Concerned Consumers Call on B-to-B Mailers

Although it sells primarily to large food processors, auto manufacturers, and other industrial concerns, Conney Safety Products used to get 10-15 calls a week from consumers. But following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent anthrax scares, the Madison, WI-based cataloger is now receiving 40-50 calls from consumers each week.

“We don’t actively go after that business,” says Mark Gross, Conney’s vice president of marketing. “We take it, though. Anybody who calls, we help them make the best decisions to meet their needs. We’re just trying to take the panic level down a bit.”

As marketers such as Conney Safety are learning, panic and fear are great motivators, prompting many consumers to seek out catalogers that sell industrial-safety and infection-control equipment primarily to businesses. But while consumers are contributing to a lift in sales among industrial supplies distributors, they’re not leading to huge sales increases.

Conney Safety, for instance, has seen a “moderate increase” in post-Sept. 11 sales, says Gross. Lake Forest, IL-based industrial supplies marketer Grainger, which includes cataloger Lab Safety Supply, has seen “a slight uptick in sales of safety products,” says spokesperson Mike McGrew. And Joe Nelly, controller for Northeast Medical Products, an Old Saybrook, CT-based cataloger/retailer of medical supplies for home healthcare patients, says that though sales of gloves and masks have risen slightly since anthrax was reported in the mail stream in October, business overall has barely increased.

No magic bullet

But b-to-b medical and safety supplies may not be a solution for consumers gearing up for terrorist attacks. “We’re very careful to communicate to our customers that our products are for industrial use and have not been tested beyond industrial applications,” Grainger’s McGrew says. “We recommend all our products for use in industrial applications — that’s the crux of our business.”

Tipton, PA-based New Pig, a cataloger of spill-containment and industrial safety supplies, has seen an increase in sales of gloves, protective suits, and respirators to fire companies and post offices. When consumers inquire about products, sales representatives make sure to detail exactly what the items can or cannot do. “Many people think they’re buying peace of mind, but in reality they may be fooling themselves,” says spokesperson Carl Decaspers. “For instance, dust respirators may be ineffective [against anthrax] because they don’t have a good seal.”

Sales at Russellville, MO-based cataloger/retailer Alliance Medical have risen about 15% since anthrax first appeared in the mail, says marketing manager Larry Dahl. But law enforcement agencies, fire departments, and emergency medical services — not consumers — have accounted for nearly all of the increase.

Likewise, at Conney Safety, corporate mailrooms seeking gloves suitable for opening mail have accounted for more of the sales increase than has consumer business. And the search and recovery efforts in New York and Washington have increased sales at Grainger of respirators, gloves, hard hats, kneepads, protective eyewear, and Tyvek suits.

For Chicago-based industrial supplies mailer LabelMaster, sales of safety products to businesses have climbed 10%-15% since October, says director of marketing Barry Litwin. Business had been down about 5% for the year prior to the terrorist attacks. And in its core label and identification business, LabelMaster is receiving more calls for companies eager to comply with proposed legislation regarding the labeling of hazardous materials. Although as of early November no legislation had been passed, “the awareness level of companies has definitely increased,” Litwin says.

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