Big Interview: Master of the jungle

Now with a presence in five diverse countries around the world, customers of all manner of business supplies are waking up to the call of Amazon Business.

Ever since Amazon Business first appeared on the horizon, it’s been the talk of the town, and the office products industry and all that it entails today has been affected by the e-commerce giant’s foray into the world of B2B. The company’s expansion has been fast and highly impressive – it launched in the US in April of 2015 and now serves more than one million business customers in the country. This was followed by the launch in Germany in December of 2016, the UK in April of 2017, and Japan and India in September of 2017. 

The acceleration of Amazon Business has been phenomenal, with a variety of studies assessing its impact – now and in the future – on the more traditional business supplies companies in our industry. 

OPI’s Heike Dieckmann speaks to VP Prentis Wilson about all things Amazon Business. 

 OPI: How would you broadly describe Amazon Business from a customer perspective?

Prentis Wilson: Amazon Business is a marketplace that combines the selection, convenience and value customers have come to know and love from Amazon with new features and unique benefits tailored to the needs of businesses. It provides easy access to everything from office supplies and lab equipment to education and foodservice supplies.

Amazon Business customers enjoy a variety of benefits, including business-only pricing and selection, a multi-seller marketplace, single- or multi-user business accounts, Business Prime Shipping, approval workflows, purchasing system integrations, payment solutions, tax exemptions, dedicated customer support, and more.

OPI: What about the marketplace sellers – how do they fit in?

PW: Business sellers on Amazon have the opportunity to grow their business and reach new customers throughout the US and around the world. There are over 85,000 business sellers in the US on Amazon Business now, which range from SBA-credentialed small businesses to large enterprise organisations. 

Through Amazon Business, sellers benefit from Amazon’s e-commerce expertise, visibility for their full product catalogue on an established online marketplace and greater access to business customer decision-makers. They can also offer features such as business-only pricing and quantity discounts for customers.

OPI: How have you approached the five countries where Amazon Business is now a reality?

PW: In each country, Amazon Business helps customers meet a wide range of procurement needs. We are serving business customers by leveraging everything that’s been built by Amazon in the first place: the marketplace, fulfilment operations, customer service – everything. But we’re serving a different customer. Instead of consumer customers, we are serving businesses of all types and sizes – some are at-home businesses, while others are companies with thousands of users on a single account. They’re buying everything from office supplies to snowploughs, you name it.

One example of how Amazon Business meets country-specific customer needs, is the visibility to taxes which affect our business customers: in Japan, businesses can view consumption-tax exclusive pricing on invoices and receipts, while in India, they can take advantage of Goods and Services Tax (GST)-compliant invoicing and claim GST credit that can range from 5-28%. In the UK, customers can also view prices with and without Value Added Tax (VAT) and benefit from VAT invoicing.  

OPI: What is the correlation between Amazon Business customers and Amazon Prime members? What percentage of business customers are already Prime members?

PW: While I can’t confirm how many Amazon Prime members also use Amazon Business at work, I can tell you that we are seeing overlap. People love the convenience of shopping online and want an experience at work that is similar to how they shop at home. 

We recently launched Business Prime Shipping for Amazon Business customers in the US and Germany, which offers multi-user organisations that sign up for the membership programme access to unlimited, fast and free shipping for all users on their business account.  

OPI: How do you approach all the different customer segments?

PW: We serve businesses of all sizes and across industries including hospitals, educational institutions, labs, day care centres, government agencies, restaurants, Fortune 50 companies and sole proprietors. Across Amazon Business, we have leaders in the commercial, education, government and healthcare verticals to help us better serve our customers by understanding their specific needs.

OPI: Does Amazon Business have a focus on any specific type of customer, meaning is there a particular customer sweet spot in any of the Amazon Business markets?

PW: We believe Amazon Business can help all customers. We are working across various regions and with a wide range of companies to make the purchasing of business supplies easier and more convenient for them. Naturally, there are different features that customers in specific locales and professions require, but there are also general features that they all need and want. In addition, we are discovering that we can offer some features that are tailored for more specific use-cases.

For example, customers have told us that they have been able to simplify their purchasing process by shopping our Amazon Business multi-seller marketplace and using our built-in approval workflows to enable better spend controls. They’ve also been able to increase visibility into their spend with the Amazon Business analytics dashboard and glean insights into their firm’s purchasing behaviour.

OPI: What specific procurement tools, services or marketing efforts have you developed for your diverse range of customers?

PW: A few notable innovations include: an expanded marketplace dedicated to business customers and sellers featuring hundreds of millions of products, as well as features and tools to help businesses manage their spend. Business customers have access to Amazon Business analytics, for example, which provides visibility into purchasing activity at the individual, purchasing group or type of spend level. 

In addition, customers can meet particular sourcing requirements by refining their search for sellers with specific quality and diversity credentials, such as ISO 9001, SBA, women-owned, or veteran-owned businesses.

As I mentioned, we recently launched Business Prime Shipping for multi-user organisations in the US and Germany where they can get unlimited fast, free shipping for all users on their business account.

OPI: Who do you regard as your competition? 

PW: We aren’t focused on other companies, we are laser-focused on customers. One unique aspect of Amazon Business is the multi-seller marketplace, where business customers can view multiple offers on a single product page for easy price comparisons, as well as shop sellers that consistently meet the performance and service requirements that businesses expect. 

We are always listening to feedback from customers so we can continue to innovate and deliver new features and benefits tailored to the needs of businesses. Customers tell us they enjoy having the ability to shop at work the same way they shop at home – they get the selection, convenience and value they have come to know from Amazon. Sellers have also said that they like the trusted e-commerce service, as well as the ability to reach registered business customers on the Amazon Business marketplace.

OPI: Recent OPI research among Amazon Business customers suggests that a primary concern for them is the difficulty in speaking to a human being should they have a problem or a question. What would you say to that?

PW: Amazon Business offers dedicated customer support and a wide range of product content – everything from technical specifications, CAD drawings and high-resolution images of products to manufacturer how-to videos. For manufacturers, this product content, and the ability to consistently communicate to every one of their customers about exactly how each product is intended to be used, adds value. It is only the beginning, of course, and we will continue to build out features in areas such as technical support. 

OPI: To what extent is it important for Amazon Business to be seen as the lowest cost supplier by your customers?

PW: As a company, our goal is to provide customers with the widest selection of products, available at the lowest prices and the most convenient shopping experience, with lots of fast, free shipping options. Amazon Business is no different.

With our multi-seller marketplace, business customers can view multiple offers on a single product page for easy price comparisons.

OPI: How is the US Communities contract performing for you?

PW: The Amazon Business contract was awarded by Prince William County Public Schools and is available through the US Communities programme. The competitively-solicited contract makes it easier and faster for educational and public sector organisations to get the supplies they need on Amazon Business. 

More than 90,000 public sector organisations, including individual schools, school districts and higher education institutions nationwide, can now access multiple purchasing categories in an online marketplace, as well as be confident that they’re receiving dynamic and competitive pricing.

Today, educational organisations, government agencies, and non-profits have registered for an Amazon Business account through the US Communities programme and the contract with Prince William County Public Schools. Educational organisations, for example, range from small rural districts to large urban systems, including several districts with over 100,000 students. Additionally, many colleges and universities ranging from community colleges to tier one research universities have also registered for an Amazon Business account through the programme – we have seen great progress to date and look forward to continuing to work with Prince William County Public Schools and US Communities.

OPI: It’s been suggested that the US Communities contract was drawn up specifically for Amazon…

PW: The request for proposals (RFP) issued by the Lead Public Agency was subject to full and open competition. Specifically, on 14 September 2016, Prince William County Public Schools issued a formal, competitive RFP for an online marketplace covering ten purchase categories. Amazon Business was one of 14 suppliers that responded and after formal evaluation, which included performance and cost criteria, we were awarded the contract.

As a result, in early 2017 we announced a multi-year contract whereby US Communities-participating agencies can now take advantage of Amazon Business’ dynamic marketplace pricing, which would help ensure competitiveness and best-value pricing for educational and public sector organisations. 

OPI: What is your sales model for US Communities? How many external sales reps do you have in the US for the contract, for example?

PW: As a company policy, we don’t share that type of information.

OPI: What are the most important product categories on Amazon Business in dollar volume?

PW: We don’t share that kind of information. However, some of the most popular product categories on Amazon Business include office supplies, breakroom supplies and IT accessories.

OPI: What has been the development of Marketplace sellers on Amazon Business? Are there any product categories in which Marketplace sellers are particularly strongly represented?

PW: As I’ve mentioned, we now have more than 85,000 business sellers on Amazon Business, which has grown from 45,000 last year. We are excited by this growth, as we believe it shows that sellers really value the opportunity that Amazon Business provides to grow their business. It also allows us to bring a vast selection of different products to business customers, all through one marketplace.

Amazon Business sellers provide a unique selection across many categories, including IT and office equipment, laboratory equipment, and furniture. 

OPI: Certain product categories require product knowledge and perhaps more of a solution-selling rather than transactional-selling approach. To what extent is Amazon Business geared up to provide help and advice to clients?

PW: Like I said, we offer dedicated customer support and a wide range of product content and we continue to build out features in areas such as technical support. We provide customers with a vast selection of products in one marketplace so they can view multiple offers on a single product page and choose the best product for their needs.

OPI: What are your plans for Amazon Business?

PW: I can’t discuss future plans, but I can tell you that we are always looking for ways to innovate on behalf of customers. This is an experience that businesses love and a great opportunity for manufacturers and sellers to reach registered business customers. And it’s still just the beginning.

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