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E-Commerce: The Great Equalizer

E-Commerce: The Great Equalizer

By Bridget McCrea

With three strategically-placed locations and 15 years of experience selling online, Del City has carved out successful niches across the 2-day-delivery, business-to-business, and business-to-consumer markets online.

Founded in 1947 and encompassing three physical locations, Menomonee Falls, Wis.-based Del City doesn’t necessarily fit the profile of the “e-commerce-enabled” electrical distributor. Dig a little deeper, however, and you’ll find a business model that’s largely rooted in exactly what e-tailers specialize in:  Getting products into the hands of a large, geographically-dispersed customer base.

“While we do serve some walk-in business from our three locations (in Menomonee Falls, Memphis, Tenn., and Reno, Nev.), we’re really in those regions so that we can get to the entire U.S. within one to two days,” says George Dowse, president. “With that coverage, we’re able to take an order and deliver it within two days to 97.5 percent of the entire continental U.S.”

From Bricks and Mortar to Bricks and Clicks
In the beginning, Del City was a “traditional brick-and-mortar” distributor that, over time, evolved into a catalog-oriented firm. It made its first foray onto the web back in 2001, and then got “much more serious about e-commerce in 2010,” according to Dowse. “Over the last six years, e-commerce has become a significant aspect of how we attract and retain our customers.” Today, Dowse says 50 percent of Del City’s revenues are generated via catalog and the rest comes through the company’s online marketplace.

“A big chunk of our growth is being driven by online [sales], via our e-commerce efforts,” says Dowse. To manage its online presence, the distributor relies on a homegrown solution that’s based on its Oracle business system. “We’ve basically built our web environment internally, using a lot of external tools,” Dowse explains, noting that “form followed function” as the firm’s web presence evolved. For example, he says that as the company got more serious about selling online, it used external tools to layer on new capabilities “largely through internal programming,” Dowse says.
Building Relationships Online
Early on, Dowse says Del City focused on creating an online platform where customers could conduct simple searches and basic transactions. Over the last six years, the distributor has enhanced its online platform to the point where customers can now log in and access their specific information, invoicing details, and “all of the things that they’re used to managing with someone that they have a relationship with (i.e., an outside or inside sales rep),” says Dowse. By taking these steps, he says the firm has been able to transform its web presence into a relationship-building tool, versus just a transactional platform.

“Because our system is integrated with our CRM (customer relationship management software), we can speak to our customers on their terms and stay current on the latest conversations,” Dowse says. The distributor has also enhanced its shopping cart to the point where carts can now be “retained” and “recalled” (e.g., for ease of re-ordering in the future). “The key functionalities that are available on a B2C (business to consumer) website have been built into our B2B (business to business) online environment,” says Dowse, who sees this point as being particularly relevant for electrical distributors that “live to serve” their customers.

“We serve a wide range of businesses, but buyers at small firms in particular are drawing parallels to the B2C environments that they’re used to purchasing from,” says Dowse. In fact, he says many of Del City’s customers fall into both the B2C and the B2B categories. A professional upfitter who works on hobby vehicles on the weekends, for instance, is a particularly good example of someone that the company would work with both on the consumer and business side. “That customer is looking for the same ease of use, functionality, and capabilities that he gets in the B2C world,” says Dowse, “in addition to the business tools that he needs for his company.”
With a goal of making it even easier for users to quickly and efficiently find the parts and equipment that they need, Del City recently improved its website’s search capabilities. “It’s as much about keeping up with B2C functionality as it is giving B2B customers a better experience,” says Dowse, “and all of the tools that they need to operate in the business environment.”

Taking a Deeper Plunge into E-Commerce
When Del City decided six years ago to make e-commerce a major part of its business strategy, the company knew that its entire team had to be onboard with the mission. By including the entire organization – including the IT department, executive leadership, and sales and marketing teams – the firm has been able to make inroads where many other electrical distributors either fall short (or, don’t tackle at all).

To further support the initiative, the company employs an internal team of e-commerce specialists that are focused on building and leveraging the firm’s online sales platform. “We brought everything in-house in 2010, but up until then we were outsourcing most of our e-commerce capabilities,” says Dowse. “We wound up with a hodgepodge of tools and outside consultants who were helping us.”

While Dowse admits that a full-blown e-commerce initiative requires time, money, and resources (he wouldn’t reveal the firm’s total investment), he says the real challenges surface when company departments aren’t aligned and focused on common goals. “There really has to be clarity and alignment over simply trying to determine a budget for an e-commerce initiative. “Frankly,” says Dowse, “one of the reasons I think we’ve been so successful at this is because we are so clearly aligned. We don’t have to find the balance (i.e., between bricks-and-mortar and online sales); this is what we do and everyone is onboard with it.”
Creating a Streamlined Experience
Going forward, Dowse says Del City will continue to hone and finesse its online presence while also paying attention to what its customers are asking for from the online buying experience. Up next, he says customers will be able to auto-reorder goods to save even more time with the ordering process online.

“When someone knows what they want and buys from us on a regular basis, he or she can just pull up a cart and place the order,” says Dowse. “We’re putting that in place now.”

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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