ExaClair is confident about its post-COVID future, and is looking to help its customers also thrive once the pandemic is over, as managing director Mark Daisley explains
Mark Daisley has seen many things during his 27 years in the office products industry – from recessions to numerous technological advances – but the COVID-19 pandemic brought new challenges he had never encountered before. However, they were challenges he and ExaClair met head on and, as a result, the company saw its sales hold up well in 2020.
As with many other businesses in the sector, when the first national lockdown was announced in late March, sales dropped significantly – about 60% year-on-year, Mark reckons – but started to recover when ExaClair brought a new range of PPE products to market.
Sales further recovered when online customers started to ramp up their operations in the following months. “All in all, the year was horrendous for everyone out there, but our business ended up 6% down,” he says. “Credit to my team – it was fantastic effort in challenging times.”
Mark adds that having the might of the Exacompta Clairefontaine Group behind it helped the business deal with the effects of the pandemic – and acknowledges that some other businesses in the sector are struggling. “It is very sad, and we have to be humble and understand their issues and problems,” he says.
The pandemic will change how the marketplace looks, Mark adds. “Customers are going to look to the UK more and more for their supply chain and the independent dealers – those that step up to the plate, move with the times and understand what their customers’ needs are – will survive and become stronger. The strong will survive this and there will be fewer of them, for sure, but those that come out the other side will be a lot stronger.”
Moving with the times will be crucial for businesses in the sector in order to survive, and that, inevitably, means developing more of an online offering, Mark adds. “Content is so important for dealers now,” he says. “You cannot just produce a catalogue or a flyer and expect it to work for you.”
Mark adds that dealers have to understand their customers’ needs and how they are changing. “You may have to deliver to customers who are working from home outside of the business hours you normally deliver to.”
But he adds there are some businesses out there that aren’t doing this yet. These are dealers who sell the same products in the same way, without trying to sell other products in the range that the customer might not realise they stock. “There are so many dinosaurs out there,” Mark says.
The wholesaler and dealer market has, historically, been a significant part of ExaClair’s business and, moving forward, still will be, Mark adds. “We are seeing a switch to online retailers, especially through the pandemic, and I think this trend is going to stay – but we supply to all multinational retailers; we have more than 400 independent retailer accounts on our books so the dealer and wholesaler channel is a fundamental part of our business. However, we have to diversify, and explore new channels, and we would love to help our customers to explore new channels too, so that’s an area we’re focusing on.”
To this end, ExaClair want to work with dealers to do this, and promote their products. “We want to talk to dealers; we have collateral, and we wish to invest in you with your products. We will support you with online promotions, promotional activity and product samples. The wholesalers do their bit, and are usually quite successful, but we don’t see how they engage with their customers and we want to get more involved with their customers.
“Their customers are consumers of our products so we want to do anything we can to help. We are launching a large range of tutorial videos that can be loaded onto dealers’ websites which educate the customer about how to use the product or, for example, what environmental accreditations the product has.”
Environmental accreditations are an increasingly important factor for customers, and the pandemic hasn’t changed this. “We commissioned a survey mid-last lockdown and 75% of respondents said that environmental accreditations and the environment were either very important, or important, in their product choice – second only to comfort and the colour and ergonomics of the product – how it fitted into their house or home office,” Mark says.
This can help dealers as there are numerous stresses on the sector, such as rising costs, although this hasn’t affected ExaClair too badly, according to Mark. “We have seen a small increase in the cost of raw materials…so we didn’t have to put too big a price increase through in January.
“But we are getting inundated now with requests from retailers, etailers and commercial businesses to review their product ranges for them – especially those that outsource from China and the Far East. I understand the cost of containers more than quadrupled prior to Christmas for shipments to the UK.
“Sometimes we find ourselves a little bit out on price. For example, if we are 20p more expensive for a ring binder than if you were buying from China, don’t come back and hammer us saying ‘you have to be 20p cheaper if you want the business’; that is our best price – but understand that the quality will be better, you don’t have to order a container at a time and you’re getting the product from the UK, or sometimes Europe.
“The cost is so much less as you won’t have to commit so much capital. Customers shouldn’t expect a local manufacturer to match China to maintain their margin; what you have to do is change prices.”
Brexit is also a concern – although Mark says that ExaClair has been prepared for any eventuality. “It isn’t impacting us too much,” he says. “The only issue we may have could be what happens at the ports. We can’t control that, but everything we can control is in place.
“I think there will be some impact on deliveries; we’re not seeing it at the moment but that’s not to say, in a few weeks times when the trucks start rolling a bit more, that we won’t see hold-ups at ports.”
Being part of a French-owned conglomerate also doesn’t impact the business, Mark says, as ExaClair has always been an independent part of the Exacompta Clairefontaine Group. “That’s how the group works; each individual business unit is a separate profit centre; we are left to our own devices. I think that has stood us in good stead; we can operate independently because we always have done.”
With so many stresses on the market, as mentioned, businesses have to adapt to survive, and Mark’s advice for companies is to get online, get their data right and listen to what customers want. “Online is the way forward. Everyone has been educated in it during this pandemic – even people who have never had a computer or iPad before. Our online orderbook has rocketed.
“We had one customer complain to the territory manager that our website was too good, and he was spending too much money!”
Mark says that the customer would log onto the website and find offers there – and discover other products he hadn’t seen when a representative had visited him and find himself buying more as a result. “What a wonderful complaint to have! I hope all dealers have a complaint like that from one of their customers.
“Get on there – it is the only way forward.”