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Distributors: Get Your e-Commerce Strategy Down to a Science

Publisher’s note:  tED magazine realizes that a large number of our readers saw the story we posted on Buffalo Electric Supply and its partnership with AmazonSupply.com, Testing Out The AmazonSupply Waters. One of the quotes from Buffalo Electric Supply that stood out was, “Many of our online attempts have been a trial and error process as we try and develop a successful e-commerce site.” As a result of this quote, we thought it was important to make sure you are getting the most out of your e-commerce efforts. tED magazine is also aware that there are other issues related to our stories on AmazonSupply, and we will continue to provide coverage of AmazonSupply, plus strategic tips, throughout 2015.
—- Scott Costa, Publisher, tED magazine

By Bridget McCrea

Five Ways to Hone Your Current E-Commerce Strategy or Launch a New Online Effort in 2015

If there’s one thing that most electrical distributors can agree on, it’s that harnessing the Web as an effective selling and lead-generation engine has been a lot harder than it looks. And while some of the larger distributors in the space have clearly overcome the hurdle, the vast majority of companies have yet to figure out exactly what it takes to get an e-commerce strategy down to a science. 

“From what we see, a lot of companies don’t have the right e-commerce goals or strategies in place,” says Robin Merrion, president at Innovo, LLC, in Denver. “Especially for small distributors, it’s important to define exactly what customers needs online and, in most cases, it’s not just pricing and availability.” Having updated and relevant product descriptions on a website, for example, can mean the difference between a successful sale and a customer that clicks over to the next online source for the information he or she is looking for.  

“Even some of the larger companies have poor product descriptions online, and they also don’t have links to images, technical specs, and the manufacturer’s website,” adds Drew Mapplebeck, Innovo’s vice president of sales. “Without these elements in place, a distributor can’t launch an e-commerce solution and expect customers to adopt it and use it.” 

Distributors that want to get their e-commerce strategies down to a science in 2015 should heed these five tips from Mapplebeck and Merrion:

1. Don’t ignore the web – embrace it. The web has been around for a while, but some distributors are still hoping that its online sales component will go away before they have to deal with it. This is the wrong approach, says Mapplebeck. “Saying you aren’t going to do e-commerce is just like saying you’re not going to email bids or invoices,” he explains. “Everyone expects to be able to research and shop on e-commerce sites that are fast, robust, and useful.” Companies that continue to ignore the need for an e-commerce site that customers can actually use could soon find themselves in an even tighter spot that they’re in right now. “Get your hands around it now and come up with a plan of action,” says Mapplebeck, “or three years down the road the Amazons and other big e-tailers will have caught up and will be selling in your marketplace.”

2. Segment your online customer base. Rather than viewing your customer base as one large homogenous pool of buyers, take the time to segment it out into different categories. “Don’t just do a shotgun email blast to your entire customer base,” Merrion warns. “First movers” whose field electricians are already using smartphones for ordering, for example, should be alerted to the fact that your company now has a mobile-enabled website with easy ordering. Those customers that prefer a more traditional approach should be kept updated on the new features and capabilities of your company’s website (via short, quarterly email blasts, for example). “Send your salespeople out to educate their customers on how to do business with you via e-commerce or mobile,” Merrion suggests. “Once they’ve educated a specific customer segment, have the salespeople move onto the next group until everyone is up to speed.” 

3. Make the information, pricing, and specs easy to find. All product-related information has to be easy to find, updated, and accessible for customers. “You want your customers to be able to get all of the information that they want quickly and efficiently,” says Mapplebeck. Be sure to continually hone those production descriptions and the related nomenclature, adds Merrion, who recently worked with a distributor that was using “T. Betts” in its own database instead of the full “Thomas & Betts.” When a customer went to search for Thomas & Betts, guess what? The results didn’t show up properly. “The distributor noticed that a lot of people were searching and getting no results on that term,” Merrion explains, “so it went in and fixed its product description to make it easier to find.” Such snafus can be particularly detrimental for independent distributors who know that their customers can search for “Thomas & Betts” on Google and instantly get a page view from a large competitor like Grainger. “If the customer can’t find what they’re looking for on your website,” says Merrion, “he or she is going to go elsewhere.”

4. Get your salespeople on-board with the cause. Your stable of inside and outside sales reps will be one of your best tools as you strive to get your e-commerce strategy down to a science this year. “To truly be successful with e-commerce requires a complete marketing effort,” says Mapplebeck, who acknowledges the fact that some veteran sales reps may still feel threatened by the thought of e-commerce. To help them work through those fears, he suggests an internal educational campaign that focuses on how e-commerce transforms reps from “order takers” to “order makers.” In other words, help reps break out of the mindset of, “If the customer completes the order online, and does that regularly, I may be out of a job.” Enforce the fact that customers go to the web for information, to check stock, and to read product descriptions. In the end, however, most still want to call a rep with whom they’ve had a long-time relationship to seal the deal. To augment this training, Merrion suggests setting up the company enterprise resource planning (ERP) system to send messages out to reps when orders come in online and, of course, to compensate fairly for web/mobile orders. 

5. Measure your successes and failures online. Once you get a website launched, you have to understand how to measure it and figure out whether it’s actually working for you…or not. Still very dynamic in nature, any type of online or digital advertising, marketing, and selling can be finessed – but only if you know what’s actually working (and what’s not). Using a free tool like Google Analytics, for example, you can view a wide range of daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly activities and results. The same measures can be used to gauge the success of a mobile app or other initiative. Ask yourself questions like: What are my customers searching for? What are they buying? What pages are they visiting the most? Which ones are they ignoring? “The answers to these and other questions will give you some data and information to take action on,” says Merrion, “and help your e-commerce efforts become even more successful over time.”

McCrea is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at bridgetmc@earthlink.net or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.

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