BEN Buys, and West Philly benefits

When the Penn Marketplace opened its doors for business on the Web one year ago, it made it easier for those who buy goods and services for Penn to find and order the products they need. It brought all of Penn’s approved suppliers together in one location, allowing purchasers to peruse catalogs custom-tailored for the University and containing over 550,000 items.

The Penn Marketplace has also made it easier for minority-owned and West Philadelphia-based businesses to garner a larger share of Penn’s purchasing dollars.

The beauty of the system, according to Purchasing Services Associate Director Ralph Maier, is that large and small suppliers alike vie for business on an equal footing. “One goal [for the Penn Marketplace] was that it would allow small suppliers, including West Philadelphia and minority businesses, to play on a level playing field.”

The field is leveled by having suppliers furnish their catalog content to Penn, which then loads it into the Penn Marketplace’s design templates.

As a result, Maier said, “Someone as sophisticated as Fisher Scientific, their material appears the same as it would for a smaller business like an EMSCO,” a minority-owned scientific supply house located in West Parkside.

That, in turn, has translated to more business for the six West Philly and minority firms participating in the marketplace. “Each has seen a significant increase in their business as a result of the Penn Marketplace,” Maier said.

James Brown, founder, president and CEO of Alpha Office Supplies, is pleased with the business the Penn Marketplace has steered his way. Alpha, which also participates in a partnership with Staples developed by Purchasing Services in 1992, saw its purchase order volume climb from $3.8 million in 2001 to nearly $4.1 million in 2002.

The increased business brought new jobs with it. “We have been able to add 18 employees due to the increased business,” bringing the total number of Alpha employees to 40, “and there are more to come,” Brown said.

Alpha’s experience is duplicated by other minority and West Philadelphia businesses participating in the Penn Marketplace. EMSCO did $1.45 million in business with Penn in 2002, up nearly $500,000 from last year, and Covington Office Products tripled its business with Penn, from roughly $578,000 in 2001 to almost $1.75 million in 2002, enabling them to hire three additional employees.

The Penn Marketplace works together with Penn’s Business Enterprise Network (BEN) to provide a seamless, paperless process for ordering and shipping goods. Orders placed through the Penn Marketplace generate electronic purchase orders via BEN Buys, and suppliers can create electronic invoices via BEN Pays for quicker processing.

“The online system helps us process orders quicker,” Brown said. “It’s been a tremendous increase in opportunities for us.”

“[These businesses’] ability to support our electronic purchasing requirements has led to a significant increase in business for them here at Penn,” Maier said.

Brown’s firm is using the expertise it has gained through the Penn partnership to expand regionally and nationally. Alpha recently announced that it will become a first-tier partner with Staples, which means that office supply orders will be placed with Alpha for fulfillment and delivery, with Staples acting as supplier to Alpha. (Currently, Alpha delivers orders placed with Staples through its partnership.) The new partnership will also be expanded nationally, according to Maier.

“We’ve worked long and hard to get West Philadelphia and minority suppliers signed up for the Penn Marketplace,” Maier said. “It takes a small investment in technology on their part, but that small investment has translated into a significant gain in business with Penn.”

Originally published on January 30, 2003