I recently attended the AAO Annual Session in Washington, DC. Throughout my career, I’ve attended this event and many like it. Gatherings like these are a constant and a way to learn more about the latest and greatest, to meet others in our industry, and to learn best practices. In addition to the continuing education seminars, the convention hall is packed with rows and rows of companies and suppliers pitching their devices, supplies and equipment, handing out business cards, taking down orders on sign up sheets. You meet with associations, buying groups, and attend vendor cocktail hours. All of this activity is competing for attention. And not much about these events has really changed over the years.
But this time was different for me. As I walked through the convention center, especially the exhibit hall, questions popped into my head that were not there in previous years. I kept asking myself: Is this really the best way to learn about new products and meet new vendors? With the vendors I already have a buying history with, how can I easily compare the products they offer with the products I’m seeing in the exhibit hall? Am I getting the best price? Are these the best quality products out there? What have other orthodontists said about these products?
The Problem with Buying
When I got home, I realized I’ve had this problem for a while now. Shopping—finding what I need, comparing different companies’ products, and ordering—has become increasingly difficult. Unhappy with a number of the core orthodontic products we had been ordering in my practice, we set out to find alternatives. I recruited a staff member to help and we were both quickly overwhelmed. Distributors could only offer a limited number of vendors to choose from. It was often hard to tell if anything being sold online was legit. Going one by one through a Rolodex of vendors was just a hassle and required lots of note taking and comparison on our part. We finally chose a new supplier and were very happy with the choice; but soon enough, we had to start the whole cumbersome and tiresome process all over again to find another item. Back at it again, I couldn’t help but think: Did we miss a vendor? Are we getting the best price? Are these the best products for our patients?
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- Do you think the buying process has kept pace with your needs and expectations as a consumer?
- When will we see changes and who will be the ones driving them?
This process was even more difficult when it came to implementing a digital workflow a few years back. Now we had a lot more money on the line for even more mission-critical equipment. To find an intraoral scanner, five different vendors needed to fly in, do demos, give me brochures, and negotiate prices. As a practice, we were totally at the mercy of the sales reps’ availability and knowledge; and it was totally on us to shop around and do our due diligence to compare and make the right choices—which actually required several rounds of this process to finally get it right.
We order and keep in stock hundreds of different products every year. It’s the largest cost to our practice outside of people, so why is the industry designed to make this difficult? It’s hard to believe that not much has changed about this process over the last 25 years.
Professional vs. Non-professional Consumer Behavior
The more I thought about it, the more absurd it became, particularly when I thought about purchasing decisions I make on a daily basis as a non-professional consumer. My expectations as a regular consumer are different from those I have as a professional consumer for my practice. I would never buy a new refrigerator for my home without doing my research—reading reviews, consumer reports, comparing specs. So why am I expected to just pick up the phone and order supplies from my sales rep without doing the same? Imagine if you had to call Whirlpool, GE, and Frigidaire to get the information you can easily get online today. You probably wouldn’t do it. You’d call the brand you saw on TV, or the one you bought your last fridge from, and place your order.
Times have changed, and the process of becoming an informed buyer has changed for all consumers. I can only imagine as those in our profession inevitably get younger and the boomers retire, that millennials entering the workforce will view the purchasing process as even more absurd than I do!
So I ask: Why hasn’t the orthodontic market kept up? Why do I still get thick print catalogs from multiple companies listing their products? Why haven’t they committed to updated consumer-friendly websites that allow me to shop online? Why can’t I leave or read a review from another orthodontist?
Is It Just Me?
I don’t want to come off as a complainer. I’ve been purchasing and researching new products for a long time now and enjoy publications like Orthodontic Products that help make that process easier. But I wanted to start a conversation about why the purchasing process has gone unchanged for so long and why it is not keeping up with other industries and other professions. I hope that if we talk about it openly and challenge the old ways that both we as orthodontists and the companies we buy from can benefit. OP
Jeff Biggs, DDS, MS, is a graduate of Indiana University School of Dentistry. He completed his education in orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedics at Loma Linda University where he earned his certificate and Master’s degree. Biggs is board certified as a Diplomate of the American Board of Orthodontics. He has a special interest in orthodontic technology and the development of orthodontic digital workflows.