Since the coronavirus pandemic hit hard in March, businesses, medical facilities and government have been scrambling to source personal protective equipment for their frontline workers. While many manufacturers pivoted production to begin producing PPE products, such as hand sanitizer, face masks and shields, and ventilators, supply still lags behind demand, particularly among non-hospital facilities like nursing homes and health clinics, according to Get Us PPE, an organization that monitors PPE demand.
To help manufacturers get essential PPE supplies into the hands of frontline workers, Amazon Business is working with third-party sellers and providing them with access to technology designed to help them adjust their sales strategies to meet demand. Amazon’s PPE initiatives include its COVID-19 Supplies storefront which consolidates PPE supplies in a single marketplace. In addition, Amazon Business says it is educating suppliers about how its inventory analytics and management tools can help them make ordering easier for buyers by removing friction from B2B sales processes.
In this question-and-answer article, Bill Kopitke, head of healthcare at Amazon Business, addresses the challenges suppliers still face when it comes to meeting demand for PPE products, how some suppliers have pivoted to selling PPE products through its marketplace, and how they can use technology to better manage their inventory, identify where demand exists and optimize selling strategies to reach more buyers, especially in market segments where they do not have existing relationships.
DC360: What factors are still causing brands and manufacturers to struggle to meet demand for essential supplies, such as PPE products?
Kopitke: There are brands and manufacturers who struggle to meet increased demand for highly sought-after essential products, more than seven months into the pandemic, because they are not accessing technologically advanced ecommerce and logistics management solutions that can make order tracking, management and fulfillment easier. Plus, buyers may not know when supply is available from brands and manufacturers because there is a delay or limitations with existing infrastructure.
For example, Pain Care Labs, a company that sells a device that prevents needle pain, was able to better meet demand and is distributing medical supplies via Amazon Business to healthcare facilities and doctors around the country. Previous infrastructure, processes, tools and services were not built with pandemic demands in mind, but now Pain Care Labs can use Amazon Business inventory analytics and management tools to meet demand without traditionally labor intensive vendor approvals and contracting.
DC360: How do you define essential supplies?
Kopitke: Amazon Business defines essential healthcare supplies as items that can help prevent, control or recover from COVID-19, such as N95 respirators, surgical masks, ventilators, digital thermometers, exam gloves, medical gowns, sanitizers and wipes.
DC360: Why are 90% of PPE requests coming from non-hospital customers, and how is this affecting suppliers?
Kopitke: According to Get Us PPE’s Supply Index Report, supply chains are still facing PPE shortages months into the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, the report cites 80% of facilities have no supply left of one or more types of PPE, up from 77% in August.
Amid the pandemic, essential supply manufacturers often rely on traditional sellers that have an opaque system for awarding the supply, creating winners and losers. Sellers do not want to lose the business of larger customers, so they channel the supplies accordingly. It is often challenging for sellers to quickly expand with new manufacturing relationships, considering the vetting and agreement process.
Although there can be quality manufacturers of essential supplies, it never makes it through the seller process so they have enough supply beyond their largest customers. The ability for sellers to flex with new manufacturing relationships where supplies become scarce will be key to offsetting essential supply shortages as the pandemic continues.
DC360: How can suppliers deal with economic uncertainty during the pandemic and meet demand?
Kopitke: While the pandemic can bring economic uncertainty, brands and manufacturers can manage it better by shifting faster to meet demand where it exists. For example, hand2mind, a provider of hands-on learning solutions for math, literacy, science and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics products), shifted operations to sell PPE to healthcare workers and hospitals. In addition to meeting demand for supplies for distance and hybrid learning during the back-to-school season, this summer hand2mind also leveraged their supply chain to pivot and meet the more immediate needs of the healthcare industry. To get their newly manufactured PPE to a much wider audience of frontline workers, hand2mind partnered with us to list their products on our COVID-19 Supplies store, too.
DC360: How can brands and manufacturers get essential supplies into the hands of frontline workers?
Kopitke: Brands and manufacturers can successfully get essential supplies into the hands of frontline workers by meeting buyers where they are—at online stores. Unlike traditional B2B buying that is often riddled with intensive contracts, online stores enable sellers to better reach those on the frontlines without red tape. Because Amazon Business serves the majority of the 100 biggest hospital systems and more than 40% of the 100 most populous local governments, we created COVID-19 Supplies to prioritize bulk orders for essential workers during the pandemic. This includes hospitals, senior living facilities, state and city governments, and federal agencies. We are also equipped to service thousands of small and rural healthcare providers and local governments.
DC360: How can brands and manufacturers fill gaps by following where demand is, especially when it comes to PPE supplies?
Kopitke: B2B ecommerce technologies give sellers access to dashboards and analytics that traditional procurement channels can’t. Currently, actionable insights into buying, logistics and spend can help B2B sellers meet the most immediate demand. On Amazon Business, our selling partners have access to dashboards that manage their stores and provide proactive insights that let them continually optimize selling strategies. Our dashboards have features to help follow demand, including a display of the top five products selling to registered business customers on Amazon and an “action” section that shows tasks recommended to specific B2B selling partners.
As mentioned, our education selling partner hand2mind pivoted from providing education supplies to providing PPE for healthcare workers. With uncertainty during the pandemic, hand2mind didn’t know how long the PPE shortage would last, but they used Amazon Business data to respond to demand as it made sense.
Brands and manufacturers can also move to a B2B ecommerce model to reach more customers. Entering the B2B space with a strong ecommerce presence allows customers to find new brands and products without existing relationships or contracts. For example, B2B selling partners on Amazon Business reach millions of customers worldwide. This way, brands can meet demand in places where they might not already have existing relationships.
DC360: How can suppliers use ecommerce to better manage inventory and reach more sellers?
Kopitke: Ecommerce can make it easier for suppliers to expand their customer base by enabling them to find and directly access B2B buyers around the world. Leveraging an online store allows brands and manufacturers to use one central hub to connect with thousands of buyers, streamlining the procurement process.
Additionally, some online stores provide features like analytics into buying patterns that help suppliers anticipate inventory needs to better manage their supply chain. Take recent PPE shortages, for example. Amazon Business’s selling partners delivered more than 100 million essential items to more than 13,000 healthcare providers and 7,000 government organizations during the peak of the supply shortage.
The technology within our online store has allowed brands and manufacturers to locate new B2B buyers, pivot to follow demand, and now build on those relationships. Vice versa, our sourcing efforts transitioned to new emerging selling suppliers for quality PPE while the traditional manufacturers experienced constraints. Amazon Business provides healthcare systems, hospitals and clinicians with immediate and direct access to time-pressed selection, including our collaboration with strategic medical manufacturers (e.g., Mindray and Tidi).
Peter Lucas is a Highland Park, Illinois-based freelance journalist covering business and technology.
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