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Honing Its Online Selling Machine

By Bridget McCrea

Pull up Standard Electric Supply Co.’s website and one of the first things you’ll notice is that the site is not a calling card for an electrical distributorship; it’s actually a selling machine. The first tab on the top of the first page, for example, is “products.” Click it and you’ll see a laundry list of product categories (each of which is also clickable), including adhesives and sealants; conduit, fittings, and accessories; and drives, motion control, and motors. Now hit the last button, and then the link for “inverter drive AC,” and up pops an ordering page where you can input a quantity, get an estimated delivery time, view the price, and use the site’s price comparison tool. 

Largely modeled after online retail behemoths like eBay and Amazon – both of which have made their “stores” the focal points of their sites – this electrical distributor’s site sends a clear message that it is ready, willing, and able to sell to customers both online and offline. 

“When you visit a site like eBay, Amazon, or iTunes, the store is clearly the website’s main functionality,” says Jason Stern, Standard Electric Supply’s online marketing consultant. Working with Appleton, Wis.-based company (which is owned and run by his father, Larry Stern, president) since 2010, Stern says he and Gena Redding, director of marketing, have been updating, honing, and tweaking its website for roughly four years. “It’s been an ongoing effort, with things really being stepped up over the last 1-2 years.”

What’s the Point?

As he looks around at the electrical distribution landscape, Stern doesn’t see too many other companies putting great emphasis and energy into their own e-commerce sites. “When you visit their websites, it’s almost as if selling products isn’t the sole purpose of those sites,” says Stern, who admits that his company was in the same position about four years ago. 

In fact, with 12 locations in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana, Standard Electric Supply hasn’t always been on the leading edge of e-commerce in the electrical distribution industry. Not only was its website dated, but to place an order customers had to access a “secondary” website. “Our site was disjointed and included a lot of information about the company and its mission, history, and events, but to me the purpose of a website is to sell products and make money,” says Stern. “If you’re not doing that, what’s the point?”

Determined to reposition the distributor’s web presence and turning it into an actual sales channel, Stern and Redding sat down, brainstormed some ideas, and came up with a plan of action. Knowing that a simple Facebook page could serve as a repository for the company-centric information that was housed on Standard Electric Supply’s website at the time, the pair tried to think beyond that fundamental approach to come up with a more viable, revenue-generating strategy.

“We knew that we needed to [transform] the existing site from a brochure into an actual business acquisition tool,” says Stern. “To get there, we’d have to revamp the site and orient it to the products that we’re selling.” Stern also wanted to be able to measure the impact of the pending changes, and that meant using online analytics tools (Google Analytics, for example) to determine key metrics, including:  what people are searching for, what pages they are visiting, where they are spending the most time, what the bounce rate is (i.e., the percentage of visitors to a particular website who navigate away from the site after viewing only one page), and so forth.

“We had a measurement tool in place on the old site, but we really wanted to improve it for the new site in order to gain insights into the online activity,” says Stern, who was also interested in knowing the types of products being searched online and how often those searches took place on sites like Google. “With that information in hand, we could pinpoint opportunities,” says Stern, “including products that were being searched a lot, but that we hadn’t previously put much of a focus on.”

Drilling down even further into the analytics, Stern and Redding looked at which search terms were leading visitors to their site, the demographic of those visitors, and even their geographic locations. “From this data, we could determine which of those markets we already had a presence in,” he says, “and which ones we should be in.”

Taking it to the Next Level

Once Standard Electric Supply’s online measurement tools were in place and generating the information that Stern and Redding were looking for, the pair turned to sites like Amazon and eBay to come up with the best layout for the distributorship’s revamped e-commerce site. “These sites are literally selling tens of thousands of products, all of which are ‘grouped’ – although that’s not always readily apparent,” says Stern. (By grouping, he means that products and information are organized in logical order from left to right on the site based on 1) profitability targets and 2) where the company wants to “guide” or push users to within the site.) 

Knowing that electrical distributors don’t typically use grouping – but wanting to emulate what they felt were the “best of the best” online selling sites – Stern and Redding started dividing all of Standard Electric Supply’s products first into subcategories, and then into micro-categories. They created a “menu silo” across the top of the company’s home page (an effort that Stern considers a work-in-progress that will be honed further this year when the company rolls out a new version of its website). 

“Our goal in grouping the products was to use logical order that would make the most sense to our customers,” says Stern, who sees that single goal as the most important mission of the distributor’s ongoing investment in the web. “The site has to be simple and quick; we don’t want them to spend too much of the day messing around trying to locate the information that they need.”

Stern admits that the product grouping exercise was both time- and energy-intensive. “We had the product experience, but we had to be able to use backend systems to pull individual products into the various ‘silo’ categories,” says Stern. “That was the beast.”

Tackling the Data Beast 

Figuring out how to organize SKUs in logical order online wasn’t the only beast that Standard Electric Supply had to slay. Like most other distributors, this mid-sized company needed a good way to retrieve, validate, and publish the product data provided by its suppliers. “When you visit a site like Grainger.com, which everyone holds up as the industry ideal, and you click through their products, everything is crisp and enriched,” Stern points out. “There are different specs, and then subsets of those specs, and 3-4 pages of information, customer reviews, product dimensions, and five different sets of images.”

That’s because companies like Grainger take the initiative to enhance and enrich that data internally, says Stern, who has taken a similar, time-intensive approach with Standard Electric Supply’s data. In fact, he says the firm is tackling the task on a SKU-by-SKU basis, starting with its best-selling products. “We knew that we had to optimize the data ourselves internally,” says Stern, who sees this effort as particularly vital since it impacts how the company’s show up in organic search results. “It’s an ongoing effort, and one that we plan to do more of this year, while also looking for ways to expedite the process behind it.”

And speaking of ongoing efforts, Stern says the while he’s pleased with the progress made so far on Standard Electric Supply’s website, his work far from done. “By the time you actually feel good about your website, something needs to be done to make it even better,” says Stern, who expects mobile (purchasing via mobile phone or tablet, for example) to begin playing a bigger role in the company’s online efforts. “In many industries, a good portion of search is already taking place on phones. We know more of our customers will be searching and buying via their phones, so that’s just another thing we’re going to have to tackle.”
In the meantime, Stern says that while he’s frustrated by the slow pace of the data enrichment aspect of the company’s web efforts, he does feels that the site as a whole has made “leaps and bounds” improvements since 2010. “We now have profitable campaigns in place and are selling product through different search engines and other online methods,” he says. “We couldn’t have said that just a few years ago.” 

More to Come 

Going forward, Stern wants to set up campaigns that take site visitors to individualized landing pages – a move that he says will yield a higher return on investment (ROI) for the distributorship. “Right now if our site is converting 1 percent of [clicks], I’d like to get that number up to 3-5 percent over the coming year,” says Stern. “That would help increase our economies of scale and get the site doing more for us, but on the same marketing budget.”

Ultimately, Stern says he wants to get Standard Electric Supply’s website to be “as profitable as it can be,” while better serving the company’s customers through solid, reliable data and information. “If I were to say that I want to compare our website to someone else’s,” says Stern, “I’d want it to be like Amazon’s.”
To electrical distributors that are stepping up their own web efforts, Stern sees Grainger and Amazon as good role models to follow. “You can borrow a page from these sites by looking at how they organize things and present themselves,” he advises, “and then coming up with the best balance between giving customers what they want while also trying to pull in new business through your site.”

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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