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An interview with Philip Lawson – what does the future hold for the UK office supplies market?

20th April 2018

In recent years we’ve all witnessed the transformation from traditional pen and paper to mobile and tablet.  There’s no denying that we’re living in a digital age, and subsequently, the role of office supplies has undergone significant change.

This month we spoke to Philip Lawson, Chief Executive of the BOSS Federation, to ask his view on the UK office supplies market, and what he feels the future holds.

As more businesses move to online communication and automation, the demand for offices featuring filing trays and printers might not be what it was.  However, with many manufacturers striving for innovation in this changing landscape, we’re seeing a renaissance of new and diverse products entering the office supplies market (and that includes paper!).

Philip Lawson answers our questions on this hot topic…

How have you seen the UK office supplies market change over the last 5 years?

I’ve seen some significant changes to the market, which have included the consolidation in all channels, the decline of the superstores and the big box players (apart from Lyreco), the emergence of Amazon, the gradual decline of paper handling products and the increasing reliance on digital storage by consumers reducing the amount of cut size paper and desk top printing.
In overall value, the market has shrunk by 3-4 % each year over the last 5 years, although there was a small market size increase in 2017 due to price increases in retail and underlying demand in business to business channels.

How do you think that technology will further impact demand for office supplies?

Working practices will continue to change, with growth in remote working, the gig economy and decentralised offices. Online meetings and digital collaboration will become increasingly important and for home-based workers, vital productive face to face time will become essential for wellbeing and communication. So less commuting, more collaboration. 
How will that impact on office supplies? More people will be responsible for sourcing and in many cases financing their consumables. Some companies will allow staff to stock up on pads, self-stick notes and printer cartridges when visiting their office, others will expect them to expense consumables, others will see staff supplying their own pens, paper and notepads in the same way that they provide their own clothing to work in. So the channels of distribution may change, and the products used too, but office supplies will still be the oil of productivity in the workplace, whether at home or in the office.

Within the BOSS association, what is being done to mitigate the decline in traditional office supplies?

BOSS encourage both the continuity of supply of core products, and the emergence of a wider range of products to meet consumer needs. There is a lot of talk in the trade about the need for diversification. The definition of diversification is selling new products to new customers.
We are also passionate about attracting and retaining quality people in our industry and are offering apprenticeship and development programmes and working with the next generation of industry leaders to achieve that.

How much do you think that sustainability plays a part in the customers' decision around which office supplies to buy?

Sustainability as a part of consumer decision making used to be dependent on good economic climates, and was seen as a premium rather than considered a requirement. This is changing as more consumers realise the true cost of purchasing includes the cost of renewable commodities.
So best practice now includes the carbon footprint of the supply chain, the longevity of the product being purchased and the conditions of the workers that make the product and the sustainability of the raw materials used. That will continue to be the case and hopefully will be able to be maintained and developed even through the next economic downturn.

In terms of innovation for the office supplies market, what do you think we’ll see next?

We hope to see a flight to quality. Recognising that the best tool for the job gives the best outcome in productivity. The industry reduced the amount of innovation through its adoption of low cost, often inferior quality own brand in an attempt to secure competitive advantage through price.

As the quality survivors sell increasingly on service, innovation will return to enhance their approach to market.

How do you see the future of office supplies in online vs traditional bricks and mortar?

The lines will become increasingly blurred. Amazon will play a big part in that and will carve out a significant market share. Good independent dealers should and hopefully will invest in good online systems and proper data to go in them.  Whilst maintaining that key USP - great personal relationships with their customers.

Retail will almost disappear although in the same way that good quality bookshops offer consumer choice, good quality stationers (as opposed to office products suppliers) will retain a slice of the market.

We feel strongly that the industry that has evolved through many different challenges over the last 600 years is capable of adapting further, and will continue to provide the oil for the wheels of doing business for many years to come.

Interesting times ahead!

To find out more, please get in touch