Posted March 17, 2021

NAW CEO shares how distributors have managed the pandemic

SmartBrief talked with NAW's Eric Hoplin about what distributors learned from last year.

by James daSilva

The past year has changed life all across America. Millions of people lost jobs, while millions more went remote. But some industries had to simultaneously adapt to the pandemic while staying open and meeting customer needs -- including wholesale distribution.

I recently asked Eric Hoplin, president and CEO of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, to talk about how distributors have weathered the pandemic, their role in getting essential supplies into the right hands, and what stories the industry is telling to Americans. Read on for our Q&A.

It's been a year since the coronavirus radically changed daily life in the US. While every distributor's experience is different, what are you hearing from distribution leaders about the lessons learned?

Hoplin: The resiliency of this industry is one of its most impressive traits, and it has been evident throughout the pandemic. Through countless stories, we have heard that distribution can make a difference and, more than that, distribution is essential. From sourcing new products when demand appeared overnight to fast-tracking technology upgrades, the industry has risen to the occasion time and time again.

But what has been most impactful are the endless stories about how we are helping people -- hearing from the companies that moved Heaven and Earth to help set up temporary hospitals, get PPE to companies on the brink of closure without it, and, of course, the donations that so many of our companies made to help meet the needs of nonprofits and the public in an unprecedented environment. By stepping up during the pandemic, many distributors developed new and innovative ideas and creative solutions to serve their communities and customers amidst these unprecedented challenges while at the same time keeping their employees safe and their doors open.

A good example of this is an NAW member that is a distributor of building products. They immediately launched a campaign encouraging their customers to buy online as a safe way of buying. Soon after, at branches, they set up kiosks to allow customers to ask questions and place orders, and drive-through lanes with self-service checkouts. They also put orders into lockers and behind fenced-in areas with digital security for 24/7 pickup. The lesson this distributor learned, and which can be applied to other businesses, is to grab opportunities without hesitation and to act quickly and boldly to offer new customer services appropriate for the changing customer needs.

Vaccine rollout is accelerating, and distribution is a part of that success, as NAW has made clear through a recent ad campaign. Who is NAW hoping to reach through this campaign, and what actions does NAW want to see as a result of the campaign?

Hoplin: We are taking this moment -- where the actions of wholesaler-distributors are so visible and critical to Americans -- to tell the story of our industry. We touch every sector of the economy and move goods and services to every corner of the country, yet our importance as the central partner in the supply chain is not always top of mind for most Americans. Distributors solve customer problems and deliver for customers every day in every congressional district across the country, and we want our elected officials and policymakers to know it.

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