To show off the secret behind Pharmapacks, his $70 million retail business, Andrew Vagenas picked up an EOS lip balm and tossed it to his buddy Brad Tramunti.
“Watch,” Vagenas said. “He’s like a special kid.”
There is nothing about Tramunti that makes you think: lip-balm guy. He’s 33 years old and hefty, with a two-day scruff and a faded T-shirt wrapped around his torso. But he held the lip balm in his paw carefully, inspecting its lollipop-purple-swirl case like a savant.
“This is a new flavor,” he said. “Just came out. Blackberry nectar.” He took it to his desk and brought up its Amazon.com product page. He checked its weight–0.25 ounce. He pursed his lips and calculated the shipping cost in his head: “$1.89,” he muttered. He looked at its Amazon sales rank: 54,000. He brought up a page with suppliers’ prices.
“We get this wholesale for $2.23,” he said, smiling. “That, plus shipping, plus our margin? We’ll be in the number-one spot.” That meant when a shopper clicked Add to Cart on Amazon, Pharmapacks would get the sale.
Vagenas grinned. Then he tossed Tramunti a box of Vitamin Friends Iron Diet Supplement.
“He just gave me a crazy product right now,” Tramunti said. He pointed to his screen: The vitamins already had 201 Amazon reviews. “If we can get this for under 10 bucks, it’s a home run.”
“We’re getting it for 11 bucks,” Vagenas said.
“OK, it’s a double,” he shot back. “But we’re going to be number one on this product–and it’s ranked 1,451 in all of personal care, number two in vitamins. This is crazy! This is bonkers!” Whatever you want to call it, within hours, Pharmapacks would be the number-one seller on Amazon for both of those products–a ranking it would hold for weeks.
“He’s my special boy,” beamed Vagenas.
The next time you buy some humdrum product on Amazon, pause for a moment and check the Other Sellers listed on the right side of the page. That lip balm? Thirteen vendors offer it. Those vitamins? Twenty. As you click and shop, a battle rages in that little box, fought every day by entrepreneurs like Vagenas and Tramunti on practically every one of Amazon’s 410 million product pages.
This is the Amazon Marketplace, where anybody can sell just about anything right alongside Amazon’s own wares. Unlike eBay, where each vendor maintains a separate listings page, Amazon tidily groups its Marketplace sellers by item, hiding away the inferior offers, to showcase the best deals up front. (In seller parlance, landing the number-one spot is called “getting the buy box.”) What looks so clean on your screen obscures the messy and massive jungle of the Marketplace: There are now more than two million sellers on Amazon. While the Seattle-based giant still sells the most popular items on the site itself, Marketplace sellers now ship nearly half of the products–about two billion items each year, all told–and those sales are growing twice as fast as Amazon’s, according to the consultancy ChannelAdvisor. The Marketplace started in 2000 selling used books. In 2016, it’s a retail phenomenon as significant as any in the past 50 years–together these sellers ring up what ChannelAdvisor estimates to be $132 billion in sales each year. That’s more than Walmart sold in 1997. Yet we know so little about who they are.
On 2015’s Inc. 500 list of America’s fastest-growing private companies, something stood out about the retailers. Nearly all of them, companies that were growing by 1,000 percent or more, had websites that looked a decade out of date. Like, a homepage. Maybe a few links to products. Why? That’s because, these days, such retailers don’t use their own sites much. They build their businesses on platforms–eBay, Walmart.com, Overstock, and especially Amazon.
Vagenas’s company, Pharmapacks, notched $31.5 million in revenue in 2014, which made its three-year growth rate 3,035 percent, good enough to earn it the 115th spot on the Inc. 500. By the end of 2015, its annual revenue was $70 million. Vagenas proudly told me the company was on track to do $140 million to $160 million in revenue in 2016, the vast majority coming from those platforms (and around 40 percent from Amazon). While other platform retailers have identified a niche opportunity and capitalized–search Amazon for horse brushes or pickle ball paddles and you can buy from two other Inc. 500 entrepreneurs–Pharmapacks sells everyday stuff found in drugstores: This upstart has succeeded by selling what most every retailer in the world, Amazon included, already offers. How?
“Sex Toys, I’m Telling You!”
Pharmapacks operates out of a low-slung warehouse in the College Point section of Queens, New York. From there, you can see the new World Trade Center, but otherwise the glitz of Manhattan might as well be a thousand miles away. Planes take off and land practically overhead. (LaGuardia Airport is across a nearby inlet.) The closest neighbor is a vast parking lot jammed with Time Warner Cable vans.
Pharmapacks’ warehouse has a different name on the sign out front. Tramunti got the door, and Vagenas was waiting behind his desk, a wary look on his face. He’s 34 and trim, and a slim gold chain was tucked beneath his plaid shirt.
“I Googled your picture to make sure you were actually from Inc.,” he told me. Nothing personal, he said–but competitors always try to steal their secrets. One even sent a guy undercover to apply for a packing job, he added, staring at me for an extra beat. Then he cracked a smile.
Vagenas introduced me to his partners. Tramunti is an old buddy who grew up a few blocks from his house. Jimmy Mastronardi knows Tramunti and Vagenas from the neighborhood too. He once had a job in finance, so he’s the CFO. Two other guys, Jonathan Webb and his business partner, Adam Berkowitz, joined recently. They are older, in their 40s. The younger guys busted their chops about their age. But really, everybody was busting chops about everything. Constantly.
“We’re adding 4,000 makeup products, fragrances–” said Vagenas.
“And sex toys, I’m telling you!” Webb chimed in.
“Not under the Pharmapacks brand!”
“Call it Splash!”
“This guy–no shame,” Vagenas sighed, a thought bubble reading, See what I gotta deal with? But the company was considering it. “I always joke our bread and butter is anal cream,” Vagenas said. “Our top sellers are things nobody wants to buy at a store. But from there, people buy everything else.”
All the while, more than a hundred workers, mostly women, stood at tables in the warehouse packing products into bubble-pack containers that looked like tiny space pods–Colgate toothpaste, Pantene shampoo. A man sat, an air gun in hand, inflating the containers nonstop. As soon as one crackled into shape, he grabbed the next, 15 times a minute. Psst-thwap. Psst-thwap.
Originally, Vagenas and Tramunti and another friend ran a pharmacy in the South Bronx. When they started selling health and beauty products online in 2011, they thought it could make a nifty side business. They rented a little warehouse on a leafy street six blocks from Vagenas’s childhood home in Whitestone, Queens, and started spending half the day there. Mastronardi soon joined them to help run the numbers. As they hammered out kinks, they discovered that selling on a platform like Amazon was totally different from running their drugstore or even a standalone website. It was also a much bigger opportunity.
You could fill a book with all the differences, of course, but the big one was: They could sell whatever they wanted, at whatever price, for whatever period of time. A marketplace vendor doesn’t worry about stocking a full line of shampoos, or whether certain soaps are always on sale. If they want to sell lotion one week and hairspray the next, they can do that.
Early on, the guys decided that it would be easiest to offer whatever their suppliers had in stock. They built each online listing, and had a developer code a script that scraped the suppliers’ databases to enter each product’s information. When a customer ordered something, they in turn would order it from the supplier, pick it up, and then pack and ship it. That’s still the model, more or less, though nowadays they order in bulk using sales projections and need three trucks and a van to pick everything up. Inventory often stays in their warehouse only for a few hours before going right back out the door. The business is less like traditional merchandising than it is like a commodities trader from a bygone era, buying and selling well-known goods and turning a profit on each transaction.