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The Missing Link


Given the sheer variety of personal protective equipment (PPE) available on the market today — not to mention the multiple selections within each product category — selecting the right safety gear for use in a workplace can be intimidating.

Enter the distributor, an intermediary who purchases PPE or product lines and resells them to retailers or directly to end users. Distributors are often the link in the supply chain that can offer a helping hand, not only to the manufacturers who sell through them, but also to end users who buy through them.

Distributors have a lot to offer. All types of safety equipment — from the simplest pair of disposable gloves or earplugs to technical, high-end noise dosimeters to self-contained breathing apparatuses (SCBA) — are sold through distributors.

From a manufacturer’s standpoint, selling through a distributor offers several advantages. One of the key benefits is that a distributor typically has a relationship with an end user that is broader than that with a manufacturer. An end user also likes to buy from a distributor who can purchase multiple products — not just one type that a manufacturer makes.

Manish Gupta, market manager at Dräger Safety Canada Ltd. in Mississauga, Ontario, points out that a personal relationship between a local distributor and a customer is not uncommon, especially in small communities, and that some customers enjoy buying from these distributors. “They want to know you as a person before they buy from you, even with safety equipment,” Gupta says, adding that this is particularly true in the Prairies and eastern provinces. “That is actually a big deal for some customers. It is important to them.”

Another perk of selling through a distributor is their proximity to a customer, which is often closer than that of a manufacturer. “The distributors have the location, sales staff, inventory and people strategically located across the country, so it allows us  — the manufacturer — to position inventory locally in a business community,” explains Claudio Dente, president of Dentec Safety Specialists Inc. in Newmarket, Ontario. “And that is in order to be able to serve the local customers in that area.”

Personal touch

It is this personal, local touch that customers often find appealing. Gupta points out that distributors can also provide product stocking solutions.

Citing respirator accessories as an example, a customer in a remote location who wants to purchase detector tubes, which have a two-year shelf life, may have to purchase dozens of tubes and put them on shelves at a financial hit to the company. But a distributor can store these detector tubes, which the customer purchases from the distributor whenever these supplies are needed, resulting in cost savings for the end user.

“The manufacturer cannot be everywhere, especially remote locations, so a local distributor can provide the support you need,” Gupta adds. “You can speak to a human being and tell them the issues you need help with, and/or the local distributor can come to your plant on short notice to help you.”

Unlike manufacturers, distributors are set up to deal with many accounts. Manufacturers’ enterprise resource planning systems — software used to integrate all facets of a business’ operation — are usually not designed to support all incoming and outgoing orders, calls and shipments. Distributors have fewer customers to manage, which allows them to focus on other priorities like production and research and development to create new products.

And because distributors deal with large quantities that can be broken down and sold to multiple customers, they can even break down the packaging and make it easier for the end user to buy. As a distributor receives quantity discounts, they can often buy by the pallet, rather than by the item, and pass savings along to the customer.

Royal treatment

Gupta says it is important to select a distributor who can educate the customer and answer his or her questions. “If you phone up and need the respirator for ammonia, they know which respirators to sell you and make sure this is the right respirator based on the levels and not send you a half-mask, for example, when you have levels above 300 ppm and need an SCBA,” he illustrates.

On top of being able to handle questions, the distributor can also provide services, such as fit testing, training employees on how to clean the respirator properly or performing gas detector calibration, maintenance and repairs locally. “One of the biggest complaints we have is repairs. So if I need to repair it, why would I send my item all the way back to Toronto or all the way from one end of the country to the other to get repaired? Why can’t I just have local service?” Gupta asks.

As with any rule, there are always exceptions. For products like technical gas monitors that have to be installed, engineered and have schematics of the plant drawn up, Gupta says Dräger will sell these products directly.

Choices, choices

When selecting a distributor, Dente says, his company uses the following criteria:

— Do they have local inventory, branches or a branch?
— Is there a relationship with the business community?
— What services do they offer?
— How do they go to market for their customers?
— Do they have purchasing systems, such as electronic data exchange, a computer-to-computer exchange of business documents in a standard electronic format, to better serve the local community?
— Can they support the product online?

But it is not only manufacturers who benefit from using distributors; end users themselves can also decide to buy directly from a distributor. Although there are not many cases in which an end user will go direct — Gupta says end users usually come to manufacturers, who recommend distributors to them — it is an option.

An end user typically looks for someone who offers a wide selection of products, provides good service, has the ability to completely fill orders, has short wait times and offers competitive pricing. The following questions can serve as a guide to help determine if a distributor is the right one:

— Are you getting the PPE on time, when you expect it?
— Do they stock the product you want?
— Do they scorecard their suppliers?
— Do they offer to service the product?
— Can they keep you informed of scheduled maintenance (for compliance reasons)?
— Do they speak your language (safety)?

Having a distributor that sells only safety and not maintenance, repair and operations — commonly known as MRO — raises the bar on the ability of a customer service representative to serve the customer from a knowledge standpoint.

Buyer beware

What makes purchasing PPE even more complicated is the fact that more and more people are buying products online. Most online companies are not authorized dealers and will not hour warranty or support agreements. Gupta questions what happens if there is a problem with the product or it needs to be serviced.

So how does an end user ensure that what has been purchased is indeed legitimate? In terms of product quality, the key is to buy products from a recognized manufacturer. While manufacturers typically carry the same products, it is smart to avoid “discount” distributors selling uncertified products.

While a distributor can provide references of other accounts in the area that are buying the product, a rather common approach is a trial-and-evaluation program. For example, if a company has 100 workers who require earmuffs, it can request to sample two pairs of earmuffs at no cost before purchasing in bulk. This can help to determine not only the quality, but also the product’s suitability to the application.

“Usually with our products, it is touchy-feely,” Dente suggests. “You can tell firsthand if a product is a quality product or not.”

It is important to bear in mind that a distributor is not just a supply house. “They more than just sell it to you; they also provide the support, the training, the repair,” Gupta says. “By going through the distributor, you have somebody technical [who] can actually guide your decision, as well as help you to make the best decision.”

Jason Contant is a former editor of Canadian Occupational Health and Safety News.