GPO Agreements - Good or Bad?

GPO Agreements - Good or Bad?

Question: We have joined our state Life Sciences group and we have access to buying group contract pricing through a major national distributor. Since we have a contract, can I even do business with LPS? With all the prices negotiated at the national level, how could LPS do anything for me?

Answer: Many small and start-up lab managers think that a GPO agreement either obligates them to purchase from a particular vendor, or they feel that by having this arrangement in place, there is no longer any need to worry about prices or where to buy products.

Working in management for a big distributor (i.e, on the other side of the negotiating table) gave me the opportunity to see how these agreements are “profitized” – while still abiding by the written terms of the agreement.


As a manager, I became aware that there were a few customers who read the fine print, but far more who didn’t. The majority who sign a document in which the seller agrees to make concessions to the buyer do not realize that by signing the document they are contractually obliged to buy from the seller. We loved these customers! Lots of business, often for years, with little effort on our part!

Then there were customers who read the part stating that you pledged to use our company as a preferred supplier with a target of X% of your total business. Another statement that some customers keyed on was “[Seller] realizes you cannot obtain all of the needs for your lab from [Seller.]” These were the customers that kept us up at night. They were fully aware of the difference between a contract and an agreement and how they could use this fact to their advantage.


The strategy behind how an item is priced is one of the most effective tools used to increase profits. Here is a list of how items are priced in descending order of the profitability to the distributor:

  1. Individually – on a “hot list.” Also called net priced, by SKU down to the unit of measure.
  2. By Vendor – a set discount from “list” for a specified vendor
  3. By Category – typically a category is a group of vendors grouped into “margin buckets .”
  4. General – A global discount that applies under certain conditions.

In theory, hot listed items are those that represent the majority of your spend. So why don’t customers take advantage and load up most of what they buy on the hot list? Vendors take control in several ways:

  1. Restrict the number of items that can be put on the hot list. Most contracts have severe limitations on the number of items. It typically never exceeds 100 and is more typically 40. (This number is negotiable!)
  2. Limit the definition of an SKU. An item is defined by the catalog number PLUS the unit of measure. While you may get special pricing if you order by the CASE you will not if you order by the PACK unless you’ve burned two of your hot list positions.
  3. Provide a premade hot list. Customers don’t know what should be on the hot list. If asked, most customers would say that they know what they spend a lot on. But there are many more that don’t. The suggested list that you may get from the distributor (if it is offered at all) should be carefully reviewed!
  4. Limit the number of times per year when the hot list can be updated or modified. If you start buying a lot of a product that isn’t on the hot list, it could be up to a year before you get the opportunity to modify the list. (This frequency is negotiable!)


Buried deep within the text of most agreements is a little gem called the GGM rule. GGM = Guaranteed Gross Margin. This means that if any item not on the hot list or priced via a specified cost plus basis has a profit margin less than the GGM rule, the price will automatically be increased to attain that minimum profit margin.

For example, if your discount schedule says you get a 50% discount on all reusable glassware and you see a flask for $200 on the web site, you would expect to be charged $100. But the bill comes and it is $150. No, the distributor didn’t violate the terms of the agreement. It was the GGM rule kicking in and boosting the price.

What the GGM rule does is to make the discount schedule proposed look much better than it actually is. If you’ve got the GGM rule in place, why not advertise a 50% discount? It looks great and you will never suffer any harm by doing so because they have an insurance policy – the GGM rule. In my many years as a manager, I can recall only a couple of customers every questioning this!


One of the more appealing clauses in a GPO agreement is the ability to buy expensive instruments and equipment at “Cost plus 10%.” How could you go wrong?

I will bet that you assumed that “cost” meant the price they pay to their vendor for that item, right? It’s very unlikely. Distributors have redefined “cost” to include things like their marketing expenses, inbound shipping charges, interest charges, and even the cost of their cafeteria!

What IS the cost? Ask them. See if you get an answer. If you do, go to the vendor who makes the product and ask them if that even resembles the price they charge. You are far better off bidding any capital item than buying it off one of these agreements!


For all but a very small number of major vendors, the price the distributor shows as ‘list’ bears no resemblance to the price the manufacturer shows as MSRP. In many cases, the big distributors insist that the manufacturer NOT even set a list price.

This is commonly known as the “jewelry store discount.” Since nobody is really sure what the price should be, double the price you want to sell the item and advertise that as list, then tell someone they are getting a 50% discount and everyone goes away feeling like a winner.

The only way to know when this pretext is going on is to routinely check prices across multiple distributors. Once you’ve signed the agreement, are you really going to the trouble? We do every day at LPS.


Distributors have been writing agreements for a very long time. They are experts. They have paid high-powered consulting firms to come up with ways to get your business, then make as much profit as possible. If you are like most customers, you trust your GPO has done their due diligence when negotiating the agreement.

If properly utilized, these agreements can be of great benefit. But without knowing the pitfalls, you can pay far more than you should.

If you would like a (free!) high powered consultant working for you, we are here to help.