Lawrence firm giving away 500 face shields and seeking to prove you can still find PPE, if you know where to look
photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo
The items that Barb Gruber sells through her Lawrence-based promotional products business — key chains, T-shirts and other company giveaways — ordinarily won’t do much to improve a person’s health.
But as Gruber and quite a few other people have noticed, these aren’t ordinary times.
Instead, in these strange times, an industry primarily known for providing businesses with trinkets emblazoned with corporate logos is finding it can play a role in bringing hard-to-find personal protective equipment — masks, gloves and other items — to businesses that thought they might have to live without it.
“I remember getting an email from one of my suppliers alerting me that the price of N-95 masks had changed,” said Gruber, owner of Golden Sunflower Promotional Products.
Gruber was confused, since national media reports were prevalent that the masks and other PPE were in critically short supply. Yet, the buying group she uses to buy her T-shirts, pens, mugs and other small items was advertising masks.
“I doubted it,” Gruber said.
But she decided to try something. The N-95 masks were expensive, but face shields weren’t. She thought of all the workers in grocery stores and elsewhere who likely could benefit from having a clear shield in front of their faces. So, she ordered 500 of the face shields, not sure that they even would show up. In less than two weeks — and for less than $1,000 — the face shields arrived from China at her home-based business in the Deerfield neighborhood.
Now, she and her husband are passing out the shields to various businesses and nonprofits who have employees working through the pandemic. People who have such a business can email the couple at email@example.com to ask for a donation.
photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo
Although the masks probably aren’t the type a surgeon would wear, businesses are happy to get them, Gruber said. She said she’s providing masks to grocers, convenience stores, sandwich shops and other businesses, as well as the homeless shelter.
Explaining how she got the face shields sometimes is part of the process of handing them out. Gruber is basically explaining it this way: If you can print a logo on it, she can probably get it.
That’s the way it is with most promotional products businesses. Many of them belong to huge buying groups. The one that Gruber belongs to, Advertising Specialty Institute, offers more than 1 million types of products through its wholesale website. Gruber, come to find out, always has had access to the PPE, but simply never thought to look for it.
“I have a million products, but I don’t see most of them,” she said. “When I go to the industry trade shows, you’re not really seeing surgical gown makers there.”
That may change in the future. Promotional product companies are getting into the PPE market more heavily. Lawrence-based Snap Promotions said it early on had many customers looking for the small bottles of hand sanitizer, which already had become popular corporate items even before the pandemic.
Owner Kristin Eldridge said her buying network gives her access to all sorts of PPE, but she said the market has gotten tricky in recent weeks.
“A lot of suppliers in the U.S. have converted their production to the hospital and medical industry,” she said.
Gruber, though, noted other businesses have shifted into making PPE. Perhaps one of the more dramatic shifts came from a company that made plastic tablecloths. Gruber said it is now selling medical gowns made from the same material. Although they aren’t approved for the surgery market, they are popular with lots of businesses that want a covering that is easily washable.
Many of the new suppliers are from China. Gruber said dealing with the Chinese companies could be difficult, largely because of communication issues. The face shields, which came from a Chinese company, show some of that. The instructions and warnings on the shield contain broken English and misspellings.
But Gruber said the Chinese companies were eager to get products to America. One of the biggest obstacles has been shipping. Gruber — who partnered with friends she has in other businesses, including Hite Collision Repair Center, Farm Bureau Financial Services, Bank Midwest Mortgage and BNI to buy the shields — spent more on shipping than the actual shields.
“It is too bad the airlines can’t get in on this business of shipping,” she said with a laugh. “They would be fine, if they could.”
The prices of some products also are changing multiple times per day as the Chinese companies find more buyers and also face struggles in getting the necessary raw materials. A box of gloves that sold for $10 a few weeks ago is now $22, she said. Even more dramatic, gowns that could be bought in bulk for about 15 cents at the beginning of the month are now $10.50.
So the idea that there are shortages in PPE isn’t necessarily overblown. Gruber said that she definitely could see how entities needing to make large purchases could face a lot of problems.
“If you needed a million of something, that is going to take several months,” she said.
But her experiment with the face shields has given her confidence that it is still possible to get important PPE for businesses that may need it on a smaller scale. Gruber said she’s considering putting together a group to buy another 500 face shields to donate to businesses once the initial batch is gone.
“I’m sure there are businesses we are going to miss or not think of,” she said.
Plus, both Gruber and Eldridge are expecting their businesses to stay busy with paying customers for the foreseeable future. You can definitely print a logo on a face mask, and both women said the promotional industry is expecting that to be a huge trend.
“We think people will be using masks for quite a while,” said Eldridge, who said her company already has done logo-bearing masks for banks, property management companies and various offices that intend to hand them out to visitors.
Gruber agreed, saying the industry would do its best to make the masks trendy and unique.
“I guarantee you that all types are being printed right now,” she said. “You already can get rhinestone face masks.”