Nurses work at a drive-thru testing site for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York, U.S., May 6, 2020.
Brendan McDermid | Reuters
Amazon says it has provided more than 100 million items to front-line workers and government agencies hit hardest by shortages of protective equipment during the coronavirus outbreak.
Amazon’s business-to-business marketplace in late March debuted a dedicated section on its website where “organizations on the front lines” could order items like N95 masks, ventilators, surgical gloves and large-volume sanitizers. Amazon said it is not making a profit on sales of the items. At the same time, the company restricted sales of these items to the general public because of their scarcity and the dire need among front-line workers.
Since launch, Amazon said more than 20,000 customers have used the site to secure essential supplies, with personal protective equipment and janitorial sanitation products, like medical grade disinfectant solutions, being the most popular.
Among those who ordered items are members of the Department of Homeland Security and workers at the Children’s Hospital Foundation in Maryland, as well as organizations that “aren’t typically at the top of the list” of groups to receive protective equipment, like independent family physicians and rural police departments and firefighters, Alexandre Gagnon, vice president of Amazon Business, said Monday.
Dealing with massive demand
The company received an influx of requests from front-line workers at the end of March and early April. At the time, safety gear and ventilators were in extremely short supply, leading some overwhelmed health-care workers to protest for more PPE.
Despite the global shortage, Amazon was able to rely on its network of third-party sellers and existing suppliers in China and elsewhere to source the more than 100 million medical items sent to customers. It was an uncharacteristically heavy volume of deliveries for “a very small number of SKUs,” Gagnon said, demonstrating “how much demand was out there.”
Demand was so high that Amazon added a limited inventory warning to the site:
At the same time, Amazon has begun to meet the demand for some forms of PPE from businesses and the public. As it has become “less and less constrained,” Gagnon said, Amazon added more listings for disposable masks and other goods.
Amazon recently added a section to its e-commerce site with curated listings for face covers and bandanas. N95 masks are still restricted to health professionals. An Amazon spokesperson said the company rolled out this feature as a result of updated guidance from the CDC that recommends users wear a cloth face covering to protect against the coronavirus.
Amazon Business typically provides office supplies and industrial products, and does not normally operate in medical equipment. But as hospitals, nursing homes and clinics desperately needed ventilators, the company jumped in, even though those types of sales usually require an in-person touch.
“Typically in those types of transactions, someone comes to your office and shows you the equipment, lets you try it out,” Gagnon said. “But in the case of an emergency, we needed to get it to go fast, so of course putting those sales online was the most efficient way to get it done.”
Now, as the demand for PPE in hospitals has stabilized to some degree, Gagnon said Amazon Business is preparing to sell those products to businesses that are reopening to the public. The company is talking to existing suppliers, such as Hanes, about how they can provide goods to non-health-care customers, including restaurant chains, which may need to supply face masks to employees, or plan to offer them to shoppers in stores.
“The urgency has shifted a little bit from health-care providers — although that is still super, super important — to thinking about how we can help enterprises of all sizes,” Gagnon said. “That’s the next chapter.”
Correction: Amazon’s announcement in late March said it is not making a profit on sales of the protective items. An earlier version mischaracterized the announcement.