Web retailer tests HME's waters

Saturday, April 30, 2005

SEATTLE -- Over the past year, one of the nation's largest retailers has gingerly tested the waters of the HME market. Amazon.com, a giant in Internet-based retail shopping, a year ago launched a Health and Personal Care store that now sells thousands of medical supplies and equipment products.
Amazon's Medical Supplies and Equipment store, a division of Health and Personal Care, is made up of six categories: health monitors, braces and supports, tests, daily living aids, mobility aids and equipment and bathroom aids and safety.
The mobility aids category alone houses more than 3,000 walkers, scooters, manual and power wheelchairs and lift chairs. And, most of the major manufacturers are represented in the offering.
Fourteen thousand daily living aids and 2,000 bathroom safety products are also represented.
While Amazon does warehouse many of the products it sells on its site, the home health section is dominated by third-party contracts -- providers who pay Amazon a commission to sell items through their Web interface.
"It helps us provide the widest selection possible to our customers and allows merchants to reach a whole new base of customers that they may not have reached before," said an Amazon spokesperson.
Many of the HME providers featured are seasoned Web-based retailers, like SpinLife.com and Allegromedical.com, but some manufacturers have used Amazon as a chance to sell direct to the end user.
"When we sell products to homecare providers, often their decisions are based on cost," said Scott Decker, president of Cramer Decker Medical. "We want to get some more of our products in the hands of end users, but often times they don't have the avenues to purchase directly from the manufacturer. By having these items on Amazon, it gives our patients the chance to get a high quality oxygen bag and not be limited by the choice of their home care provider."
Cramer Decker joined Amazon six months ago after completing a short application and interview process. The manufacturer features 32 products on its store front, mostly oxygen bags and racks, marketed toward the end users.
Providers on Amazon vary in the extent of their offerings -- from a couple of products to full storefronts, which are created to look and feel like the company's own site, said a spokesperson.
"Early on we were invited by Amazon to participate," said Lisa Stein, president of SpinLife.com. "I think Amazon tends to, at the very beginning when it is launching a new beta, go after the biggest players, and then I'm sure others see us up there and want to be part of it."
Stein, however, said sales have been less than stellar, calling Amazon a "fairly minor player in the market."
"It's not a very active place for medical equipment sales," said another Amazon-based provider. "It's not a destination where people with medical needs go. They will more likely go to a search engine and search for an item they are looking for and get it direct from the provider."
The Health and Personal Care store is still in beta testing. Amazon is continuing to gather feedback on the site and make improvements to implement some of the features customers are requesting, said an Amazon spokesperson. The company has not determined when beta testing will be complete.