1996 is a good time to be shopping for safety products. It's easier than ever to find what you need. From traditional safety supply houses to a growing number of mill supply distributors, catalogs, and retailers such as Home Depot and Wal-Mart- everyone seems to be selling safety and health goods. Online computer services are becoming another way to shop and buy.

You can save time and money, too. Suppliers have made big investments in automated technology to cut down on order time and paperwork hassles. One-stop shopping is in vogue, as customers consolidate the number of vendors they buy from to reduce shipments, invoices, and purchase orders.

There's a real emphasis on giving customers more than product specs. Look how distributors position themselves today: Vallen Corporation CEO James W. Thompson says his company's chain of outlets aims to provide "a total safety solution" package. Zee Service, Inc., formerly Zee Medical, bills itself as "America's Workplace Safety Expert." Scores of independent safety distributors across the country now train sales reps in problem-solving and "consultative selling."

Safety distributors are very vulnerable to the new wave of competitors if they only offer products, explains Jim Minneci, president of Lane Fire & Protective Services in Buffalo.

This article lets you compare your purchasing practices to other professionals, and shows how you can get more than products from distributors these days.

Purchasing trends

In a survey of 1,100 readers last summer, we asked how purchasing plans might change in the coming year. Among the highlights:

Large buyers are consolidating vendors and getting tough with price negotiations.

43 percent of readers with budgets greater than $250,000 said they will work with fewer suppliers, versus 29 percent of readers spending less than $10,000.

This is a major reason why distributors of maintenance, repair, and operations products have moved more heavily into safety sales. "We'd like to be a one-stop shop," says Tony Ingram, director of purchasing for Cameron-Barkley, a regional industrial distributor based in South Carolina.

Several years ago, W.W. Grainger bought a few well-established safety distributors. Cam-Bar has carried PPE-type items for 50 years; now it employs four safety specialists to help more than 150 industrial account reps conduct safety needs assessments and sell more technical safety equipment. It plans to hire three more specialists.

"Customers are asking us to be more of a single-source supplier," explains Jill Will, director of safety products. The company now works with close to 350 safety products vendors, she says.

Cam-Bar and other "integrated suppliers" can reduce acquisition costs by bundling industrial, electrical, safety, power transmission, and material handling products in one shipment, using one invoice. The concept goes beyond delivering products. Cam-Bar can also cut a customer's grass, fix his roof, keep his cafeteria clean, and provide other services.

Currently there's a debate in distribution circles whether safety products "fit" into an integrated product mix. "Some distributors see themselves in the business of moving boxes, and they say it doesn't matter what's inside the box. That's a big oversimplification when it comes to safety products," says one long-time safety salesman. Respirators, for example, have specific applications and training requirements.

Cam-Bar officials, on the other hand, say they can reduce purchasing costs without shortchanging service.

Small companies are increasing their use catalogs and retail outlets.

41 percent of companies with budgets less than $10,000 planned to buy more through catalogs in - 96, compared to 24 percent of firms with $250,000+ budgets. 9 percent of companies with 100 employees or less said they would buy more PPE from retail outlets- versus 4 percent of plants with 1,000+ employees.

Catalogs are getting increasingly sophisticated in meeting the convenience needs of buyers, offer fast deliveries and toll-free technical assistance. As with consumer catalog shopping, there's also increasing comfort in buying more expensive goods off a catalog page.

And while "no one says Home Depot is my safety supplier," according to one industry expert, retailers are finding a market with small contractors, homeowners, and others who buy gloves, hard hats, ear plugs and other commodity items when needed, or on impulse.

You can buy safety products from national catalog houses, retail chains, and industrial suppliers, but research shows most purchasing is still done at the local level with established safety distributors who offer the personal touch.

Almost half (47 percent) of the readers surveyed said safety distributors are very useful sources of product information.

Local safety houses are valued somewhat more by smaller customers. 50 percent of companies with budgets less than $10,000 said safety distributors are very useful, versus 41 percent of firms with $250,000+ budgets.

Safety distributors are trying to protect their specialty niche- and in some cases expand it- by getting more into consulting and contracting. "We say, - Let us take over some services'," explains Lane Fire & Protective Services Minneci. His company repairs instruments and inspects SCBAs, fire extinguishers and eyewash stations using technicians- for a fee that might be half the cost of having an hourly employee do it, according to Minneci.

Some distributors have gone so far as to set up separate divisions to handle training and other services. Last November, Vallen unveiled Vallen Knowledge Systems, a division offering for-fee training and services covering environmental health and safety consulting, performance improvement, and temporary personnel placement, such as finding safety and health professionals for short-term contracts.

"It's the distributor's role to meet customers' needs, and create value to give customers a reason for using distributors," Thompson explains.

Online shopping is in its embryonic stages.

When surveyed last summer, 14 percent of safety and health professionals said Internet online sources were very useful for product information. 17 percent envision doing most of their product shopping online in the next 3-5 years.

(About 36 percent of professionals are connected to the Internet, according to a separate survey we conducted last year. 16 percent of those polled said they use the Internet regularly.)

Safety's presence in cyberspace started heating up last year. In May, SafetyOnline was launched by Coastal Video Communications Corporation. Part of this World Wide Web site serves as an electronic shopping mall, with safety vendors paying for "anchor positions" and "storefronts" to present electronic catalogs.

In November, John Alden Associates and Anyware Associates put The Safety Place on the Web, offering users critical information about products through an electronic catalog (leading to distributors designated by manufacturers) and manufacturer "advertorials"- expanded literature-like descriptions. Anyware Associates operates one of the leading consumer "cyber malls," Downtown Anywhere.

(Industrial Safety & Hygiene News provides content to both SafetyOnline and The Safety Place.)

In 1996, look for an increasing number of safety equipment manufacturers and distributors to go online with their own Web sites.

Adding value

Safety products buyers are in an aggressive mood, according to our research. 57 percent say they will demand more value-added services in 1996; 51 percent are engaging in tougher price negotiations, and 47 percent are buying more from the lowest-priced supplier. But when it comes to those value-added services, do you know what to look for?

First, a refresher: Safety distributors have long helped customers find and use the right PPE. Mettam Safety in Danville, Ill., for instance, has its sales reps trained to go through a plant and follow a checklist to determine product needs. Are there electrical hazards? Lockout-tagout concerns? What's needed to protect the head, face, body, feet, eyes, and hands? Respiratory hazards are assessed: contaminant's, lack of oxygen, dust or mists, fumes, gases or vapors. Solutions- products- are recommended, and sales reps answer technical and compliance questions.

Mettam also trains workers to use SCBAs and fire escape devices. Two of its sales people have four-year college degrees in occupational safety and health, according to Vice President Nan Shinn.

Vallen CEO Thompson calls this typical "level one" training offered by distributors. Now a growing number of distributors are taking service to a new level. For example:

More distributors are being trained to help customers cut workers' compensation costs. Kurt Christensen, president of American Health & Safety, Madison, WI., recalls one customer's problem with hand injuries. Christensen did some homework and discovered that at least once every week an employee went to the company nurse with a hand cut. Calculating the cost of time off, wasted time, replacement gloves and other factors, Christensen estimated that the cuts were costing this customer $50,000 a year. Investing $5,000 a year for superior $20 gloves saved ten times that amount.

"Many people don't realize workers' compensation is often the third-highest expense for a company," says Christensen.

Charles Brown, manager of a Zee Service office in Timonium, Md., says all 22 of his sales and service people have completed the 30-hour OSHA 501 training course to bolster their consulting skills. They conduct needs assessment surveys ranging from several hours to two days for a full-blown evaluation based on a 350-point checklist.

"We look at everything OSHA would look at. It's not just designed to sell product, but to help customers be in compliance and set up programs," says Brown.

In fact, Zee's hottest-selling product is a training program called the "Zee Advantage."

Distributors are getting into the training business to various degrees. Some have tried selling videos, but more popular are video lending libraries. Mettam Safety, for example, loans customers free video's for two weeks. Checked out most often are video's on fork lift safety and lockout-tagout, according to Nan Shinn.

Distributors are learning that safety and health pros will pay upwards of $200-$300 for day-long training workshops, as long as they're not product infomercials. "You've got to keep them real clean so you don't lose credibility," explains George Hayward, president of Cincinnati-based United Sales Associates, a manufacturers' rep firm that works with product end-users and distributors. Hayward has conducted seminars on confined space safety and fall protection, which he publicizes through local safety and health organizations.

United Sales also has a lending library, with more than 100 video's.

As companies continue to downsize safety and health departments, distributors are moving to fill the void by strengthening their consulting capabilities. Vallen Knowledge Systems uses a network of certified safety and industrial hygiene professionals around the country to conduct audits, investigations, exposure monitoring, training; as well as write and implement programs. Prices vary, with some fees set on a per-employee or per-class basis.

If distributors are going to get into training and consulting, they need qualified personnel to pull it off. Shinn expects more distributors to have CIHs and CSPs on staff, and says distributors will also partner with outside trainers, consultants, and insurance company risk managers.

One example of more sophisticated training for distributor reps is the Qualified Safety Sales Professional course being run by Dr. Richard Fulwiler, the former director of worldwide health and safety for Procter & Gamble. Co.-sponsored by the Safety Equipment Distributors Association and the Industrial Safety Equipment Association, the five-day course "raises the technical and regulatory bar" for sales knowledge, according to Fulwiler. Three instructors teach technical fundamentals of safety and industrial hygiene, and compliance issues. The first class will be held this March in Louisville.

All of this goes to show that "customers are in a great position right now," as Dick Birkhold, director of market development for Safety Services, Inc., in Michigan, reflects. Cost-savings, convenience, training and consulting- depending on what you need, you're sure to find a supplier talking your language. But shop carefully, the competition for your business could have some suppliers making promises they can't keep.

Shopping online

AJ McNamara, one of the founders of The Safety Place, an online product and technical/regulatory information service, expects customers will be buying through safety distributors online in the next two to three years, using credit cards.

But even now, McNamara says safety directors, industrial hygienists, even employees on safety committees, can research product information online without ""having to make a dozen phone calls.""

Paul Parrie, director of Internet development for SafetyOnline, a Web site combining product offerings with reference material and problem-solving information, sees another benefit: You don't have to deal with sales people and their pitches if you don't want to. "You can cross-reference products from different companies immediately," he explains. "And sometimes you just want to look at things without dealing with the sales process."

Parrie expects SafetyOnline to offer credit card purchasing for some items this year, once security issues are resolved. He also says product presentations will get more dramatic, using slow-motion video, for instance.

Both The Safety Place and SafetyOnline are evolving, as is everything on the Web. As more distributors and manufacturers become affiliated with these Web sites, product information will be organized in more specific categories. McNamara estimates that hundreds of vendors will have some type of online presence within a year or so.

To attract the traffic that distributors and manufacturers want to see, The Safety Place and SafetyOnline offer a growing array of constantly updated information on training, OSHA issues, and news from the field.