As companies look to entice their employees back into the office, visual communication (viscom) products are being utilised to make the workspace more inviting. Yet, as hybrid working is set to stay, businesses additionally need to provide the audiovisual (AV) supplies that are vital for keeping in touch with their remote workers. It’s a win-win situation for this sector, resulting in increased sales and a buoyant outlook.
Konftel is a European manufacturer specialising in videoconferencing equipment. Regional Sales Director Jeff May explains the company saw a huge uptake in its products during the pandemic. It has continued at quite a pace since, with companies and staff trying to identify the optimum way for them to meet and share information in a hybrid workplace.
He adds: “There are many industry reports from consultants such as Frost & Sullivan, Wainhouse, Gartner, etc, all of which are projecting large-scale investment in this area as we find the smartest and most efficient ways of collaborating with colleagues, partners and customers. Viscom apparatus is integral to the equation.
“Additionally, plug and play deployment is very much the standard in this market. This has opened up the opportunity for many more resellers to provide these services and solutions to their customers – when previously they may not have had the training, skill sets or resources to do so. The market’s end customers are now much more aware of the services available, as nearly all have used Teams and Zoom for meetings during lockdown.
“Consequently, demand is high, market entry costs are down, and resellers have a fantastic sector they can address. Excitingly, we also expect to witness the introduction of major new AI-based innovations over the next 2-5 years, offering enhanced quality, easier operation and increased flexibility.”
The workplace supplies industry has largely overlooked this sector for the past 20 years, according to Gurdy Sehota, AV specialist and Sales and Marketing Manager at Midlands-based dealer PBS Office. However, he warns that the new ways of working are resulting in drastically reduced staff occupancy rates in business premises, with a correspondingly steep drop in demand for standard office supplies.
To counter this, he believes diversification to include viscom equipment is a viable and lucrative alternative and feels that those unwilling to embrace it are missing out on valuable opportunities: “Dealers can’t afford to ignore this category any longer. Most are perfectly placed as they enjoy long-established relationships with a loyal customer base and these same buyers need viscom solutions. At the moment, these clients are forced to go to third-party suppliers, but this needn’t be the case.
“There’s nevertheless a fear factor associated with the viscom and AV industry. It typically comes from questions around what products to focus on and how to acquire the right expertise to offer a full ‘solution’ – including design, installation and post-sales support. Partnering with an existing viscom specialist to help dealers get a foothold – without immediately having to provide in-house skills – could be the answer.”
It’s not solely AV and communications equipment that’s benefitting from increased sales within the category. As employees divide their working time between the office and domestic environments, they still need suitable solutions for both. “Our homeworking range continues to thrive,” reports Suzanne Tiernan, Head of Sales UK & Ireland at Neomounts. “Along with laptop stands and mounts, there are new products in the mix, like tablet and smartphone holders, while ergonomics remains an important topic.
“More viscom software packages and associated hardware accessories are becoming available to support collaborative office working. Additionally, there’s a significant demand for floor-standing trolley solutions to deal with the requirement for increased mobility within the workplace. This category is being taken seriously within the channel now. It offers high margins within a burgeoning market, creating new opportunities for resellers to develop and evolve alongside the furniture and ergonomic arenas.”
Legamaster is the viscom division of edding. Managing Director Andy Gutteridge reports a rising trend towards integrating AV technology with platforms like Teams, Zoom and Cisco Webex, making it easier for staff to work together. Wireless solutions to help employees connect to AV equipment are also booming.
He adds: “Video walls – made of multiple displays – are becoming more common and used predominantly in conference rooms and lobbies. In particular, microLED displays are seeing dramatic growth as prices plummet and will dominate for the next five years. Interactive displays are forecast to grow by 20% year on year, as they are seen as a must-have in meeting rooms.”
imageHOLDERS specialises in digital kiosks – interactive display environments where users can access information or carry out a task. Founder Adrian Thompson points out that businesses make the mistake of thinking this is about technology: “It’s actually about people, what engages them and how they behave. If you let technology lead the way, you’ll fail. Many companies do nothing, thinking it’s overly complex and unable to see past tech terms such as artificial intelligence or the Internet of Things. The real focus should remain on how these elements can be applied to transform the user journeys for their workforce and customers.”
Signs of the times
PBS Office’s Sehota distinguishes three areas trending. Bring your own device (BYOD) will require appropriate IT support, as workers want to use their personal equipment – smartphones, laptops, tablets – and interact with existing workplace technology. Bring your own meeting (BYOM) constitutes the next step. This refers to situations where employees drive the meeting room technology using their own devices, putting them at the centre and personalising the experience.
The third viscom sub-sector currently benefitting from the post-pandemic reality is digital signage. He continues: “Companies need to display content – corporate messages, KPIs, etc – to staff in a digital format, potentially across their entire global estate, with the ability to centrally manage and deploy that media.
“Digital signage became vital during COVID to deliver key messages, particularly within patient management and healthcare settings. It replaces the traditional method of using printed posters or leaflets to communicate to an audience, saving both cost and time. The technology to support this, combining display screens and the software platform to drive them, creates huge sales opportunities.”
These types of product are not only deployed within the workplace. According to Steve Carter, Managing Director at Advantia Business Solutions in the UK, potential suppliers need to think outside the box: “For example, I recently took a bus to the railway station and saw a digital notice board just behind the driver. After spending the entire time reading the content of the board, by the time I reached my destination, I knew everything about the route – where the various stops were, the type of tickets available and a whole lot more.
“That little piece of visual communication kept me updated throughout the whole journey. I would probably have ignored it if it had been displayed on a piece of A4 situated in a frame.”
A laser-like focus on well-designed products that are adaptable to diverse settings has become the norm, says Ken Trenberth, Managing Director at Rocada UK: “The back-to-work trend has resulted in employers attempting to create better working environments for their staff, with businesses particularly investing in items to improve well-being.”
Additionally, he notes, open working environments require flexibility, so mobile items are key, along with products able to divide spaces into social, presentation, desking and breakout zones. “Modular units like our SKIN whiteboards offer a broad range of possibilities, as they can easily fit together should additional ones for expansion be required at a later date.
“Furthermore, those working at home demand smaller-sized versions of items traditionally designed for office space which are better suited to domestic environments. Evidence suggests consumers are trading up and willing to pay for higher quality.”
Konftel’s May echoes these comments, confirming a trend towards premium ranges: “Remote workers are investing in better web and video cameras as the panic buys of lockdown are being replaced with higher-spec and, often, lower-priced alternatives. We’ve all been in online meetings where some colleagues appear as darker, grainier and fuzzy images. No one needs to be a hazy presence any longer – we can all be pin sharp and be seen and heard equally.
“Many companies also recognise that while viscom terminology focuses on video collaboration, audio quality is actually the most critical for ensuring a successful meeting. As such, more powerful microphones and speakers, using voice-activated technology, are becoming the standard across the business spectrum, from individual remote users through to the largest meeting spaces and auditoriums.”
Geopolitical headwinds easing
Like many sectors across the business supplies industry, recent global events have presented considerable challenges for the viscom category. Supply chains have been disrupted, freight and shipping costs have spiralled and, at the same time, energy prices have exploded, causing huge inflationary pressures. However, reports suggest an improving picture, with many of these headwinds easing.
Neomount’s Tiernan says that although there have been inventory issues and increased costs, these have subsided. She adds: “In 2022, our new UK warehouse opened and currently has high stock levels for the whole of Europe. We expect a strong 2023 as markets recover and can easily service them with short lead times and direct delivery.”
At viscom specialist Showdown Displays Europe, VP of Global Supply Chain Jakub Hataš explains the company survived the volatility of the last few years by becoming lean, selling through inventory, and focusing on working capital. “Our suppliers from all over the world were put to the test – encountering massive stock shortages, lack of manpower, transport difficulties, fulfilment delays and lengthy backorders. However, while some distribution challenges will persist, they are now mainly driven by increased consumer demand catching up from the effects of last year’s bottlenecks.
“We’ve broadened our range of sources to minimise supply issues and increase choice. By developing multiple supplier relationships, it’s more straightforward to be flexible and adjust to a constantly changing market. Partnering with additional freight forwarders is also helping to manage and track shipments and ensure the most competitive price and/or the fastest route. Having backup solutions is the key.”
Kevin McCoy is CEO of Polyvision Corporation, a global organisation with a significant European presence. It prints large-format, high-resolution graphics, images and text on porcelain-enamelled steel, often used in public transport locations, such as airports or bus stations.
He acknowledges the war in Ukraine has affected the company’s ability to sell in certain parts of Europe, but logistics issues have largely been resolved. However, he adds: “Over the past year, the cost of steel spiked, nearly doubling to $1,200-$1,500 per tonne. Even though it has since come down significantly, it hasn’t dropped to its original rate and probably never will.
“Inflation remains a global problem and we’ve had to raise our prices. Although there are still questions hovering, we’re forecasting strong growth for 2023.”
The cost of raw materials and their knock-on inflationary effects is also a concern for Danny Berendsen, European Sales Director at Bi-silque. “Steel prices have increased but the cost of enamel has rocketed even higher. As such, customers are choosing lacquered steel surfaces rather than enamel. As a manufacturer, it is critical to realise that upselling solutions is not always the right approach. Sometimes you need to downsell and address budget restrictions.
“Sales of boards and paper pads have dropped significantly, while prices have increased continuously. Although the cost of raw materials is decreasing, it will be later in the year before we’ll see the effects coming through, as the supply chain is still full of products made when prices were peaking in 2022. This correction is needed to boost demand and return the market to normality.
“A further issue concerns last mile delivery across Europe for our large-sized boards, which courier companies consider ‘ugly’ items. Increasingly, they’ll embargo these items during their peak delivery months and rather ship small parcels compliant with their automated distribution belts.
“In addition, more customers are switching to Euro pallet or EPAL-only warehousing. Our best-selling 120×90 cm boards don’t fit, so we expect the new standard size for these products will shrink to 105×75 cm.”
The way ahead
Despite continuing pressures, the viscom industry is doing well, with burgeoning sales and exciting prospects. Dealers already operating in this arena today are benefitting, but those willing to embrace the possibilities could also ride the wave. As Konftel’s May summarises: “This sector is booming but is open to all.”