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Cooperative Purchasing, Part one

Let’s delve into cooperative purchasing with my guest Lisa Merder, OMNIA Partners Vice President, Workspace Solutions. Lisa is a subject matter expert on furniture for OMNIA. She was working for  Kimball in 2001 when the cooperative we now know as OMNIA Partners bid and won their first furniture cooperative contract. 

In this two-part series, Lisa and I will discuss such topics as; what is cooperative purchasing, OMNIA Partners contracts, buying/spending trends through cooperative contracts, as well as some tips on how to be successful selling cooperatives. 

Michelle: Could you give an overview of what cooperatives are, and why would an agency use one?

Lisa: Cooperative purchasing is a procurement solution for the public agency. They touch everything outside of federal and healthcare. Cooperative purchasing includes states, local city, education (including but not limited to K-12, higher-education, university), and the nonprofit sector.

Cooperative purchasing offers buyers better pricing discounts then they would normally have access to as well as value-added services. To be super clear - it is NOT a price game. It is everything but that. 

Our approach is simple: we improve the way public sector organizations choose, evaluate and buy what they need at the best value. Best value doesn’t necessarily mean price. 

Another value of the cooperative, agencies (does this mean manufacturers or servicers to our audience?) can share a contract that has been awarded through an RFP process by a lead agency (lead manufacturer?). This is important because REASON HERE. We use a lead agency model and assign them to the correct category. While we cannot say, ‘you should pick this one agency’ having the information assigned to the right category with transparency offers faster buying decisions for the public sector.  

Cooperatives without a doubt, shorten the procurement process to make agencies jobs easier. Normally if the agency is doing their own bid, you're looking at 9 to 24 months to put out an RFP. I've seen some that their cost has been $30,000-$50,000 in spend. A cooperative purchasing contract saves hours by utilizing the contracts that have been publicly solicited and awarded through the OMNIA Partners portfolio.

Michelle: Obviously, every manufacturer does not hold a cooperative contract. What do you recommend those manufacturers do? What can they do to be successful in this vertical?

Lisa: There are 2 ways to become successful in this vertical: 

  1. A lot of times I get a call where someone would like to become part of the OMNIA partners contract. You can go on to our website, go to the solicitations page, you can see what is coming as far as solicitations, and you can fill out a form to be notified of when they come out.

  2. Our largest supplier in the furniture? space is Office Depot, now known as ODP. They have 260 different supply partners. They have a big presence, and I always say, dip your feet in that arena if you don't have a contract with them currently. They have many different channels that they can get into, and I can connect the dots there for you and help you with that.

NOTE: If you are going after your own contract you need to work on some items, your go-to-market strategy for example. What will my contract look like? If you have never completed a solicitation before, they'll ask questions about your current program. The lead agencies will be putting some questions on there like, how much volume do you have through SLED right now? And what is your breakdown, and where do you distribute it to? You need to be prepared for that if you are going to ever respond to any kind of cooperative solicitation.

Michelle: Yes, I think that's something you taught me really early on. I know it sounds like the cart before the horse. I don't have a contract, so how can I sell? Well, one you can sometimes sell without a cooperative contract, obviously, but alternatively, partner with someone. Look and see who holds the cooperative that you're interested in or that your customer wants to buy off of and see if there's a way to partner with someone like ODP or someone else on there, because that is a big key. When they look at your response, they're going to look at who you're doing business with. So, you need to also track it. I think that's one of the biggest things when I talk to manufacturers, and I ask them to pull this report, and not everybody can. A tip I would say is start tracking who you're doing business with somehow and tag it so that it makes it really easy when you go to do the bid response with higher education,  K-12, state, local and how much in sales. Those are all questions that you're going to get asked on the bid response.

I'd also say that there is a lot of public information. You can go see other people's bid responses. Go see who has an award with OMNIA Partners, or who has an award with TIPS, E&I etc and look at the bid response that they did. You know you don't have to recreate the wheel. I'm not suggesting that you plagiarize or steal. I'm just suggesting that you look at what other people have done that have gone before you and learn from them so that you can put your best foot forward and have a better shot at getting on a contract.

Lisa: Yes agreed. Absolutely.

Michelle: This next part is always my favorite part of the conversation because I always learn something from you here. You have been in this vertical since 2001 so I wonder if you knew then what you know now what would you do differently? You’ve been on the cooperative side for the past 8 years so let’s kind of pull back the curtain. What would you tell your younger self about selling cooperatives if you could go back and do something different, or share some advice?

Lisa: If I knew then what I know now, what I would do is I would partner with others that have a cooperative contract that makes sense. So, for example, flooring companies, right, we have a bunch of flooring companies on our contracts. Wherever there's flooring there's got to be furniture right? When you think about it, contracts that are really growing wild right now, they're just up and coming. We've added about 5 or 6 different suppliers to that category. If you think about copy machines you don't follow those folks around, but if you think about that technology, they're in there all the time servicing anything that's serviceable. Think about elevator contracts. We have a bunch of elevator contracts. They see the furniture. So, I would build a relationship. I really would use those relationships with others in the other categories to build it out. Food, for example, is our number one category. So, if you have dining hall furniture, or any place to eat, type furniture for the schools or for the cities and counties, get with your food people, because again,  US foods and Cisco and all those guys are part of our contracts. They're huge. So how do you get into the dining hall connections by partnering with them?

Second thing I would do, the OMNIA Connects portal. This shows the agency's details and allows you to look at different aspects to help target and connect with members. 

I suggest using their training team. If I would have had that back then I would call them for everything literally. I would have called sales enablement and OMNIA partners and say, get out and train our sellers, our dealers, our independent rep firms, our architects and designers on the benefit of a cooperative. Those would be the 3 things I would do differently. 

Michelle: I love all of those. I don't know many people that do the cross industry networking really well, but I think there's great value there. I always tell people in public sector there is a lot of information that is so much easier to access than private sector. So, you can go to any cooperative website, and you can see who holds a contract. It’s not a secret. Sometimes you can get information that shows you who the contact is at the supplier. You just need to go look and spend some time doing the research. There's a lot of information out there. If you do have an OMNIA  contract, as Lisa said, there are extra tools that they offer that are invaluable, and many times I talk to manufacturers, and I just say, are you utilizing everything that they allow you, and they don't know half of what is available. They're not using them, or they don't even know that they can use them. So, we do walk alongside them in that. If you hold any cooperative or any contract in general, just make sure you ask how will they support you? What tools do they offer? And then utilize them because they must think that they will help you to be successful. Ultimately, Lisa and all of the people on the cooperative side want the contract holders to be successful. It benefits everybody when that happens. 

I hope that this was helpful in providing an understanding of cooperative purchasing and the OMNIA partners differentiators. Come back next month where Lisa and I will be talking SLED furniture spend from 2023 and what could shape 2024 spending. 


Founder, President - Catalyst Consulting Group  

Michelle Warren is President of Catalyst Consulting Group, a firm specializing in providing strategic solutions to the commercial furniture industry to enhance their sales, positioning, and distribution. With 25 years of industry experience on the dealer and manufacturer side of the industry, Michelle has been recognized as an innovator in selling to the Federal Government, State/ Local Government, Higher Education and Cooperative Purchasing. Her expertise includes: sales strategies, strategic planning, 3-5 year road mapping, targeted marketing plans, distribution development, hiring reps, and training for reps and/or dealers. Michelle is known as a “serial networker” in the furniture industry and enjoys meeting people and making connections happen.

If you’re interested in connecting - reach out at: [email protected], connect on LinkedIn or visit to learn more about her work.

As seen in Delve | April 2024 V.48

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