director, Eurosafe member organisation Consumables Solutions 

With more options now out there, being more competitive and flexible is a wise move. Those distributors that can adjust their product mix and services to opportunities will see the rewards, while niche businesses should protect their core products and upsell them with expertise and service. 

‘For new PPE distribution businesses or those who want to diversify into the market, I would suggest that they join the BISF, that they approach Eurosafe to become a member and most of all, sell compliant products.’
Martin Ross Managing Director, Eurosafe member organisation Ross Safety & Survival 

Shining a light on post-pandemic PPE

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