The Pros & Cons of Various Jan/San Suppliers

Buyers of janitorial products have more choices than ever, both in what’s available to them and in where they can shop. Just two decades ago, local janitorial suppliers dominated the landscape. Today, traditional mom-and-pop distributors compete with national firms, big-box stores, and online resources like Amazon.

It’s no surprise retail giants are taking an interest in the jan-san market. Business-to-business purchasing represents $570 billion in sales each year.

With so many options, how does a B2B buyer know where to spend his dollars? Today, we’re discussing the pros and cons of shopping with three common jan/san suppliers, taking a closer look at the benefits and drawbacks of buying janitorial supplies at big-box stores, online, and from traditional jan/san distributors.

Big-Box Stores

The world’s largest retail chains, like Wal-Mart and Home Depot, are called big-box stores. The term comes from the physical appearance of their large-scale buildings, which look like big boxes from above. These superstores typically operate in more than 50,000 square feet and sell a variety of items or may specialize on one product or market category.

Many of these big-box retailers sell cleaning and maintenance supplies at reasonable prices. Membership clubs like Sams and Costco, also offer bulk quantities at even deeper discounts.

While many customers view big box stores as a convenient source for fill-in needs but not a supplier for all of their cleaning supplies, firms like Home Depot are serious about entering the MRO market and are making acquisitions of MRO and large jan/san distributors. While their product range of jan/san supplies isn’t evidenced in their retail stores, many big box suppliers have “professional desks” in their stores where other items can be purchased and even an outside salesforce through their MRO divisions and acquisitions.


  • Accessibility: Convenient locations and big parking lots make it easy to get in and out of a big-box store quickly. Extended hours of operation also mean buyers can get products when they need. As a bonus, shoppers can also purchase other supplies while there.
  • Competitive pricing: Thanks to the mass quantities these national retailers can purchase, and with the increasing popularity of private labeling products, goods are often priced very competitively.


  • Limited offerings: Big-box stores are designed for the masses, and that means their shelves are typically filled with offerings that will have the greatest appeal. It can be impossible to find specialty or professional-grade items in the retail locations.
  • Inexperience: Buyers are generally left to their own devices when it comes to choosing products at a big-box store. Employees are unlikely to know about dilution or production rates.
  • Poor service: Retailers simply sell products. They don’t offer training, and they won’t serve as partner in your business. You will not typically have a salesperson at the retail level who anticipates your needs or helps when your customer has an unusual cleaning problem.

Online Retailers

Competition from big-box stores isn’t new, but lately these traditional brick-and-mortar retailers have expanded their reach via the Internet, or as referenced above, through the acquisition of traditional distributors. Lowe’s, Staples, Sam’s Club, and many others now sell a wide range of janitorial products online. The biggest competitor challenging traditional suppliers and resellers is now Amazon. While traditionally focused on the B2C market, Amazon, the largest consumer e-commerce site has expanded into the B2B market, including a deliberate push into the jan/san market over the last five years.


  • Endless offerings: Thanks to its size, Amazon has vast warehouse (and drop-ship) capabilities, allowing it to sell almost anything imaginable.
  • Low prices: Sheer volume also means Amazon can offer supplies at extremely competitive prices.
  • Hassle-free shopping: As B2B buyers continue to get younger, the demand for online shopping is growing. They are accustomed to researching and buying online, whether on a computer or smartphone, and prefer vendors who provide that convenience.
  • Relatively fast: Although they can’t provide immediate gratification like an in-stock purchase at a big-box store, many online retailers now offer turnaround times of 24 to 48 hours.


  • Service: Although Zappos’ customer care is legendary, many online retailers aren’t known for service or strong product knowledge. While it is beginning to change, online sales have traditionally been best suited to customers who know exactly what they need.
  • Not local: It’s called the World Wide Web for a reason—it’s a global landscape. Online shoppers can’t be certain where their purchase is coming from, and they certainly can’t expect the vendor to understand their regional concerns.

Jan/San Distributor

Twenty years ago, local or regional firms that specialized in jan/san dominated the industry. In 1991, there were 24,000 independent jan/san distributors. Since then, competition from big-box online retailers has forced many traditional distributors out of business and pushed others to merge in the hopes of surviving. Today, only about 4,000 jan/san distributors remain and they are changing how they operate to appeal to the evolving needs of their buyers.

Click here to learn more about the changing jan/san marketplace 


  • Knowledge: By specializing in a single vertical, distributors develop a thorough understanding of their products. Sales staff can discuss the ins and outs of proper usage, recommend better or safer alternatives, suggest related items, and explain any warranties.
  • Extras: To compete with cut-rate retailers, distributors must offer value beyond pricing. These extras can include things like on-site training, warranties and service, workloading, and more.
  • Personalized: With far fewer sales than mass-market retailers, distributors can really get to know their customers. They can learn everything about a client’s operation and help uncover opportunities for improvement. For example, they can suggest tools that would improve productivity rates or products that help meet sustainability objectives. A good distributor becomes a true maintenance partner.


  • Higher prices: All that specialized knowledge and service comes at an expense; distributor price are often slightly to significantly higher than those offered by discount retailers.
  • Old fashioned: As few as half of janitorial distributors have robust websites, and even fewer have the ability to sell online (only a very small percentage can make sales via mobile-friendly websites).

What do you think? Did we get the pros and cons right? Are we missing out on some obvious (or, perhaps, some not-so-obvious) points? We’d love to hear from you. Share your opinions on this hot-button issue below.

We’d love to hear from you. How do you decide where you’ll buy your janitorial supplies?

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