An in-depth look at how one electrical distributor grabbed the e-commerce bull by the horns and used it to create an impactful web presence.
When he joined Crescent Electric Supply Company in 2016 to help the electrical distributor modernize and upgrade its B2B e-commerce site, Steven Annese knew he had his work cut out for him. As founder of online retailer Home Products Etc., LLC, (HPE) Annese spent the prior four years running an online home products seller that serviced the B2B and B2C markets. Through that process, he’d built a proven, scalable, user-friendly e-commerce platform.
Thanks to its www.EliteFixtures.com (which is now a Crescent Electric Supply Co. firm) website and the other inroads it had made in the B2B realm, HPE made a very attractive acquisition target for Crescent. “The acquisition of HPE brings tremendous value to our company as we embark on an aggressive plan to grow our online presence in the electrical product marketplace,” said Erich Lemke, Crescent senior vice president and CIO, in a press release just after the acquisition was announced.
“In addition to the robust, battle-tested platform, the acquisition brings us a talented e-commerce team,” Lemke added, “including HPE’s two founders and leaders, each with expertise in online sales, marketing, operations, and technology.”
One of those founders was Annese, who had built the HPE e-commerce platform from scratch. When one electrical distributor showed an interest in purchasing the platform, Annese began exploring the possibilities of a potential sale. “I reached out to several electrical suppliers and Crescent happened to be in the final selection group,” says Annese, who today serves at the distributor’s director of eBusiness strategy and commerce, “so we decided to go with the company.”
Addressing the Pain Points
It didn’t take long for Annese to realize that overhauling Crescent’s e-commerce presence was going to take some elbow grease, but he was up to the task. “They were dealing with a lot of pain points online,” he recalls. “The software they were using was antiquated and clunky; it wasn’t performing very well.” Third-party application integrations (i.e., adding outside applications to the existing platform) were extremely difficult to orchestrate—something HPE was able to handle with ease.
“We built our platform from scratch, so we were able to integrate it into any platform or third-party software that we needed to,” says Annese. “We could also import and export in different file forms, be it Excel, XML, or another format. That made the integration points and application programming interfaces (APIs) pretty seamless.”
When it bought HPE, Crescent also acquired a platform that would put it years ahead of its competitors on the online search front. Built using Apache Solr, an open source search platform based on the Apache Lucene search library, HPE’s search functionality didn’t require any third-party applications to function, nor was it limited in terms of its scope. The latter was particularly important for Crescent, which needed to be able to quickly match customers with local inventory.
“On Crescent’s B2B side, the search component is extremely complex because when a B2B customer logs in, he’s really only concerned about inventory that’s available at the branch that he shops at, and then within the district as a whole,” Annese points out. “Then, if he can’t find the product locally, he has to switch to a company-wide search (if the need is urgent and the product has to be shipped right away).”
And while that customer is usually buying from his stocking branch, the site’s search function still isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” solution. It’s more of an “every customer has different needs and is assigned to a different branch,” says Annese, “and that branch has to maintain that buyer to the best of its abilities.”
A Constantly Evolving Search Tool
Managing about 550,000 total SKUs, Crescent’s e-commerce search function is constantly evolving. “We are literally looking and analyzing that every day,” says Annese. To fine-tune the process, the distributor regularly polls its customers to find out if they’re having any difficulties finding the products they need, knowing that not every buyer utilizes the same descriptions. This reality has to be factored into the distributor’s search capabilities.
For example, one customer’s “one half inch conduit” is another buyer’s “1/2 inch conduit”—both of which must lead the customer to the same result. “It’s almost like being a mind reader,” says Annese, “because everyone can type something differently and expect the same result.” He credits advanced technologies like artificial intelligence with helping Crescent step up its mind-reading game, and says AI is “helping us close that gap pretty quickly with our customers.”
Here’s another scenario: A customer in New York logs in as a Crescent customer at the same time that a buyer in Illinois does the same thing. They’re both searching for an identical product, but they get different search results based on their locations and the stock that’s available at their respective locations. Then, a third customer—this time a B2C customer who is not logged in—searches for the same product and, once again, sees a completely different result. These variances make Crescent’s approach to search extremely dynamic (and not always predictable).
“The search portion of our site is very high priority; we’re giving it a lot of attention and scrutinizing it,” says Annese. “We’re constantly beta-testing, listening to our customers, and trying to eliminate any pain points that might surface when they’re on our site, doing searches.”
Closing the Pain Point Gaps
The good news is that Crescent is making headway on its mission of creating a streamlined, user-friendly search tool that connects customers with products fast and efficiently. The not-so-good news is that the distributor is keeping its cards close to the vest right now, knowing that any strides it makes will put it yards ahead of its competitors.
“Safe to say, we’re making a lot of headway in the space,” says Annese. “I would say that over the next 1-2 quarters we’re seriously going to close any search pain point gaps that remain.”
In the second part of this article series we’ll delve down into Crescent’s commitment to rebuilding its e-commerce site and explore how it’s creating a mobile-friendly presence for its B2B and B2C customers.Tagged with best practices, e-commerce