How the Office Products Industry has Failed the Resellers

It's difficult to escape the general gloom in the office products and supplies industry. We've entered a period of significant change that's creating uncertainty which, in turn, is unsettling even the most prominent players and further contributing to the general malaise. In this article, I will explore some of the industry's failings in embracing the digital environment we now operate in and how important addressing these failings is to improve its future outlook.

I sense there's a feeling harbored by the manufacturers and distributors that the smaller independent resellers kind of deserve the difficulties they're experiencing, believing they [the resellers] are solely responsible for their situation and, in failing to keep up with the changing requirements of the market, have no one to blame for their difficulties but themselves.

In some respects, this is true. Every business, large or small, must accept responsibility for its performance. However, the success of the three components of the value chain in the office products and supplies industry (the manufacturer, the distributor, and the reseller) are interdependent. In other words, for the manufacturers and distributors to be successful, they must rely on the resellers' success, as the resellers are more successful. The more successful the manufacturers and distributors will eventually be.

The irony is that the manufacturers and distributors have failed themselves and, in failing themselves, have been unable to the resellers!

In failing to do more to position their independent resellers for success in the modern digital environment, the foundation for my argument is established. In failing to digitize their businesses, the manufacturers, the distributors, and the buying groups are collectively more responsible for the challenging conditions faced by the resellers today than the individual resellers themselves are.

The History:

  1. A mature business model revolves around manufacturers selling to resellers who are big enough to buy directly while selling in parallel to national wholesalers (distributors) such as Essendant & SP Richards to enable smaller resellers competitive access to smaller order quantities from nearby distribution centers.
  2. Financially, an established system of volume-based pricing, back-end rebates, marketing development funds, etc., incentivizes resellers to stay loyal to the cross-section of products made available from the Tier-1 manufacturers and distributors.
  3. The Buying Groups, such as BTA, Tri-Mega, IBPI, & Office Partners (collectively with 1,700 members of so), have negotiated price lists from manufacturers and distributors for their members to take advantage of.

This mature system is the core of the problem. It's been in place for 30 years or more, remaining substantially unchanged while the market has radically changed. The world has transitioned from analog to digital, and the office products industry has been left behind, leaving resellers unable to compete effectively.

Resellers have remained analog businesses in large part because the manufacturers and the distributors have remained analog businesses. In failing to digitize and sticking with increasingly obsolete elements of their business model, the manufacturers and distributors have been unable to their resellers.

The volume rebates, market development funds, etc., have been used to prop up margins rather than invested in helping transform resellers from their analog platforms to digital. Now that business volumes are decreasing, everyone in this value chain is losing.

If you invest in a brick-and-mortar store, you need visitors to come into the store. They need to like what they see; they need to like you, and for you to be successful, they need to buy from you. A website is no different; if there's no strategy to develop traffic, why even bother to go to the time and expense of putting one up? 

The Evidence:

I'm presenting several compelling performance metrics in the following tables to support my argument that the industry leadership (manufacturers, distributors, and buying groups) has failed to provide their resellers with the necessary support for accomplishing digital transformations. The metrics I'm highlighting include web traffic, website quality, domain authority, and backlinks.

Before I explore all the aftermarket shortcomings, look at Tables 1 and 2 and the examples demonstrating how the job should be done.

TABLE 1:  Global Brands Licensed to Aftermarket Office Products
CompanyDomain AgeAuthorityGradeBacklinksGlobal Rank
Group Avg.23957759,79314,751


These blue-chip global enterprises have leveraged each essential metric into websites that successfully attract traffic. They have strong domain authority (95/100), their website quality grades well at 77/100, they have large numbers of high-quality backlinks, and they all have high web traffic rankings. (Note, lower numbers are better - IBM, with a global rank of 610, means there are only 609 websites worldwide with more traffic than IBM).

TABLE 2:  Tier-1 Resellers - United States
CompanyDomain AgeAuthorityGradeBacklinksGlobal Rank
Office Depot1885636,4562,781
T-1 Average2086608,9112,050


The two primary resellers of office products have also done an excellent job, developing strong domain authority (86/100), a decent website grade (60/100), and large numbers of high-quality backlinks. They are also both highly ranked in terms of daily traffic volumes.

Examples of the industry shortcomings are shown in the following set of six additional tables.

TABLE 3:  Aftermarket Manufacturers - United States
CompanyDomain AgeAuthorityGradeBacklinksGlobal Rank
LMI Solutions13327446868,522
Clover Imaging23142361,840,692
Turbon Group152035218,374,017
Group Avg.133252582,976,325


Look at the aftermarket manufacturing industry listed in Table 3. Although they've had plenty of time (average domain age 13 years) to work on their website strategies and performance, based on these metrics, their accomplishments are poor. With an intermediate domain authority of 32/100, a website quality grade of 52/100, no backlinks, and minimal traffic volumes, there's no evidence of a successful leadership strategy for their resellers to follow.

TABLE 4:  Tier-1 IT Distributors - United States
CompanyDomain AgeAuthorityGradeBacklinksGlobal Rank
Ingram Micro1876441,64213,761
Tech Data26687680315,407
T-1 IT Dist Avg18625182793,276


The Tier-1 IT Distributors listed in Table 4 have decent domain authority averaging 62/100, a below-average website quality grade of 51/100, and much lower volumes of backlinks than should be expected of enterprises of this stature. Ingram and Tech Data have decent traffic volumes, with the average for the group being dragged down by the poor performance of Synnex.

TABLE 5:  Tier-1 Office Products Distributors - United States
CompanyDomain AgeAuthorityGradeBacklinksGlobal Rank
Supplies Net153465571,223,834
SP Richards173947831,534,824
T-1 Dist Avg.173457721,472,222


The Tier-1 Office Product distributors in Table 5 have inferior domain authority (34/100), average website quality grades of 57/100, no backlinks, and modest traffic volumes.

TABLE 6:  Tier-2 Office Supplies Distributors - United States
CompanyDomain AgeAuthorityGradeBacklinksGlobal Rank
Supplies Whole71832142,599,058
Image Star16244096,838,157
Copy Tech18202468,653,863
Aster Imaging5938214,685,709
PrintRite NA520421015,826,172
T-2 Dist Avg.141834119,504,415


The Tier-2 Office Supplies distributors listed in Table 6 fail on all key performance indicators: inadequate domain authority (18/100), poor quality sites, 34/100, no backlinks, and virtually no web traffic.

TABLE 7:  The Buying Groups - United States
CompanyDomain AgeAuthorityGradeBacklinksGlobal Rank
Office Partners1923221112,250,603
Group Avg.182930417,812,653


The Buying Groups shown in Table 7 also fail on each of the metrics with the lowest quality websites and the weakest traffic numbers besides those of the Tier-2 distributors.

TABLE 8:  Industry Media - United States
CompanyDomain AgeAuthorityGradeBacklinksGlobal Rank
RT Media51949613464,111
Toner News142640165738,547
Ind. Dealer525371313,642,365
Media Avg.928371633,694,637


Finally, the media outlets, the "youngest" group (in terms of domain age) of the industry components I've analyzed but still have an average age of 9 years. Unfortunately, they have deficient domain authority averaging 28/100, poor website quality with a middle grade of 37/100, no backlinks, and fragile traffic volumes.

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With the average domain "age" of these six aftermarket categories shown in Tables 2 - 8 being in the region of 15 years, there's been plenty of time for each of these enterprises to achieve the following minimum performance standards:

  1. Domain Authority - 55
  2. Website Quality Grade - 70
  3. Backlinks - 750
  4. Global Traffic Rank - 250,000

In failing to achieve these minimum standards, the industry leader has been unable to build a model for its success and, in so doing, has failed to provide an example for the resellers to follow.

Had the industry leaders achieved these minimum standards and, had they [for example] adjusted their incentive programs and provided tools to help motivate and educate their resellers to attain similar performance standards, we would be looking at a very different industry profile to the one we currently see?

  1. Consider for a moment these twenty-nine aftermarket companies [listed in Tables 2 - 8] with 750 backlinks each and forming an aggregated total of nearly 22,000 compared to the less than 5,000 that exist today. These backlinks would go a long way toward improving the mission-critical domain authority rankings vitally important for decent search results.
  2. Furthermore, let's assume for a moment that a global traffic ranking of 250,000 equates to 5,000 unique monthly visitors. This would aggregate to a monthly traffic volume of 145,000 visitors compared to less than 10,000 today.
  3. The increased business volume would have been followed by restructuring manufacturer rebates and designing them [for example] to incentivize resellers to develop web traffic, backlinks, and relevant social audiences. Unfortunately, as shown in the tables above, none of the aftermarket industry leaders know how to accomplish this for themselves, let alone their customers.
  4. Finally, imagine momentarily if 2,000 resellers had accomplished similar performance metrics as the targets I've shown! We'd now have 1.5 million industry backlinks and 10 million unique monthly visits to reseller sites. Just imagine all these sites populated with high-quality educational content, fine-tuned to answer the 80% of buyers who research and qualify potential vendors (i.e., resellers) before the reseller even heard of them. As I've said before, this kind of aggregated scale can move the needle for the aftermarket industry's and its consumers' collective benefit. The OEMs and Tier-1 resellers must fight harder to preserve their dominant market shares.

Unfortunately, it's too much to expect 2,000 smaller independent resellers to individually try and figure out how to achieve these performance parameters. If they were able, then they would have already done so. Unfortunately, most don't know where to start, and without solid initiatives from those with the resources to help them, they will continue to flounder in the obsolescence of the analog world.

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