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The Pivot to PPE in the Promotional Products Industry

PPE traveling around the world to essential workers.

At a Glance

  • The promo industry developed an innovative process to get PPE to front lines in the fight against COVID-19
  • The process of supplying PPE has many obstacles, from blatant fraud to a market moving at warp speed
  • Successful companies have proven themselves through persistence, solid ethics, and relying on long-standing relationships

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is a key player in the story of the pandemic. Initially, resources and front line workers were desperate for protection in the fight against the virus. Gradually those in need received the PPE, but not through their usual sources.

The promotional products industry is marked by an entrepreneurial spirit that rose to get PPE into the hands of essential workers. Though successful, the drive to get PPE necessary to fight the virus has held many obstacles. To gain insight into this process we spoke with Molly Johnson of Direct Defense USA and Ian Fenn of Dragon Power Promotional Products. Both proved to be successful through persistence and transparency. We’re here to discuss ways:

Innovation of the Promo Industry

PPE isn’t a part of the Promotional Product Industry’s repertoire, so it’s a wonder how the industry got drafted with the task. However, Ian Fenn says it follows that an industry marked by flexibility and creativity began tracking down desperately needed products. The promo industry has a reputation for creatively finding new products. Fenn believes regular suppliers with established systems of supplying PPE for Hospitals couldn’t accommodate the high demand and lack of supply. With many hospitals and government agencies feeling desperate, Fenn says, “then came in the saviors, promotional products companies.”

Shifting a focus to PPE has proven successful for promo companies, Ian Fenn says, “at least 90 percent [of his sales] is now PPE, without it, I’d be in a bad spot.” This process wasn’t easy to join, Ian Fenn helped Dragon Power Promo pivot towards PPE after hearing a need from customers, then speaking to his usual suppliers of promo products about PPE. Molly Johnson entered the PPE realm through a different route. Johnson created Direct Defense USA after being called upon government agencies that were in need of PPE. Though initially she didn’t know what PPE was, Johnson and her team learned quickly to help many during the pandemic. Johnson says Direct Defense goes, “many layers deep to watch sellers operate and transact, making sure they were consistently doing what they said.” Through carefully vetting suppliers, Direct Defense has become a leader in the industry.

Combatants to the Selling Process

The cause to supply protection to those fighting COVID-19 should be easy but the process has many obstacles. High demand means the supply chain moves incredibly fast. Fenn says, “normally supply-demand forces would evolve over one or two years but now it’s weeks.” The life cycle of products like masks has shown that hyper demand outstrips supply leading to price increases. Then once the suppliers finally catch up, demand shifts to another product like nitrile gloves. This speedy evolution is hard to run alongside as PPE companies try to find the best products and prices.

On top of unprecedented market speed, many people view the desperate need for PPE as a money-making opportunity. In the PPE industry, buyers and suppliers don’t have time or resources to find one another, that’s why companies like Dragon Power Promo, Direct Defense, and Chotchkes work to connect the two. Unfortunately, it’s not so simple: plenty of brokers want a cut of the sale and willingly use fraud to profit.

Often brokers will attempt to gain a cut of the sale that’s far more than the product is even worth. People like Ian Fenn and Molly Johnson have learned to be suspicious of everything. Both require buyers to show proof of their intent to purchase or suppliers to show the products really exist.

Often, suppliers will claim a product exists on the ground in the U.S. to rope in a buyer. Then once a buyer has committed, this supplier will claim the product has been bought, only to get the buyer to agree to a production order at a higher price. Fenn has even found himself speaking with a fake buyer and fake supplier attempting to make a deal. He found it comical how they used similar tactics to pull the other into a deal. Thankfully, companies like Dragon Power Promo and Direct Defense report any suspicious activity. Johnson says, “We learned there’s a lot of nonsense out there. We learned better by continually chasing.”

Resilience through Relationships and Solid Ethics

Solid ethics and established relationships win in the battle to get PPE to the front lines, even with plenty of obstacles. Dragon Power Promo has been an established member of the promo industry for many years. Ian Fenn says he’s been able to track down good PPE suppliers through his 20-year business relationships. Direct Defense commits to maintaining strong ethics and offering support in tough times.

Johnson sticks to her high principle for ethics, even when its meant turning down business that didn’t feel 100% right. Though the practice may not seem like a savvy business tactic, it’s led to a flourishing business and a strong sense of trust. Now Johnson knows to only speak to the buyer or the person representing the buyer when making a deal.

Counter to those who attempt to make large fraudulent deals, Fenn says that if you, “find someone who’s ethics are safe you may make more money.” This business isn’t for the faint of heart. Fenn says “I’m working harder and thinking more sharply, it’s easy to go asleep thinking you’re on top of it.”

Wrap Up

The Promotional products industry has proven to be a key player in the search for PPE. Through hard work and strong ethics and relationships, companies like Dragon Power Promotional Products, Direct Defense and Chotchkes have proven to be key players in getting PPE to the front lines.

Brandnews is the official blog of Chotchkes.