What are the biggest challenges imaging channel resellers face in post-COVID 2023?  There is the ever-popular group of old standards: Declining page volumes, remote workers, and commoditization. There are also some of more recent vintage, such as new competitive threats, security, and zombie apocalypses. Yes, those are all challenges to which channel resellers have to respond daily (except maybe zombies) and there is no shortage of experts, gurus and self-proclaimed coaches on LinkedIn lecturing about the particular steps dealers need to take to survive them. These voices, more often than not, have some solution or service to sell and the admonition is a means to get attention and drive business. I don’t blame them for trying. But does the typical office equipment dealer need to be scolded with constant messages about urgent change? The answer is no, but it’s not because the office equipment channel doesn’t need to evolve and adapt. It does. The reason dealers don’t need the constant barrage of “Change or die” messaging is that they operate in a constant culture of change.

The fact is, the office equipment industry – and especially the channel — has been adapting for more than a century, and doing a pretty fair job of it. Many resellers in the channel have been around for decades, and some more than 100 years, because they got their start selling typewriters in the early 1900s. They’re still around because they quit selling typewriters and focused on more relevant technology. In fact, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many dealers were offering temperature check kiosks. How did they make this change without the help of LinkedIn gurus and experts? They adapted to the changing workplace needs and added value. This is still a recipe for success. Yes, they’ve done this with the help of their OEM and solutions partners, but more so because they continue to carefully curate the partners they align with as market needs change.  

So, the biggest challenge the office equipment dealers face today is not declining page volumes. It’s not digital transformation, remote work, or Amazon. The biggest challenge they face is continuing to leverage their strengths as sales and service disruptors in an increasingly connected world.  

Blacksmiths had to adapt in a similar manner when the automobile displaced the horse and buggy. Yes, adoption of the automobile largely killed the blacksmith trade, but it didn’t physically kill the blacksmiths. Being a group already possessing an industrious skillset, many blacksmiths became auto mechanics as mainstream travel shifted away from the horse and buggy. In the same way, the decline of printed pages won’t kill office equipment dealers; they’ll simply pivot (as many are currently doing), and over time, their core offering will evolve. Their core experience, however, has to stay relevant. What does that mean? My wife and I purchased a car in 2004. At that time, purchasing a car meant going to the dealership, talking to the salesperson, perusing the lot and test driving vehicles. After completing the paperwork, we left with our car. Would that same experience be considered “good” in 2023? Of course not. In 2023, we can do most of our purchasing research online. We can see updated dealer stock on vehicles along with photos, in-depth descriptions, maintenance history, and pricing information.  Most people don’t go to the dealership until they’re ready to take a test drive or in some cases, sign the paperwork. And the core experience of 2023 won’t be “good” in 2033. The world has become more connected and the auto industry has had to evolve. The imaging channel is doing the same. Will it be easier for some than others? Yes. Some dealers started on this path earlier than others and their foresight will pay off. Will there be attrition along the way? Yes. Acquisitions happen every week and the industry is going through a period of concentrated consolidation. That said, the channel is also in a period of diversification. This is critical.

If the biggest challenge dealers face is leveraging their strengths as sales and service disruptors, they have to be able to do so in a continually relevant way. Selling and providing services also evolves, and the expectations customers have for purchasing solutions and services are not the same as they were as recently as five years ago. The challenge for the channel is making sure core experience remains relevant, since the core offering is only a subset of core experience. Dealers could be selling MFPs, MPS, network services, or EV charging stations, but the core experience has to translate to the way customers want to purchase. Additionally, the value added services they require have to continue to actually add value if they want to be successful.  

Sears is a cautionary tale for ignoring core experience. Sears should have been Amazon. Their core experience consisted of capturing orders and shipping goods directly to the consumers —the same thing Amazon does today, but Sears was doing it decades earlier. How did they manage to miss out on becoming an e-commerce giant? Their core experience was compromised by the company’s slow response to the internet and, specifically, online purchasing. This led to their loss of sales, market share and ultimately, the company’s demise.

Sony is another example. Sony could have led the music streaming subscription business and beaten Apple to the iPod. Prior to Spotify, Apple Music, and the host of streaming apps available today, Sony’s core experience involved both musical content (recording and publishing) as well as the vehicles for consuming music – the Sony Walkman and later, the Sony Discman. If you were a child of the 90s and you didn’t have one of these, some headphones (not earbuds, headphones) and a copy of Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em or No Fences, you weren’t living. Streaming didn’t even exist until the tail end of the 1990s, when it was widely considered a threat to the music industry’s established revenue sources due to entities like Napster allowing music file sharing for free. Despite seeming to have every advantage to lead consumers into the streaming era, Sony, for a multitude of reasons, couldn’t make the leap to streaming and as a result, other companies like Spotify, Apple, and Pandora own the space. Don’t worry, Sony is still doing OK, but this was a missed opportunity from a core experience perspective. 

Will the office equipment channel go the way of Sears and cease to exist due to an inability to adapt? Or be like Sony and still have a degree of success but miss out on a huge opportunity? I don’t think so. For one, our channel is made up of opportunistic entrepreneurs who are evolving faster than many think. Core offerings for print now look very different than they did five years ago, featuring more customized solutions with in-depth reporting and analytics. Digital workflow solutions featuring document analysis, routing, and storage are becoming much more prevalent. Purchasing options have changed to include more bundles, everything as a service, and subscriptions. Security and authentication are more important than ever. Dealers now drive revenue outside of print from EV charging stations, managed network services, physical access, digital signage, cybersecurity and more. In short, the channel is adapting quickly to change. But what about declining page volumes and remote work and the onslaught of challenges that face our industry in 2023? Those challenges are real and they aren’t going away anytime soon. Addressing them will continue to require innovative thinking, strategic pivots, and most importantly, an ongoing understanding of B2B purchasing and service trends that keep the core experience relevant and valuable. The dealer channel will continue to evolve and add value with changing customer demands. They will continue to be opportunistic and successful through diversification and acquisition. There will also continue to be specialists and gurus on LinkedIn ready to lend their scolding and expertise for a fee. That’s OK. Everyone has to eat.  

Author’s note: No experts, gurus or coaches were harmed in the making of this article.