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Here’s How Electrical Distributors Can Beat Grainger in E-Commerce

By Bridget McCrea

Rather than being intimidated by Gamut.com, distributors can borrow some of its features to leap-frog over into a whole new realm of e-commerce.

In June, Grainger officially launched a new e-commerce website that looks a bit more like Amazon and acts a little differently than its previous online presence. Designed to provide “useful information to industrial professionals seeking time-saving solutions for challenging projects,” Gamut.com was built on a proprietary information system that manages and organizes product attributes, application-specific imagery, and rich technical data, according to a Grainger press release.

Gamut.com offers more than 400,000 products in 32 categories with additional products from Grainger's stocked inventory to be added over time. “We know search is very complicated in our space given the number of products and product characteristics,” said Gamut President, Brian Walker, in the release. “We also know that many customers are looking for solutions to unique problems or need something immediately.”

Testing, Testing
Justin King, co-founder of the DigitalBranch, and Senior Partner at B2X Partners, has been tracking Grainger since it started split-testing the new site. (Split testing, which is also referred to as A/B testing or multivariate testing, is a method of conducting controlled, randomized experiments with the goal of improving a website metric, such as clicks, form completions, or purchases.)

This “testing” phase for the new site found 50% of the firm's customers using the old site and the other 50% using Grainger.com—a process that helps companies fine-tune their e-commerce approaches before an official rollout.

Digging down into the key changes that Grainger made, King says the site's header stayed basically the same and that the search box is still “front-and-center on every page.” What has changed is the general size of the home page, which is no larger. “They widened out the page,” says King, “and now it takes up more real estate on the screen.” This was likely done to accommodate the growing number of customers who are using larger handheld devices and computers to do product research and place orders.

Grainger also removed its traditional product- and company-specific promotional language and is focusing instead on categories, says King. “If you look at the Grainger home page now, it's super-focused on the items that will help you do your job,” he points out, “versus 'here are the products that we're selling.'”

In other words, with more than 400,000 products across 30+ categories, what Grainger isn't trying to do is “guess” at what it's top five or 10 best-selling products are (and, in turn, promoting the heck out of those items). “Instead,” says King, “it's showing the most popular product categories (unless it's something that the customer 'recently viewed').”

Registration is Key
Grainger continues to encourage users to register on its site, enticing them with offers to help solve their most pressing pain points and get the job done in a faster, simpler manner. Where the new site is really different from its predecessor, says King, is in how it's less focused on Grainger and more centered on e-commerce. “This is a very intentional move by Grainger,” says King, “to move away from what it is doing and to shine the spotlight on how it's helping customers accomplish their goals.”

“Grainger is hyper-focused on login and registration,” King says, noting that independent electrical distributors can borrow a page from this playbook. “The whole left side of Grainger's home page is devoted to getting the user to register and/or login, and the benefits of doing so,” says King. “You can see that they're really trying to drive their customers to register for the site, use it, and be active on it.” King sees this as a great entry point for a smaller distributor—even one that's currently behind the curve in the e-commerce arena.

Getting Customers into the Funnel
In examining customer acquisition in the business-to-business (B2B) space, King says getting customers to use e-commerce websites as a “tool” is a key goal. In fact, he says the customer sales funnel looks like this: 

  1. Customers register and sign up for an account
  2. Get that customer aligned with an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system that includes client-specific pricing, terms, availability, and conditions
  3. Customers start using the platform to get these questions answered:  Do you have it? What's my price? When can I get it?
  4. Customers place their first order
  5. If everything goes swimmingly, the customer starts using the site to place frequent orders

The good news for B2B companies is that, in most cases, they've already interacted with the customer on some level (versus business-to-consumer, where that's not generally the case). This is a plus for electrical distributors that want to beat large companies like Grainger at the e-commerce game.

“Smaller distributors that are agile and nimble are actually in a good position right now because they can jump right to that process (i.e., setting up a registration process to engage customers),” says King. “They can then use their sites to help customers dive right in and place their first orders.”

Skipping all of the Steps
It took Grainger five years to get to the spot where it is now with Grainger.com, but it doesn't have to take the electrical distributor that long to catch up. “Smaller, nimbler companies can do it right now,” says King, who advises electrical distributors to talk to their customers about their e-commerce and web preferences. What do they want to see online? What would make their jobs easier? Do you need a job configurator? Are you looking for a streamlined way to view and pay invoices? “There are so many features that a distributor can provide to its customers in a low-cost manner online,” says King.

King says the Grainger.com search box, category-based focus, and easy-to-navigate web layout won't be hard to replicate. “The layout should be relatively easy for any small to midsized distributor to emulate; the technology is out there,” says King. “You can basically skip all of the steps that Grainger took and jump right to using its new model—and all without having to spend more money. It's just about thinking differently about how you can use the web to help customers do their jobs better and easier.”

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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