For many the pandemic has altered the way we work, the way we learn, and the way we shop. As has been the case in retail, the commercial office supplies and B2B tech channel has not been immune to the societal aftershocks brought on by COVID-19. With school and office closings hitting the U.S. in March, commercial office supplies and the B2B technology channel took the hardest hits in April and May, respectively, as lockdowns became more widespread and consumers purchased supplies from retailers. Commercial office supplies and B2B tech sales began to show improvement in May and June, with the declines softening each month since then, as businesses, offices and schools began preparations to reopen. August saw more recovery versus prior months, with sales down -26% over August 2019 in commercial office supplies1 and -2% for the same period in B2B technology2. While things are beginning to turnaround, innovation will be key. Below Leen Nsouli, NPD’s office supplies analyst, and Mike Crosby, NPD’s B2B technology analyst, each share their unique perspectives on what’s ahead.

Today’s remote working culture is giving rise to new office concepts – what will this mean for the B2B market?

Leen Nsouli: Some companies are not turning back from working remotely and have decided to let their employees work from home indefinitely, including Twitter, Zillow, and Square. As the home office becomes more permanent for many professionals, there is an opportunity for commercial players to determine how to bring the best parts of the office home. For example, many work-from-home employees originally purchased supplies from the retail channel as they transitioned into their home environment. Companies will now need to figure out how to make the corporate supply closet more virtual and accessible for a work-from-home workforce.

The remote working culture that took hold over the last few months is giving rise to other new office concepts, which the B2B market will need to meld into their way of thinking about their business model moving forward. One such concept is the idea of companies creating small hubs or satellite offices, to be more in line with where their employees may live in the future and rely less on one large main corporate hub.  

What categories are leading the rebound for the channel in B2B tech and commercial office supplies?

Mike Crosby: While this has been a challenging few months, products and services that make working or learning from home easier have been highest performing. With so much being done online, security software has been a bright spot for the channel as businesses work to protect their information and their employees. In hardware we have seen growth during key moments in time, such as back to school, for Chromebooks and tablets. That said, printers and consumables are taking hits as consumers purchase through retailers rather than the B2B channel, but also because the increase in working from home has expedited the migration from print to digital workflows, causing additional declines in print consumption.

Leen Nsouli: In office supplies, mailing and shipping was the only category group to post growth from boxes for moving/relocation and package shipping. This was followed by key virtual learning and back-to-school categories, including colored pencil sets, crayons, and pouches and cases saw the strongest sales.

What is the biggest challenge that lies ahead?

Mike Crosby: In many cases, businesses will no longer be ordering and shipping supplies to one place, leaving the B2B channel to determine the best way to reach workers at home. Additionally, suppliers, partners and distributors are having to work through who owns the cost of shipping. As these shifts happen, there will need to be innovation in the supply chain.

Leen Nsouli: Resellers have had to learn to adapt quickly, building direct-to-consumer channels and investing in digital marketing and search engine optimization in order to reach consumers at home. But there is a lot more that can be done. Are there new and creative digital channel concepts and partnerships that make sense for a remote work culture? For example, what if expense apps also had a ‘shopping’ feature where available funds to shop were connected to or directly reported to a corporate budget? 

1Source: The NPD Group, Inc., Monthly Commercial Tracking Service, excluding Janitorial & Breakroom
2Source: The NPD Group, Inc., U.S. B2B Distributor Track® and Reseller Tracking service