United Stationers’ announcement of its Orbit Point suite of services is a timely one for independent dealers with theUSCommunities RFP around the corner.
When United Stationers announced the acquisition of software company MBS Dev at the beginning of March, it said one of the reasons was to "employ MBS Dev as a solution to capitalise on key trends", without explaining exactly what that meant.
Just three months down the line, we can suppose that one of those "key trends" is the growing need for independent office products dealers to be able to compete more effectively with the power channel players for national, multi-location, private and public sector accounts, with United’s announcement of its Orbit Point suite of services aimed at just this type of customer.
"We definitely had this in mind when we made the MBS Dev acquisition in March," United’s SVP, Sales, Pat Collins, told opi.net.
United’s announcement comes as the RFP for the $500 million LA County/US Communities is expected to be issued this month, with various members of the independent dealer community hopeful that a multiple award will see some of the business, at least, going to the independents.
United experienced some unexpected turbulence in the public sector last year with the reaction to its attempts to sponsor a bid for the State of California office supplies contract.
Since then, United has been soliciting input from different channels in the industry – dealers, dealer groups and systems providers – about how to best approach public sector business.
One thing is for sure: United is not going to go down the California route again, and the MBS Dev acquisition and the subsequent announcement of Orbit Point would appear to be its answer on how to tackle public sector (as well as large private sector) accounts.
"United would not have any interest or be in a position to bid directly for any of these opportunities," affirmed Collins in reference to the LA County/US Communities contract.
Instead, United is banking on Orbit Point to enable individual dealers, groups of dealers, or dealer groups to be as competitive as power channel bidders with these types of contracts.
"Orbit Point is primarily a front-end solution designed to provide consumer-facing capabilities, one of the most important of which would be all the detailed reporting and controls that often go with serving large accounts," explains Collins. "It’s not back-end dependent – dealers can run their own back-end system."
The system also taps into United’s own capabilities in terms of logistics, distribution, products assortment and marketing.
"The reseller still owns and manages the customer relationship, using this MBS Dev-enabled e-commerce as the linchpin to leverage all these United provided services," Collins adds. "The most important thing is that the dealer has the level of sophistication to manage that relationship with the large account. That’s really what Orbit Point is designed to enable – giving the dealer that ability to manage the relationship backed by a partner to provide logistics, technology, to help with marketing, etc."
Collins said the system could be used by individual dealers with contracts in multiple locations, or by groups of dealers collaborating on large regional or national contracts
While the basic technology is up and running and fully enabled, a full scale demo site is still a few weeks away. There will be costs involved for the reseller, but Collins said these would be dealt with on a case by case basis.
The announcement of Orbit Point was enthusiastically received by dealer group is.group, which said it would use the platform to power its own national accounts programme, introduced last year.
"Orbit Point gives us the infrastructure we need to grow our current national accounts programme," said is.group CEO Mike Gentile.
"It gives us a consistent content and internet ordering platform, and a streamlined and sufficient supply chain platform to work from."
Orbit Point as a brand will be used by United to market the platform to its resellers; is.group will go to market with the platform under its own name as part of its national accounts programme, ‘Your Trusted National Choice’.
This programme has been free for is.group members and will continue to be so, even with the addition of Orbit Point. The payback for United will come in the increased business it could achieve with is.group members using the platform for front-end order entry, and it will no doubt be looking to win over new customers to MBS Dev back-end solutions as well.
is.group has just received a boost with the announcement that it has been awarded a blanket purchase agreement on the second generation General Services Administration (GSA) Federal Strategic Sourcing Initiative (FSSI), and Gentile said that "tremendous strides" have been made over recent months in its national accounts programme, without disclosing actual sales figures.
And now Gentile has his sights firmly set on the upcoming US Communities opportunity.
"There is a tremendous opportunity for the County of Los Angeles to seriously consider a multiple award for the office supplies contract," he told opi.net.
"It would give agencies the choice if they want to buy from a Big Box or if they want to do business locally with local small businesses that pay taxes, live in their communities, and in essence keep the dollars in the community."
Just as with its federal GSA contract, Gentile confirmed that is.group would make a group bid on behalf of its dealers for the US Communities contract.
"Ideally, we’d like them to seriously consider the value that is.group can bring to them as a dealer group," he stated.
"There is a significant market share, both regional and private/public sector business, that really wants to do business locally," he noted, adding that dealers should not lose their focus on the small and mid-size customer.
"Agencies look at the big boxes and they feel there are three players today, and at some point there could be two – and no-one likes to go out to bid with just two players. Therefore, we are positioning ourselves to be the solid third player who can bring to that market local service with competitive offerings."
Gentile has ramped up the capabilities of his team with the appointment of Kevin France to lead is.group’s national accounts, but will face competition from at least one other independent organisation.
AOPD has already said that it will bid on the US Communities contract and has recently appointed Tom Buxton as its National Accounts Consultant.
Much has been made of TriMega’s national accounts aspirations in partnership with SP Richards. We are unsure at the moment whether TriMega will make a group-based bid similar to that of is.group or back individual members to make their own bids. That will probably depend on the readiness of its own technology solution for national accounts, and it is understood that an announcement will be made in the near future.
As Mike Gentile says, "the stars are aligned" for independents to play a greater part in the public sector market.
We’ll see in the coming months whether the public sector decision-makers are looking at the same sky.