While the optimism in the business supplies community certainly appeared more buoyant towards the latter part of last year, several harbingers of doom are looming on the horizon. These include resurfacing supply chain woes due to issues with vital shipping routes in the Red Sea and Panama Canal, a stagnant UK economy and regional conflicts. As more than 50 countries head to the polls this year – including the UK, the US, South Africa, Taiwan, Indonesia and India there is the potential for more global geopolitical and geoeconomic tension.
Closer to home, there are many interconnected trends persistently influencing our industry. A complete return to the office seems improbable, although a recent survey by recruitment firm Indeed revealed the share of job postings with remote or hybrid working dipped to 14.4% by the end of October 2023, down from 16.3% in May.
Additionally, efforts to reimagine workspaces to make them more attractive to staff are gaining momentum. The focus is shifting towards employee-centric workplaces, prioritising individual needs, inclusivity and purpose-driven environments. Initiatives like a four-day week and tailored perks catering to diverse demographics are gathering traction. We now have the widest-ever working age range in history and workspaces need to reflect this.
Making it work
Traditional workplace layouts are evolving, favouring smaller, adaptable spaces that emphasise functionality and flexibility – even if this means office sharing. This is accompanied by an era where static workstations are fading, making way for tech-powered environments facilitating seamless collaboration through advanced audiovisual tools, room scheduling systems and interconnected software for multifaceted work settings.
Two other major trends that are likely to have a profound impact on our industry this year are artificial intelligence and sustainability.
It’s hard to believe it’s only been just over a year since ChatGPT launched to the public (30 November 2022), but its impact on our lives has already been phenomenal. AI has been around for some time, it is rapidly seeping into untold business activities and applications as all the big tech players begin integrating its functionality. The risks and rewards of AI will keep being debated, even as its use continues to proliferate in unforeseen ways.
The sustainability agenda remains a core focus, influencing every aspect of workplace design. From biophilic designs integrating natural elements to adopting stringent ESG practices, businesses need to align with environmental standards and embrace eco-conscious behaviour.
Below are in-depth comments from a few industry leaders, as well as further trends that may (or may not) have a bearing on our sector in the months to come:
Tim Beaumont, Managing Director, Nemo Office Club
Is there room for three main wholesalers in 2024? I think there is. Each offers something slightly different to the other and dealers will make their own judgement on the model that best fits their business. I hope Spicers overcomes the initial challenges it had over the past 12 months and becomes a competitive third wholesaler in the marketplace.
I expect to see an increase in direct spend with manufacturers and distributors, giving dealers access to wider product ranges. It will include new players and more ‘category’ or ‘regional’ hubs, like the CTS Wholesale model, which provides an alternative platform for getting brands to market.
This will help support dealers as they are going to have to expand their product offering over the coming year. It is no secret that traditional stationery continues to decline, but many diverse suppliers are willing to work with the independent sector to provide additional products and services to replace those lost sales. They may even open new markets never before envisaged.
Dealers will be increasingly confronted with questions about CSR activity and the ability to provide environmentally friendly product alternatives. This means not just merely supplying the goods but also being knowledgeable about them and why they represent a greener option.
Top tip: Dealers should engage with their dealer group, or if not currently in a group, consider that a priority for 2024. Benefit from the insights and experience available and utilise them to win back time to focus on successfully servicing customers.
Darryl Brunt, UK & Ireland Country Head, Fellowes Brands
After showing resilience and entrepreneurship to pull through the devastation caused by the pandemic, it looks like our industry again needs to demonstrate great strength, stealth and flexibility to remain buoyant in choppy waters.
Economic pressures and low levels of consumer confidence have impacted sales across both retail and commercial channels but reports of sales-out improvements in the final quarter of 2023 suggest an upturn of fortunes for manufacturers as we welcome in the new year.
On a positive note, Fellowes Brands is witnessing sales growth on products bought to meet the needs of more populated offices, especially departmental and commercial paper shredders, laminating machines and ergonomic desk accessories. As organisations start to reimagine and re-shape the workplace to meet the requirements of hybrid working patterns and enhanced health and wellbeing strategies, we’re noting a lot of appetite and interest in monitor arms, desking and air purification.
One thing I can see rapidly changing in the business supplies channel is the long-overdue acceptance of the digital space. Selling online is here to stay and knowing how to use the tools effectively and powerfully will be the difference between success and failure in the months and years to come.
Top tip: Dealers should invest in their online shops and ensure they don’t fall behind in 2024. This means creating the best possible online customer experience that features easy search and navigation, top-quality enriched product content, correct pricing, strong offers and utilising professional marketing assets provided by trusted brands.
Ian Buckley, Managing Director, Prima Software
I can’t see 2024 being drastically different to the year we’ve just had, as high interest rates continue to curtail spending for our industry and hybrid working has anchored itself as a necessary employer offering.
Despite the challenges, there are still opportunities to be embraced by dealers. The growing technology sector is a fine example of an avenue that lends itself well to the hybrid workplace. The UK IT hardware industry is expected to grow at 7% CAGR until 2028, so I recommend that dealers take a closer look at the sector.
Personalisation is a big trend we should see more of this year. Many dealers already offer branded workwear and promotional products, and this category is anticipated to continue to develop. Personalisation is becoming key in marketing too, as companies look to differentiate themselves from the white noise of a recipient’s brimming inbox. I’d urge dealers to ‘think outside the box’ and identify innovative ways to communicate their offerings to customers and prospects.
It’s time to start thinking about building a compelling generative AI strategy for your business. Dealers now have access to a vehicle that has the power to create and intelligently automate the customer experience as well as internal operations. Those who figure out how to drive that vehicle effectively will be the ones leading the way.
Top tip: Go the extra mile in delivering a white glove service to those clients who appreciate you. Be open and honest and speak regularly to educate key decision-makers on your ranges to create an irresistible offering that makes you the first call for all workplace requirements. Have the confidence to increase your prices as costs inevitably rise.
Steve Carter, Managing Director, Advantia
The general feeling across our sector for 2024 is a lot more upbeat than it has been over the past few years. In particular, increased stability around pricing, along with fresh products and services to add to our armoury.
Our industry has always welcomed the introduction of new initiatives or product sectors and we give them a good go. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, but it is the willingness to try something different where we all excel. Having had conversations with manufacturers in industries unrelated to ours, they understand that by collaborating with us, there are equal opportunities to explore.
The area that will continue to be at the top of the list in 2024 is sustainability. We are being asked more and more to provide evidence of where we are on our journeys and rest assured, this will continue to pick up pace and rightly so. Business will be won and lost on the ability to demonstrate where you are on your own journey. There is no need to hit the panic button – dealer groups can offer the help and assistance needed to get started.
Top tip: When you have the opportunity to try something new, will you look at it and say to yourself; I will get around to doing that one day, or will this be day one? If it is the latter, more often than not, it will quickly become day won.
Bruce Davie, Managing Director, Egan Reid
After all the industry has been through over the past three years, I sense optimism for 2024. COVID is now well behind us, but the current geopolitical landscape brings new challenges. Recent unrest in the Middle East has meant shipping companies changed their routing away from the Red Sea, leading to increased costs and product delays. There’s talk it could add 0.5% to inflation this year – just when we thought costs were starting to fall.
If I know the dealer community, it’s just another bump in the road to deal with. I think we have gotten used to disruption in recent times, and we are remarkably resilient and tenacious at uncovering ways of coping and thriving.
There is growth opportunity out there. We have seen several businesses fail and have seen supply challenges from some larger players, but the strong independents just keep on thriving through it all. The key is to maximise the upsides and minimise the weak points. Listen to what your customer wants to buy and adapt your offer accordingly.
Top tip: I’m a big fan of the ‘law of incremental gains’ used so effectively by the British Cycling team in recent years. Stop always looking for that one big new idea. Instead, squeeze incremental gains from every part of your business and you will be surprised at how the sum of the whole grows!
Aidan McDonough, CEO, Integra Business Solutions
The economic climate is improving with lowering inflation combined with stable exchange rates. I believe proactive, dynamic, sales-orientated businesses can look forward to a strong year.
Supply chain issues have improved, although the conflict in the Middle East has the potential for extended lead times for imports and price creep. The million-dollar question remains whether we will see a return to more people back in the office – my money is on a slight upturn.
In terms of product categories, furniture and tech are predicted growth areas, along with packaging, FM, workwear/PPE and the educational sector. Own brands will continue to thrive as customers look for good quality products at a lower price point. Environmentally conscious and sustainable ranges will also do well.
Top tip: Focus on price and margin management, controlling operating costs, new diversification opportunities and sustainability. Conversations with customers on the topic of sustainability are on the increase. This goes hand-in-hand with the expectation of carbon reporting and net zero strategies being in place.
Mike Milward, Managing Director, Lyreco UK & Ireland
In 2024, it is important for our sector to consider both the individual and the unique challenges of the diverse businesses we serve. Supporting organisations in talent attraction and retention is a key issue across multiple industries.
Delivering the right product and environment is essential, with 46% of all employers surveyed by The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development having hard-to-fill vacancies.
Expect key consumer trends to continue influencing the B2B landscape, such as demand for workplace wellbeing products. According to Meta, this is “set to become one of employers’ main weapons in the increasingly competitive war for talent”. Speed and convenience have also become paramount in procuring workplace supplies, with over half of the respondents to a Lyreco survey preferring to order items online.
Global issues will inevitably continue to impact the UK throughout 2024. The outlook on inflation has generally improved compared to most of the previous two years; however, economic uncertainty and financial pressures may continue to motivate preferences for value products and services.
Although we have recurrently found price to be one of the prevailing factors when purchasing workplace products, tightening legislation and governance will also mean businesses will feel increasing pressure to become more sustainable and further evaluate their supply chains to achieve this.
This aligns with our research, which revealed that 76.1% of respondents have a requirement to reduce their carbon footprint through the supply chain, and 77.6% find sourcing products from sustainable/ethical suppliers helps to meet ESG targets.
As remote work cements its position and its relationship with mental health is brought into question, it is expected that traditional offices must transform into destinations offering unique experiences that homeworking cannot replicate.
This shift may also drive a surge in office refurbishment projects, aligning workspaces with post-pandemic practices.
Top tip: Vulnerable trust has never been more important than right now in the working environment. The relationship with our teams is key to our success. Take time to listen to your colleagues as well as your clients.
Mark Wilkinson, Regional VP UK & Ireland, ACCO Brands EMEA
The market for workplace solutions in 2024 will be similar to 2023, in that it will again require agility, energy and perseverance to succeed.
The economic backdrop, the serious and tragic geopolitical issues, as well as forthcoming UK elections will all add to the feeling of uncertainty for the business community and consumers alike.
Inflation will likely ease in this year – lower energy and shipping costs, the latter subject to the Red Sea being kept open for commercial shipping – but for many consumers,2024 will feel just as tough as the previous 12 months.
More positively, we will continue to see employers encouraging their folks back to the office and investing in their spaces to help get their staff to come back. This brings huge opportunities in many product categories. In addition, hybrid working continues to offer two places to sell workplace solutions – if you have the right product and service offerings and the right partners.
Top tip: Manage the gradual decline of legacy business products and accelerate the growth of new categories such as IT connectivity, ergonomics and wellbeing, furniture, collaboration, jan/san, etc.
Ultimate 2024 trends
If you haven’t heard of Trend Hunter, you’re in for a treat. The Canada-based trend platform releases an annual report filled with the weird, wacky, mundane and useful products, influences and ideas across a host of categories, including tech, food & beverage, retail, health & wellness, culture and business & marketing. The whole report is a whopping 238 pages, so Workplace360 has trawled through it all and found some of the more interesting entries.
To read the full report, visit: trendhunter.com.
- Circadian fridges – smart fridges with UV light that help retain the freshness of food.
- Upgradeable tech – laptops, smartphones etc, that can be repaired/upgraded by users
- Using AI for marketing and advertising purposes
- Communicative delivery process for B2B platforms
- Customised packaging – personalised and eco-friendly, compostable and biodegradable
- Rewarded sustainability – reward programmes for environmentally friendly habits
- Zero-carbon foods
- Eco-friendly food packaging
- Self-cleaning appliances
- To-go fold – sealable and easily stored takeaway packaging which is also sustainable
- Shoppable short – short-form video for engaging digital shopping experiences
- Ethical search – search engines designed to make it easier to find ecological products
- Zero-carbon packaging
- Intersectional campaigns – adopting a more intersectional approach to diversity and inclusion
- Agile workplace
- E-waste design – using e-waste to create products
- Accessible controller – gaming controllers with more widely accessible designs
- Focus tech – focus-enhancing products designed to help students concentrate
The right way
Planet Mark has released its 2024 Positive Progress report, underlining some of the key environmental focuses that businesses should be aware of this year. Below is a brief summary of some of the main aspects of the guide. To download the full report, visit: planetmark.com.
- In the UK, the Streamlined Energy and Carbon Reporting (SECR) regulation is being reviewed and may be widened to include Scope 3 emissions.
- While the production ban for petrol and diesel cars has been extended to 2035, it’s worth noting that carmakers are required to ensure more than 20% of new cars sold in 2024 in the UK are zero-emission vehicles.
- Although Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) packaging fees have been deferred until 2025, packaging data for 2023 will still need to be reported this year.
- Great British Energy – if Labour wins the next election, part of its policy is to create a ‘home-grown, publicly-owned champion in clean energy generation’. It could be a game changer if it happens.