A 'comprehensive' solution

With millions in extra funds set to be pumped into school facilities and the equipment contained in them over the next couple of years, now is the ideal time to look at the education market. Ben Furfie talks to the channel to brush up on how to sell to learning...
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With the school year now drawing to a close, kids looking forward to six weeks of freedom and schools looking at six weeks to source, replace and install new equipment, now is the time to begin considering your pitches if you're in the educational market. But just what's hot and what's not in the market for the next school year?

So, what are the trends in the educational hardware sector and most importantly, what advice do our channel experts give so that you can make the most of them?

"The educational sector trends within the hardware side tend to rise around the start of the financial year and during the long summer breaks, forming the two key peak periods within the sector," says Entatech's networking product specialist Neal Write.

Indeed, this year more than ever is the ideal time to get into the education business as XMA hardware sales specialist Paul Kirk explains: "The education market is central to Government policy to ensure Britain is economically competitive for the next generation and beyond. This means it is currently undergoing the biggest investment programme of capital rebuilding projects seen in the last 50 years.

The expansion is happening throughout the spectrum, opening up major opportunities across the board, as Kirk continues to explain: "At primary level, we are seeing the beginning of the 'Primary Capital Improvement Programme', which will see schools either rebuilt or infrastructures refreshed and at a secondary level, we're currently in the middle of the 'Building Schools for the Future' programme, which is, again, seeing new builds and infrastructure refreshes. "Add to that the Academy building programme and it is evident that large opportunities exist for focused resellers," adds Kirk.

The major rebuilds and refreshes, of course, open up the opportunity to sell new equipment to those very schools, as Interactive Ideas' marketing executive Andy Miles explains: "The Government has made a commitment to further increase funding for new technologies in primary and secondary schools, which can only be good news for retailers and resellers." But just what sort of things are schools and other educational instituions after?

"The use of hardware in education as a whole is becoming an increasingly important part of the day-to-day running of schools and universities," says Mark Lloyd, Director, IT Channel. "IT products are becoming far more crucial within everyday learning."

General manager of the systems business unit at Computer 2000, Mark Glasspool agrees, adding that the move towards sub-notebooks is having a major effect on the sector: "We're seeing a lot interest in ultra-mobility. Teachers, administrators and students are now working much more flexibly and starting to make use of mobile technology much more.

"There are a number of excellent and highly portable products in the market now, offering a wide spectrum of features and benefits but basically providing all the computing power and communications capabilities anyone is likely to need in a very small and ultra-portable format."

Of course, if you look at the focus of the IT, part of the investment Kirk talked about previously, you soon see a correlation between the way that the general market is going in terms of sub-notebook devices and the direction the Government is seeking to move schools in.

"The IT emphasis of the programmes is two-fold," explains Kirk. "First, it is to bridge the digital divide; that is, to ensure everyone has the same opportunity to access technology so they can exploit the best opportunities. Secondly, it is to deliver education to the pupil; whether they are in the classroom, at home or on the way to school itself, via their hand held device."

It really can be said that the meeting of sub-notebooks and the current drive by the Government to achieve the above objectives is the IT equivalent of the planets lining up – a rare event that will propel those who grab the proverbial bull by the horns and ride it properly and carefully into an enviable situation indeed.

Several companies all came forward with very similar suggestions, many recommending the Asus Eee PC and the Intel Classmate. "The economy laptop is probably one of the hottest products of the year," says Kirk. "The Asus Eee PC has taken the market by storm and will no doubt continue to sell well; the solid state seven-inch notebook has been hard to come by due to high demand since its launch but is ideally suited to the education market."

It was a point echoed by VIP product manager Stuart Watson: "Price, reliability and connectivity have always been key requirements in the education market and the product of the moment that fulfils those needs is the emerging category of sub-notebooks, especially the Asus Eee PC.

"Interest from VARs in the education market has been huge and while this has been driven partly by the low price, it is features such as the Eee PC's small size, portability and robustness that have made it an ideal product to equip student of all ages with."

Of course, ultra-mobile technology isn't the only area of the market that has plenty of opportunities to take advantage of, as Mark Lloyd explains. "All classrooms are kitted out with networked computer areas and obviously this dependency on the need for IT resources in the learning area has impacted on the need for printer resources.

"The main trend for printers within the education market is that educational establishments across the whole spectrum are moving away from inkjet printers to A4/A3 laser printers (for more information on the current state of the laser printer market and the channel's recommendations for that sector, check last month's issue of PC Retail)."

It's a point echoed by OKI senior product manager Alan McLeish: "We're seeing more schools adopting A3 printers, which are more affordable than ever. This A3 capability is invaluable to producing collateral like banners, posters, timetables and notices."

Lloyd adds: "A3 and A4 printers are infiltrating into individual classrooms with teachers seeing the benefits of having the ability to print collateral and banners for classroom displays. The reasons for this are. for one, the costs of ownership are less with laser printers."

Another area that has been identified is the edutainment sector; especially as media production becomes a much more popular subject and the costs of equipment continue to fall, as Miles explains: "We've been seeing an increasing amount of interest in educational hardware, most notability in the edutainment sector with the Digital Blue QX5 Microscope and Digital Movie Creator 3.0 particularly in demand, amongst others."

But it's all fair and square pointing these areas out, but with such an expansive – and admittedly intimidating – market, just what advice do our channel experts have for those either already in the market, or those looking to expand into it?

"Long term planning and investment in communications, initial product training, as well as offering long term support packages should all be key to your strategy," stresses Miles before adding: "This will also enable you to secure future business more easily, as well as be more dynamic when future opportunities arise."

"This is certainly an opportunity for resellers – especially those who take time to understand the needs of the education market and the value that these solutions deliver," adds Glasspool. "We've been encouraging resellers to address the potential here and providing active support to help them build their knowledge and take that to the market."

However, Kirk has a warning for resellers looking to capitalise on the education hardware market: "When selling to schools, it is always important to speak in their language. For schools, IT is merely a tool for helping them deliver on their pupil-based objectives. That is, learning and exam results.

"It is entirely the wrong approach to sell merely on price and efficiencies. They will be looking for someone with a soft-sell and won't listen to a brash wide-boy."

Luckily, it's not all bad news, as Write explains: "Many vendors are supportive of the educational sector by offering discounts. This helps maximise the chance that your business can win the business and ensure that you are meeting the demands of today's education market."

Next month, PC Retail will be taking a look at the education software market.

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