Bagus Production / Bowonpat Sakae /


Having grown up in the promotional products industry, I take a great deal of pride in this advertising medium’s meteoric rise from products with little respect to an essential component of nearly all marketing campaigns. Every one of us has touted the unique ability of promotional items to reach a targeted audience and the unique attribute of hitting upon all five senses. Indeed, the continued fragmentation of the advertising universe has certainly been a major factor in the surge in promotional product industry revenues.

When the pandemic began, promotional products suppliers and distributors realized they could keep their businesses running, and more importantly help hospitals, nursing homes, businesses, government agencies, health-care agencies, etc. by providing essential personal protective equipment (PPE) at fair and affordable prices—for the most part.

Unfortunately, some companies have been selling in the PPE marketplace with less than honorable intentions. And this brings me to my list of unintended consequences of the pandemic on the promotional products industry.

A reevaluation of who you are doing business with. This realization will be as important to the distributor-end buyer relationship as it is to the supplier-distributor relationship. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of credibility in all business dealings.

 A reevaluation of product quality. We all know end buyers who have selected a less expensive item online believing the quality was the same as what a distributor could provide. In addition, no one would generally check or compare the items. However, for example, some reports show that millions of face masks sold are below acceptable standards. The reality is that knowing your products and trusting the company providing them is paramount.

A reevaluation on giving financial credit. It is interesting that there is an expectation in our industry that distributors get credit from suppliers and that end buyers get credit from distributors, just for doing business with them. As this paradigm changes with suppliers asking for payment in advance and many distributors doing likewise, what happens when the goods aren’t delivered on time? Or, not at all?

A reevaluation of your business models. Many suppliers and distributors have been unable to run their businesses effectively during this pandemic due to outmoded technology. This awful virus has highlighted the critical nature of technology—be it for your remote workforce, efficient sales order processing, proper allocation of inventory or the ability to provide accurate tracking information.

Here are my expectations for the future, which will serve to enhance existing relationships and/or possibly prompt some tough business reevaluations:

  • The future will place a much greater value on “who” you are doing business with than “what” you are selling.
  • The understanding of product quality will have renewed significance as buyers (i.e., suppliers, distributors and marketers) all realize the importance of knowing what is being sold. Product knowledge will remain a hallmark of the industry’s best suppliers and top salespeople.
  • The value of trust can’t be overemphasized. There is probably no greater tangible expression of trust than giving someone money before the product is produced. For those suppliers and distributors who maintained their credibility throughout this pandemic, I applaud you.
  • Having systems in place to properly allocate inventory has proven to be critical to maintaining a reliable ordering system. I know that our company is so appreciative of those suppliers who fulfilled their promises. And for those suppliers and distributors that were not able because of obsolete or inferior technology, I would encourage an upgrade of your systems.

We do have an impressive entrepreneurial industry where in uncertain times, many have reinvented themselves using a combination of creativity, tenacity and sheer hard work.

I hope this pandemic ends soon, and that our country and our industry will have learned that working and living together honestly and respectfully is the best way to move forward.  


Gerry Barker is president of distributor Barker Specialty Co. in Cheshire, Connecticut.