Einstein once wrote, “The crisis is the greatest blessing for people and nations, because the crisis brings progress”: this is what each one of us hopes for in a situation like the one we are currently experiencing, which sees the world at the mercy of the Covid-19 emergency, threatened by constant limitations to personal freedom and possible lockdowns that greatly undermine business and the productive infrastructure. How is the safety sector replying to this new state of things?
There are those who, in keeping with the very nature of business itself, promptly reacted to the new situation already during the period of complete lockdown, like Carnevali, specialised in the production of auto-adhesive and thermo-adhesive reinforcements for footwear, leather goods and leather apparel. “We tried to adapt ourselves in the short-term to collaborate, also during the darkest moments of total shutdown, with companies involved in the management of the pandemic, supplying them with non-woven fabric for medical purposes and for the production of PPE. This allowed us to guarantee a continuity in business and face the uncertainties of the moment with a little more optimism”, explains Chiara Meddi, Head of Communications at Luigi Carnevali. “The current situation is still filled with uncertainties, since it is difficult to make predictions about the economic situation: there has been a recovery, but it is still very slow and cautious”.
By implementing all the regulations needed to continue producing, also COIM, a leading company in the field of chemicals, never closed. “We moved forward in a socially responsible way and did everything in our power to fulfil the demands of customers, while ensuring they had all the products they needed by not interrupting the productive cycle” – confirms Francesco Macchi, Business Emea PU Footwear System at COIM.
The strategies adopted by companies in facing the uncertainties of the market positioned the need for flexibility and the importance of service in a primary place of importance.
“We are trying to satisfy the demands of all customers based on their needs day after day. This activity is based on flexibility, reduced delivery times, and the possibility of small production lots. The healthcare emergency also created new opportunities with new customers, who showed interest in us and new products we are currently developing. We have developed an ad hoc team with a focus on product development, and we are testing new kinds of raw materials to improve the performance of the range of existing products and offer new solutions”, explains Enrico Neri, Technical Director of Texon, specialised in materials for footwear.
Giovanni Giuliano, Chief Marketing Officer & Strategic Development at Bicap, among the leading realities in occupational footwear, instead underlines the importance of staying close to customers and offering customer service with a customised approach: “We re-organised the structure of our offering, making more room for customer service, and putting the needs of our customers at the centre of our business model. Although the pandemic was worldwide, the needs and difficulties varied from nation to nation, and from customer to customer. So, for B2B customers/partners of a certain importance and significance, the business approach is becoming one2one, with the relative difficulties and opportunities that arise from this constant interaction”. “Not to be forgotten is that in this service is also included a constant updating of the product, above all in the high-end range of the offering, characterised by continuous research in terms of innovation and technology”.
The period we are going through – with greater attention to health, hygiene, and safety – has also influenced the purchasing needs and demands of the consumer, even in the safety sector. This is what is confirmed by Chiara Meddi from Carnevali: “Certainly the attention on hygiene and individual protection, to try and prevent and limit the transmission and spread of the virus was the ‘mantra’ which accompanied us and which still accompanies us in our daily lives. The increasingly high demand for PPE like shirts, single-use hazmat suits, protective masks, but also safety footwear and apparel, have made the demand in our sector for antibacterial technical weaves and non-woven filtering fabrics rise significantly. This uptrend, which is constantly on the rise, is driven by three main consumer sectors – hygienic, medical, and sanitary. The capacity of spunbond, meltblown, spunlace and airlaid should continue to grow with greater efficiency thanks to technology. That’s not all. The market of raw materials will also meet up with new opportunities and challenges arising from changes in sourcing models, as the producers themselves increasingly look to their own territories, in search of a greater number of local suppliers of fibres and chemical products”.
Enrico Neri, Technical Director of Texon, confirms that, “All safety products must respect safety standards, so the attention is increasingly on performance, but we are also working a lot to improve the overall antibacterial characteristics”.
There are then companies like Alba&N, a producer of safety footwear for over 25 years, which underline the driving force of an already existing, yet increasingly important, trend like comfort. As confirmed by Teuta Pistolja, CEO of Alba & N: “With the lockdown, the constant ebb and flow of business, which at times was frenetic and almost unmanageable, made way for a more measured and moderate rhythm, leading us to some inevitable reflections. For example, we all understood or we simply remembered the importance that work has on our lives. Those who have now returned to work and are once again outside of their homes all day long, have very little free time left, and often continue their day-to-day activities, including moments of social interaction, without ever changing out of their work shoes. So, the safety shoe winds up becoming the shoe that is worn for most of the day. This is the conclusion we have come to and it represents the driving force in identifying new solutions that might elevate the comfort and aesthetics of our footwear to the highest possible level, without ever neglecting safety standard requirements. The first step was that of selecting new sneaker models, the kind of sporty footwear preferred by men and women. That immediately following was to try making them comfortable and lightweight”.
According to Alba&N, “Today’s consumer is especially attentive to comfort. For this reason, we have perfected the ‘Performer’ sole, successfully managing to balance requirements of safety (grip and resistance) with a sporty design, flexibility, softness, and lightness. With an eye to greater well-being/health, we also fine-tuned the state-of-the-art “Elisa Memory” insole, with a textile or leather lining, in contact with the foot, a memory foam layer, and finally an ergonomic polyurethane base with cushion in the heel. It’s not just about stabilising the foot and absorbing its impact with the ground while walking. These insoles are also ideally suited to those who have problems of foot pronation and various pains associated with the feet. By improving the way the weight of the body is distributed across the arch of the foot, it is even possible to prevent calluses and blisters”. “Finally – continues Teuta Pistolja – for those with orthopaedic problems, we have certified some lines of our footwear in accordance with the German safety standard DGUV 112-191, which establishes what features are needed to maintain safety footwear CE certification, even in the case of orthopaedic changes made to the arch support inside them.
Even Giovanni Giuliano from Bicap underlines how, “Increasingly today, in order to be winning, a product must have the right mix of features like resistance to use, while guaranteeing the right comfort for the foot, being aesthetically striking, and finally having a balanced technical and innovative content”.
According to Macchi from COIM, among the features considered most important today in a safety item are technology and design: “Our clientele is focusing on shoes with a high technological content, combined with a light weight and high resistance over time of the polyurethane sole, without sacrificing any of the original features. There is also a growing interest in terms of the footwear’s design”.
Covid-19 demonstrated how the theory of “the butterfly effect” is truer now than ever before, with the interconnectedness of every living being, the way we coexist with everything, and the fragility of our ecosystem. From this arrives a growing attention to environmental issues, which were already front-page news and a priority at international summits.
Starting from materials along the supply chain, this greater awareness of sustainability has also become of key importance to Luigi Carnevali, where Chiara Meddi confirms: “We did not fail to notice how the pandemic made a break with the past and generated a new era, defined by rapid changes in cultural norms, society’s values and behaviours. The answer of Luigi Carnevali to this on-going change was to implement a more responsible corporate policy, with an increasingly meticulous sourcing of materials, while keeping in mind the new opportunities and challenges created by this change. Additionally, the use of synthetic materials should increase as concerns regarding sustainability, a theme that is especially important to consumers, is more pragmatically aligned with the priorities of health and hygiene, even though the implications of the complete lifecycle of masks produced in series is yet to be felt and will probably represent a problem in the months and years to come”.
Environmental responsibility is also central for companies like Alba&N, specialised in finished products. Teuta Pistolja in fact confirms this: “In some cases, the materials of the uppers were chosen following a trend of great importance in the present-day world: environmental responsibility. Aware of the growing and pressing urgency of environmental issues, above all of those connected to waste disposal, we developed safety and occupational footwear with uppers in TexPet, a material coming from the recycling of post-consumer PET bottles”.
Another trend that the pandemic and above all the lockdown accelerated is that of digitalisation with a rise in online sales. This is confirmed by Chiara Meddi from Carnevali: “Covid-19 fuelled the trend of digitalisation in the Italian industry, something considered important for a number of years, but which had always been pushed back. During the lockdown, our company, like many others, tried to update itself so it could make the most of information technologies through smart working, but without a doubt also a complete updating of the supply chain will be necessary to avoid future interruptions in production”. There is then the increase in online sales. “We have in fact entered the ‘new normality’. During the lockdown, we witnessed a change of epoch dimensions. Within just one month, a leap forward was made in digitalisation and the exponential growth of e-commerce. A good part of consumers, once they personally experienced the ease and greater comfort offered by online purchases, decided to continue buying online even once restrictions were lifted, even if for safety products this trend is slightly “mitigated” by the greater need consumers feel to have a sensorial experience and physical interaction with the product before purchasing it. So, physical stores can still have a big advantage over virtual ones, especially in this sector of products: PPE is produced with a high degree of emotional content”.
Giovanni Giuliano from Bicap likewise confirms the drive towards digitalisation on all levels: “Even in the safety world, online sales continue to grow at a sustained rhythm. In the future, it will undoubtedly be an important sales channel, which however will not replace the physical store, but rather merge with it, updating the sales of safety products to the customer journey of the final consumer who is increasingly digitalised”.
According to Francesco Macchi from COIM, the online channel represents one of the genuine opportunities fully and completely revealed during the pandemic: “Potential future opportunities connected to the world of footwear are aligned with the rise in online sales. The current feeling is that this kind of sales requires a shortening of the supply chain with the subsequent possibility of shortening the demand. There could accordingly be a reallocation of production currently outsourced in Asia towards markets that are closer by (EMEA), in order to satisfy the fast timing of online commerce”.
This is also confirmed by Enrico Neri from Texon, “Social distancing and new behaviours associated with the Corona virus are decidedly pushing consumers towards new ways of purchasing. Online sales will be one of these and may even become the most important”.
Finally, one last consequence that we faced, connected also to the development of the online channel, regards sector fairs: what role will they play in the near future?
“2020 will be remembered as the year of fairs that were cancelled or postponed because of the Covid-19 healthcare emergency, with restrictions in the organisation of leading events – comments Chiara Meddi from Carnevali -. In these circumstances, digital marketing is an obligatory choice, but this does not mean at all that the epoch of trade fairs is over. Participating in a sector fair has a value that goes beyond mere economic return. Being present among exhibitors is an activity that supports brand awareness for a company, allowing for a rise in network contacts. What really counts, in any marketing investment, whether it’s ‘virtual’ or done through an actual exhibition, is a balanced choice of channels that will lead to profit for the company, with a strategic analysis of costs/benefits in accordance with a set of specific goals and the perfect timing. What is often true in life is also true in marketing: the correct orientation of the compass for an effective choice lies in the middle with the harmonious integration of multiple channels, identified as those that will be most effective in achieving specific company goals”.
According to Enrico Neri from Texon “A long time must pass before fairs return as a physical meeting place, but they can maintain their role as a meeting point between suppliers and customers if they are successful in their attempts to effectively manage digital platforms, virtual fairs, and connect players in the market’s supply chain so they can constantly exchange information”.
Once again, Giovanni Giuliano from Bicap confirms: “Fairs will continue to play an important role in the marketing plans of any company. They represent the main moment of physical contact between company and customer, with the finalisation of all the work done remotely. During the fairs, they manage to transmit more effectively all those human values characterising a company and its history, values that in the end lead customers to consider you a ‘supplier partner’ and not just a simple ‘supplier’”.
There are also those who hope for new hybrid trade fair formats in the future: “It could be interesting to increasingly present a mix of physical and virtual participants”, comments Francesco Macchi from COIM.