Image courtesy of Matthew Newman
Patterson Dental fulfillment center

5 tips to beat the supply order blues

Oct. 13, 2020
Supply shortages and ordering delays aren't going away anytime soon. Here's what an industry insider learned from a recent tour of a dental distribution center, including tips for getting what you want when you want it.

I recently had the pleasure of getting an inside look at a Patterson Dental fulfillment center. I even spent a few days working in the warehouse to get a feel for how things operate. (Full disclosure: I am currently a Patterson employee, but my observations would likely apply to anyone you do business with.) It was truly an eye-opening experience. Logistics are a large part of my background, but it was prior to all the barcode inventory systems and shipping innovations in place these days. I now have an even greater respect for the focus it requires to be accurate in all aspects of order processing, yet I can also see how small mistakes are made. (My apologies if I sent you an incorrect item.)

That being said, in between my order picking (which probably resulted in 10 miles of walking), I asked a lot of questions about the pandemic, the resulting demand overloads, and what could be done to alleviate the backups customers were experiencing. Long story short, backups could be the new norm. Another news flash: it’s not the fault of any one entity, and complaining about things out of anyone’s control is simply a waste of time. Do yourself a favor and do what a wise, former Navy man tells me all the time: adapt, improvise and overcome.

Don’t get me wrong—some things are just out of stock with no light at the end of the tunnel. This pandemic is a worldwide event. Many vendors have multiple issues across the supply chain, including lack of raw materials, pandemic-related labor issues (both where the product is being made and where it’s received), and transportation/shipping issues (both in the US and abroad). Heck, at the onset of the pandemic, I waited about six weeks for a basic digital thermometer to arrive from Amazon. To freak out and demand to hear why a week-long shipping delay is happening is simply unreasonable at this point.

It’s time everyone realizes that they can stay on top of the situation by changing their behaviors. If you work the system correctly, you’ll never have to worry about your supplies arriving before your cupboard runs bare. While there may be no cure for the summertime blues, feel free to read on about the easy cure for the supply order blues.

Order less frequently

Recent demand at fulfillment centers is off the charts for the reasons mentioned above. When you compound this demand with the fact that many customers order multiple times per week or even per day, it creates overload in the system. There are some customers who actually place an order every single time they run low on or out of one, single, item. When you factor in that it has to be pulled on a separate run, invoiced, packaged, and shipped, that single order creates almost as much additional work as a large box of items. It’s just as inefficient as running to the store for one item at a time, if not one egg. If everyone did that, the lines at the supermarket would be similar to the first few weeks of the pandemic, and it’s such an easy fix. The smart thing to do is to make a shopping list, leave it handy to add to all week, every other week, or as often as needed, and place larger orders that can ease the strain on the distribution system you work within.

It’s simple arithmetic: order less and the work on your service community will be much more manageable. Obviously, this is a community-wide undertaking, but spreading the word (as we’re doing now) is a great start.

Be brand and product flexible

Everyone has a specific brand they think is the best, be it groceries, vehicles, or (you guessed it) dental supplies. There are currently order limits on personal protective equipment as well as anything else in high demand or experiencing limited production quantities. This is done in order to keep things fair for customers. That's the bad news. The good news is there is nothing stopping anyone from ordering more of a particular item from a different brand.

Limits might allow no more than three boxes of your favorite mask brand per week, but wouldn’t that be a great time to ask your rep what other brands other offices are loyal to? The worst case scenario is you don’t like what you ordered and you have a box to let the team use. But at least now you know. The best case scenario is you have a new backup or even a new favorite. This goes for all products. Remember that eventually, something that is your favorite brand will go out of business. (Hey, some people really liked the Ford Edsel and going to Blockbuster Video on Friday nights.)

Order by the case

In my tour of the fulfillment center, I noticed there was a different system for shipping full cases of items. It seems that not as many people order by the case because they don’t want to spend that much at once...

To all of you people shaking your head in agreement, have you even been to Costco? There is a world out there you need to see. Bulk shopping has more advantages than disadvantages. Storage space is probably the only real negative. So clean out that back closet—or op you’ve been using as one—and make room. The bargains are better in bulk, and you’ll get your products shipped out from a much faster, less populated process if you take time to research how your favorite products are packaged.

Are you really worried that you’ll go under by ordering one box of your favorite gloves instead of 10? There—I just gave you your first case item.

Keep more on hand

This should fall in line with case ordering if you do it right. But as I've said before, these are unprecedented times that call for change. Put more effort into maintaining inventory flow (personally assign it to someone if possible), and you’ll never have to worry about having the supplies for tomorrow’s procedure. Obviously, some critical thinking is required for items that expire, but the right person can have this down to a science for you. I’ve often recommended hiring multitaskers, so this should be easy peasy if you’ve been keeping up. While everyone else is panicking about the supplies they ordered four days ago with three days of inventory left, you’ll be sleeping easy.

Embrace someone’s loyalty program

Lastly, I recently wrote an article about choosing a dental dance partner. In a new era of product and labor shortages, never before has it been more important to have some skin in the game with regard to a distributor loyalty program. The customers who’ve been with a company for the long haul—ordering supplies and equipment, using the tech service, and immersing themselves in the company’s pool of digital services—will be the ones taken care of first.

If your sales rep has to choose who to offer N95 masks to when there aren’t enough for everyone, do you think the customers who order half their stuff elsewhere to save a buck here and there are getting cut in on that? Let me answer that for you: no. Pick a team, immerse yourself in their care, and stop looking for bargains. It’s hurting your savings much more than the price differential on those masks. Believe me.

Matthew Newman is the operations manager for the Baltimore/DC/Northern Virginia region of Patterson Dental. A 20-plus year veteran of operational management, he has spent most of his career in the fields of distribution center management and hospitality. He writes articles on operational management, office synergy, and a variety of other topics. He can be reached through direct message on LinkedIn

Additional articles: