With kit in short supply is this the time for smaller brands to shine?

Is a shortage of stock from the biggest suppliers in the AV world an opportunity for smaller or lesser known brands to become an everyday part of an integrator’s portfolio? Paul Milligan reports

If you needed an example of the current AV supply chain crisis, then a recent example on one stand at InfoComm in Las Vegas provided it. Staff on the stand were wearing badges with the message (which flashed when pressed, just to add emphasis) ‘Yes, We Have Stock’. Tales of 40, 50 or even 60-week lead times for some manufacturer’s products were all too common during the
recent ISE and InfoComm shows.

Products are in short supply everywhere it seems, but especially for some of the biggest names in AV. The badge is a perfect example of what is happening right now, that one manufacturer is currently enjoying a healthy rise in sales because, in part, everyone is struggling to get hold of meeting rooms products from a big name brand and is looking for quality alternatives. Journalists covering the pro-AV market are forever being told integrators are too brand loyal. They know what they like and will specify it time and time again. Which is great if your company is in that select group of brands, it means a constant flow of repeat sales, but if you are on the outside looking in, it can be frustrating because you never get the chance to show what you can do.

Has this current supply chain crisis, which seems to be affecting the largest brands the worst, now become an opportunity for medium tier or lesser known AV brands to have their ‘moment in the sun’ and make sales they wouldn’t normally pick up otherwise? And if these brands see success in the short term, could this change (and grow) the product portfolio of integrators in the long term too?

How do integrators go about finding a replacement if there is no available stock for a product, is it through chatting to other integrators? Going direct to manufacturers to suggest alternatives? Or is this where distributors can provide real value? “It’s all down to going back to grassroots and good old fashioned engineering research,” says Rita Morais, director of multimedia technology, WIT consulting. “It’s doing the legwork online, getting on the phone, contacting smaller manufacturers that might be useful in sourcing specs, and where possible doing proof of concept.”

Morais gives one recent example where the client was committed to using one particular product, but because of a short supply “we had to go back and do some investigation. We ordered several products online, we did a POC and narrowed it down to AirServer and another brand, we ended up going with AirServer because it has more flexibility in terms of secure connections, and the number of people who can collaborate.” Most integrators do have a wide knowledge of comparable products available on the market says David Zlotin, lead AV engineer for EOS IT Management Solutions. “As integrators we need to put together our components with old, or customer provided parts and equipment, so good knowledge of equipment is absolutely necessary to be able to make it work.”

Like the example earlier, Marta Woronowicz, director of sales and marketing for integrator A+V says the current market “requires us to be really flexible and creative with solutions,” as this next example shows. On a recent project A+V had to replace a Dante module from one brand, that wasn’t available, so it designed a whole system using another brand. That then wasn’t available to turned to a third brand. After testing it was put into the specification only to find four weeks later it wasn’t in stock either. The system was eventually built using an Ecler module. Most integrators reading this will have felt similar pain in the last 12 months too.

When a product isn’t in stock, are integrators getting the advice they need from manufacturers, or are they just too biased to offer genuine help? “They’ll come back with a response which is an upgrade at twice the price, and does very little extra,” says Darren Clayman, managing director of integrator IDNS. “There are a couple of manufacturers where they’ve genuinely gone out and found an alternative product. The problem for them is they don’t want you using alternative products. Because in the future wouldn’t you buy it again if you’ve had the support and the stock?” AV distributors are caught bang in the middle of
this situation, constantly trying to extract accurate delivery information from manufacturers and then having to pass on bad news to integrators, and maybe even missing out on sales because of delays. “We’re getting it both ways,” admits Simon Druce, sales director, from distributor CUK Group. “Manufacturers are having to find new chipsets and redesign products in some cases. Then we are dealing with integrators who have projects in which they were going to use an AVoIP product but they can’t deliver it for seven or eight months, so they’ll ask us what have you got that does this? We will advise on what we have and how it fits, and in some cases, we’ll do a demonstration of the technical differences between them, because not all products are like-for-like, so we’ll try and show the benefits.”

Druce makes a salient point, when distributors are offering alternatives, do integrators find they are sourcing a genuine like-for-like replacement or is it swapping an apple for an orange? “It depends on the product, they will tick 90% of the boxes and they’ll do the functionality,” says Clayman. “But with some of these newer products there is extra effort that has to go into the back end, or it might be a more complex setup to give the same functionality.

So although from a customer perspective and a usability perspective, it will work in the same way, it has the same feel, the back end of it needs a lot more effort to make it work smoothly because some brands are not at the same level as some others are.” Comparing products can be a tricky business agrees Woronowicz. “When it comes to the comparison of what we mean by like-for-like, is it the functionality? Or the price? What is it we’re actually comparing? We need to have that conversation with the client first to say, are we focusing on the functionality? Is there room for compromise? Are you happy to pay more to get a device that will give you the same functionality? Or would you prefer to stick to the budget and then narrow down your expectations when it comes to that functionality? Would you then compromise on your project delivery time? Would you be able to wait a couple of months more to get that delivered and stick to what you have?”

Has the supply chain crisis actually resulted in smaller brands getting a chance? “We are seeing people come back to us where we recommended a product they wouldn’t have looked at, maybe not a totally unknown brand, but maybe a lesser known brand to the manufacturer they were going to use. And we do get positive feedback. There have been some nice lightbulb moments, admissions of ‘I wish I’d tried this earlier’, or it’s actually better than what I’ve been using,” says Druce. CUK has seen a huge increase on demand for speakers and amplifiers he adds, “Certain manufacturers have struggled and still are struggling, and people like Audac and Powersoft have really benefited for having the stock and then being able to deliver it when they say they’re going to deliver it.” Moving from an established AV name to a brand with maybe less profile doesn’t automatically mean a drop in quality, as this example from Morais proves; “Even though the client was loyal to a big name brand we found availability with ZeeVee. We did a bulk order for ZeeVee products, the specs were not the same, but for the application the product actually worked very well. We ordered a proof of concept first, as we always do, to go through the due diligence with the IT team. In some aspects of the implementation the ZeeVee product actually had a more straightforward UI in the back end.”

Flexibility is key here says Clayman, and a temporary fix can also be the solution; “If we have clients who have jobs which have to be done by a certain date then we have to find products that will fit in, so we’re having to be flexible, we’re having to expect flexibility from clients as well. In some projects we’re putting in a solution as a temporary fix, while the rest is on order. And then we’ll go back in, take out the kit that’s in there as a temporary fix, and put in what they actually wanted, and then use that temporary fix in another location.”

In what can only be good news for the future, despite some apprehension, there is a lot of positivity after the successful integration of different AV brands. “I was a little bit scared with some of the smaller brands that they wouldn’t be able to meet the supply of a large order, but they have made it work. I’ve had a good experience,” says Morais. Is one stumbling block here the loyalty clients have built up in one brand, we’ve all heard clients say ‘We are a (enter big name AV brand here) House’
etc, are clients sometimes too wedded to particular brands? Can integrators convince them to swap? “It’s very individual and depends on the relationship with that client,” says Woronowicz. “With some corporates there is literally no way they would ever change because someone needs to manage the procurement, they bulk buy, they have a whole system based on particular brands, so they would have to go back to recreate their own standards. That’s a lot of work.”

But it’s not impossible she adds; “We’ve had some projects where the clients decided to change and allowed for an alternative replacement just because they couldn’t compromise on the timescale, on the budget or the functionality. So the only thing they could compromise on was to look at the brand.” Some clients are only loyal because of history adds Clayman. “I have a particular issue when people say we’re a Panasonic house, the reality is they are that way because at some point somebody sold that to them. At some point an integrator went in and said look at this, it’s fantastic. And they’ve stuck with that because it works. Something can be perfectly reasonable and work really well, but actually there is a phenomenal solution over here that they’re missing because you’re just sticking with what you know.”

As mentioned above, could standardisation be a block to adopting new brands? “There’s a risk that once you start making changes you need to check and test what impact it will have on all the other elements of the system,” says Woronowicz. “Putting together an AV system is not just about installing a screen and videoconferencing in your office, it’s about how it integrates with your calendars, your software, your IT infrastructure, your building infrastructure.” The reluctance to move to different manufacturers can also depend on the size of the client adds Morais; “When it’s a very large corporate with a certain structure you don’t have a single stakeholder who is in charge of making that decision. Which means that if you’re doing a project in Singapore, but the decision maker is in London, you have to go through that approval for a particular change, so it may be a little bit harder to have that conversation.”

The current supply chain crisis is causing some pain out there in the AV world. And it seems like the end is not in sight, at least not this year anyway. Much like Covid forced everyone to become experts in Teams/Zoom, the supply chain crisis is forcing integrators to look at new brands they probably haven’t considered before, simply because they have stock and their usual suppliers don’t. From the examples above, this process doesn’t have to be a negative experience, it’s often the exact opposite in fact. It’s now down to those brands, who maybe don’t have the marketing muscle or production capacities of the big name brands, to capitalise on this situation that has fallen on their lap by providing enough stock (and quality service) that means integrators will keep coming back once the supply chain crisis is just a distant memory. It’s also an opportunity for distributors to offer genuine value to integrators by providing as close an alternative as they can, and giving guidance when a like-for-like can’t be found.

top pic: shutterstock/Jenari
middle pic: shutterstock/FGC
bottom pic: Shutterstock/Maxim Blinkov

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