Responding to e-commerce disruption: Should medical supplier Owens & Minor fight or embrace Amazon’s threat?
Amazon has its eye on the healthcare industry. Medical suppliers, such as Owens & Minor, have the option of embracing and partnering with the e-commerce giant, or fighting back and developing their own marketplace. Owens & Minor seems to have chosen the first option. But did it make the right decision on the long term? What are the benefits and drawbacks to Amazon’s pressure? How can we predict the future dynamics of healthcare logistics?
Medical supplies is the next on Amazon’s target list
Needless to say that digitalization and online sales is a topic every industry pays attention to.  E-commerce, led by Amazon, is changing the game for every industry, including B2B services. Recently multiple news outlets reported that Amazon is increasingly focused on healthcare, medical supplies and pharma products. 
Amazon launched its B2B marketplace, Amazon Business, two years ago and currently has more than 45,000 vendors transacting on the platform. It offers volume discounts, tax exemption options, and flexible shipping. The platform is one of the leading growth generators for Amazon, bringing $1 billion sales already in the first year. 
Amazon is differentiating itself with fast and cheap delivery, and better customer service.  It has unmatched expertise and scale in delivering simple, commoditized products. The high volume medical consumables such as syringes, pumps, catheters, sutures, etc. fall into this category.  Furthermore, Amazon’s transparent and competitive pricing model puts margin pressure on all medical suppliers. 
Owens & Minor is first mover in embracing the new era
Owens & Minor, a large US and Europe-based healthcare logistics company generated $9.7 billion sales in 2016, an amount sizeable enough to be interesting for the $136.0 billion sales generating giant.  Owens & Minor’s main business is to deliver medical supplies to healthcare providers. They are in the middle of the value chain between the OEMs and the GPOs / providers / pharmacies.  Consequently, companies like Owens & Minor face the strongest pressure from Amazon. Additionally, Owens & Minor has to face such a threat in an increasingly turbulent market where there is strong horizontal and vertical consolidation, regulatory price pressure (instability around Medicare and Medicaid), and squeeze from OEMs and providers alike. 
Owens & Minor was one of the many B2B companies and among the first movers within medical suppliers to acknowledge and react to the Amazon threat by partnering with the e-commerce giant. In the below video  Tom Michell, VP of Emerging Channels at Owens & Minor talks about the benefits of becoming an Amazon Business partner: being closer to existing customers, reaching a wider buyer base, and providing high-end, convenient delivery services.
On the long-run, fighting back might be a better choice
Partnering with Amazon might be beneficial due to increased sales and decreased logistics management efforts, but these benefits are only available in the short term. Owens & Minor already saw revenue and margin decrease of 5.2% and net income drop of 22.2% in the first quarter of 2017 compared to the first quarter the previous year.  Value to end-consumers is at the center of Amazon’s mantra and in many cases this means shrinking margin pools within the value chain. Its strong price pressures is in many cases at the expense of its vendors.
Consequently, medical suppliers such as Owens & Minor should instead build a more sustainable strategy: create their own marketplace and partner with other players. They should provide all the benefits Amazon offers (including fast delivery, convenience, and transparency on pricing) but should also leverage their knowledge of the industry dynamics and needs of each player and tailor the marketplace specifically to the healthcare market. 
Even though this requires fact actions, Owens & Minor can bank on its capability and knowledge edge in this highly complex industry:
- The healthcare industry is more traditional and slower moving than the consumer retail market (Amazon’s legacy industry) that slows down any progress. 
- The healthcare supplies business is highly relationship-driven, where deals are negotiated based on decades-long relationships that puts a challenge to Amazon which has always been an analytics-driven, transactional organization. 
- Regulation makes it difficult for Amazon to enter the high margin device market, e.g., knee implants, preventing it from becoming a one-stop-shop for the majority of healthcare providers. 
- Patient safety puts strong pressure on delivery timing and quality, a requirement Amazon has never had to meet and likely not insured yet to do so. 
Who can predict the future?
The medical supply industry disruption is just starting. No company has a time-tested strategy yet. The translatability of learnings from the consumer-retail market to medical supplies is still to be proven. High complexity, regulation, and the importance of relationships suggest that not all approaches are translatable, at least not without significant alterations. So the question remains: Should medical suppliers embrace Amazon and integrate, or they should think long-term, taking on the difficult and innovation-heavy task and try to compete?
 Knut Alicke, Daniel Rexhausen, and Andreas Seyfert, “Supply Chain 4.0 in consumer goods”, McKinsey & Company, April 2017, https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/consumer-packaged-goods/our-insights/supply-chain-4-0-in-consumer-goods, accessed November 2017.
 Anita Balakrishnan and Eugene Kim, “Amazon might be more interested in medical devices than pharmaceuticals, one analyst says”, CNBC, October 27, 2017, https://www.cnbc.com/2017/10/27/amazon-pharmacy-wall-street-analysts-cvs-aetna.html, accessed November 2017.
 Alex Moazed, “Amazon Will Disrupt Medical Supply. How Do OEMs Fit?”. Medical Product Outsourcing, July 31, 2017, https://www.mpo-mag.com/contents/view_online-exclusives/2017-07-31/amazon-will-disrupt-medical-supply-how-do-oems-fit/24675, accessed November 2017.
 Alex Kacik, “Amazon poised to deliver disruption in medical supply industry”, Modern Healthcare, June 10, 2017, http://www.modernhealthcare.com/article/20170610/MAGAZINE/170609923, accessed November 2017.
 John G. Bareshky, “Amazon: Who Will They Bite In Healthcare?”, Medium, February 3, 2017, https://medium.com/@jgb7908/who-will-amazon-bite-in-healthcare-148a29469a4d, accessed November 2017.
 Kristen Schorsch, “Could Amazon’s kryptonite be . . . medical supplies?”, Crain’s Chicago Business, August 26, 2017, http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20170826/ISSUE01/170829906/could-amazons-kryptonite-be-medical-supplies, accessed November 2017.
 Thomas Finn, “So what’s stopping Amazon?”, Healthcare Matters, January 5, 2015, https://hcmatters.com/2015/01/whats-stopping-amazon/, accessed November 2017.
 Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QvmFyC5w1x0, accessed November 2017.
 Picture: https://www.mpo-mag.com/contents/view_online-exclusives/2017-07-31/amazon-will-disrupt-medical-supply-how-do-oems-fit/24675, accessed November 2017.
Student comments on Responding to e-commerce disruption: Should medical supplier Owens & Minor fight or embrace Amazon’s threat?
“If you can’t beat them, join them”.
I really enjoyed reading this and find it so interesting how Amazon is becoming bigger with every passing day. I believe Owen’s and Miles made a brave decision to join the e-commerce giant. However, as you mentioned in the essay, revenue and margin quickly dropped. As a B2B company, I wonder just how much Owen’s and Miles thought about how the consumer would react to purchasing his/her vital medical supplies on a low priced- fast delivery platform.
I think your idea of creating an online marketplace for medical supplies can be revolutionary, and that costumers would be a lot more accepting of this idea. Patient safety should be Owen’s and Miles’ number one concern. As you wrote, I believe that in the long-term, taking on the difficult and innovation-heavy task of creating such a marketplace will be most profitable!
This was a very interesting write-up. It is amazing how many industries Amazon has been able to disrupt in the last few years. I wonder which industry it will take on next!
You made great points about how slow the healthcare industry is in catching up to digitization, and the fact that customers tend to be loyal to their suppliers. I believe these two points will make it very difficult for Amazon to truly disrupt this industry.
Although Amazon can steal market share on basic healthcare supplies, it will likely be difficult for amazon to compete with Owen’s and Minor when it comes to large specialized items such as cardiology equipment, or drugs that may require special handling. As such I think there is still opportunity for Owen’s and Minor to “fight back” as you mentioned. Owen’s & Minor needs to stay ahead of the industry by embracing digitization, and building a strong digital platform. The company can also leverage customer loyalty by offering special discounts on basic medical supplies to the customers that purchase the major equipment for them.
This post reminded me of the Li & Fung case and what makes a supply chain intermediary such as Li & Fung valuable. During class discussion, it was brought up that Li & Fung provided value to the supply chain not just through its logistics function but also through its ability to manage the quality of its suppliers. In the case of Owens & Minor versus Amazon, I can see Owens & Minor providing value by allowing providers of medical devices that are not well known with the opportunity to serve customers that they might not be able to serve otherwise because of their lack of reputation. As the healthcare industry moves towards more value-based healthcare, this ability to identify quality providers with offerings at lower prices can constitute a significant competitive advantage against a unspecialized distributor like Amazon.