Finding personal protective equipment in the weeks after the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States was tough for hospitals and frontline healthcare workers. As the pandemic wore on, purchasing quality PPE became even harder as new suppliers rushed to fill the void in available PPE inventory with products of unknown value, experts say.
Indeed, many unknown suppliers and distributors entered the fray with PPE of questionable quality at inflated prices, according to observers such as Maura Healy, the attorney general of Massachusetts, who joins other officials and industry experts in a video presentation on the website of Project N95, a nonprofit organization founded to improve the flow of PPE to healthcare professionals.
The confluence of a lack of supply and disreputable suppliers prompted Project N95 to launch an online marketplace in the spring to connect qualified PPE suppliers with buyers. Buyers can purchase PPE products at shop.project-n95.org. Suppliers must fill out an online form to apply for approval as a seller on the marketplace.
“Many buyers of PPE were left high and dry by the supply chain when the COVID-19 pandemic hit,” says Anne Miller, executive director for Project N95.
On its marketplace, Project N95 vets suppliers for reliability and product quality before making their PPE items available for sale to healthcare facilities and frontline workers. “Project N95’s marketplace is where buyers can be confident they are purchasing from qualified sellers with proven track records for delivering PPE,” Miller says.
After launching its online marketplace in March, however, Project N95 quickly realized that the limits of its homegrown platform would prevent the organization from carrying out its mission of making it easier for hospitals, healthcare and public safety providers and essential businesses to locate and purchase PPE.
Improving online ordering for PPE buyers
One challenge was the decision to build a reverse auction marketplace that operated much like the request-for-proposal process often used in business-to-business commerce. Under that process on the old Project N95 site, buyers submitted bids for the quantity of PPE items, and sellers willing to fill the order responded with pricing. Buyers and sellers would then negotiate the final price as needed. It was a cumbersome process that often took days to consummate a sale, Miller recalls.
“One of the reasons we went with the reverse bid model is that we quickly learned many PPE buyers could not order the amount they needed because PPE suppliers had higher minimum orders,” Miller says. “But we soon learned that managing this buying process required a lot of manual work by our staff on the back-end. What we needed was a scalable platform that automated more of the purchasing process.”
Another challenge of Project N95’s marketplace was the inability of buyers to bundle different products in a single order. Instead, they had to place a separate order for each item. For large companies or professional associations like the American Medical Association, that made the ordering process particularly challenging and cumbersome.
Project N95’s ecommerce platform could only process one group order at a time. Suppliers also had to work harder than necessary to download their catalogs as they could not download all or parts of a catalog at once, Miller says. Instead, they had to list each item on the marketplace individually.
Relaunching on a new ecommerce platform
To liberate buyers and sellers from the technological limitations of its marketplace, Project N95 worked with VTEX, a provider of internet-hosted technology that integrates ecommerce, marketplace and order management system software, to deploy a new ecommerce platform.
The new platform supports posted pricing for each supplier’s PPE items and can handle bundled orders and simultaneous processing of group orders. Before suppliers post their prices, Project N95 negotiates pricing with them, in part to hold the line on prices for items still in short supply.
Despite the trend of many manufacturers pivoting to PPE production, several essential items—such as examination and surgical gowns, gloves, ventilator-related products, and various testing supplies and equipment—remain scarce, according to the United States Food and Drug Administration. The shortages have caused prices for these types of items to spike significantly.
More transparency in pricing
As Project N95 began moving onto the VTEX platform, it set up a separate, small marketplace to test its new posted pricing model. “While the reverse auction model was useful, we knew we needed the transparency of posted pricing to provide a better user experience,” Miller says. She adds that the reverse auction model “gave us credibility in the market” before Project N95 was ready to move to the new ecommerce platform.
More than 100 suppliers are offering about 186 PPE products to participate in Project N95’s marketplace. Project N95 vets all suppliers to ensure their products match buyers’ quality standards and that they can reliably fill orders in short order. “A lot of buyers can’t wait weeks to receive an order,” Miller says. “We aren’t looking for suppliers that have pivoted to PPE for the short-term, because it’s clear the increased need for PPE is not going away. We want a stable of high-quality suppliers, not the largest stable of suppliers.”
To put the demand for PPE into perspective, as of Sept. 1 the federal government had distributed about 92.4 million N95 respirators, 28.1 million non-surgical gowns, 79.7 million gloves, 228.4 million face masks, and more than 95 million swabs and 76 million units of test tubes and transport media to state, tribal, and territorial entities, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Project N95, since launching its marketplace in March, has sold and shipped more than 2 million units of PPE, the organization says.
Plans for supplier storefronts
With its new platform in place, more of Project N95’s service representatives are free to answer buyers’ questions, provide product education and help match buyers with the right products to fit their budget. “We see this as a point of differentiation from competing marketplaces,” says Miller.
Looking ahead, Miller says Project N95 plans to enable suppliers to set up stores within its marketplace for specific constituencies, such as teachers and small medical practices. The nonprofit organization is also looking to become more data-driven to match buyers and sellers and to help sellers create storefronts for specific buyer groups.
“Our goal is to bring opportunities for suppliers to get in front of new customer segments, and vice versa,” Miller says. “We’ve just begun to scratch the surface of what our new platform can do. Our mission is to help solve problems with PPE availability.”
Peter Lucas is a Highland Park, Illinois-based freelance journalist covering business and technology.
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