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How Does Your E-Commerce Website Stack Up? Part I

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How Does Your E-Commerce Website Stack Up? Part I

In this article series, we’re going to take a look at how electrical distributors’ e-commerce websites stack up by comparing them to non-industry sites in areas like HVAC, plumbing, floor covering, and plastics distribution—all in the name of helping NAED members create more effective, customer-centric e-commerce sites for the year ahead.

In this article, we lay out the foundation through a few basic comparisons across a few outside industries, ferret out areas in need of improvement, and provide some basic recommendations that you can use to get more mileage out of your e-commerce investment.

Okay, So Where Do We Stand?
If you didn’t put money, time, and effort into your distributorship’s e-commerce approach in 2017, you’re probably already behind the curve. But it’s not too late to harness this potentially lucrative piece of business—one that’s expected to account for 13.1% of total business-to-business (B2B) sales in the U.S. by 2012, according to Forrester Research’s most recent projections.

Among the product categories with the fastest e-commerce growth as a percentage of total sales over the next three years, Forrester points to motor vehicles and related parts and supplies; drugs and druggists’ sundries; and electrical and electronic parts as being “high-growth,” due to the fact that “buyers can easily identify many of their products on e-commerce sites and sellers can quickly ship them,” Digital Commerce 360 reports.

Unfortunately, a lot of B2B distributors haven’t quite figured out how to harness and leverage the power of e-commerce, and are instead allowing online giants like Amazon to reign in the online world. “Wholesalers and distributors have typically treated e-commerce as something of an afterthought,” Kym Ben-Ivgi points out in 10 B2B e-Commerce Trends for 2017.

“B2B sales are resolutely moving from the phone line to online, with sellers realizing that e-commerce can streamline and automate their sales processes, cut down on costs, reduce order errors, and free up personnel to work on more strategic issues,” Ben-Ivgi writes. “And, of course, by eliminating the 9-5 barrier, customers can order around the clock. Together, this all leads to higher margins.”

Courting New Business Online 
Because e-commerce is standard fare for today’s B2C buyers, it stands to reason that B2B sites must be able to create a positive, online shopping experience that incorporates good data, high-quality graphics, the ability to check inventory and delivery times, a user-friendly shopping cart, and a process for managing customer support before, during, and after the sale.

Some distributors have invested heavily, and some have not, says Denise Keating, president of Sycamore, Ill.-based DATAgility. After looking at a few different non-electrical distribution e-commerce sites, Keating noticed that it’s the same old story:  some distributors have their e-commerce acts together and others are lagging behind.

Cumulatively, and regardless of whether the segment is HVAC, plastics, or electrical supplies, Keating says wholesale distribution is “behind where it needs to be” on the e-commerce front. “In terms of where the real competition is coming from online,” she says, “most distributors have a long road ahead in terms of catching up to the curve.”

In the “just getting started” category, for instance, there are distributors that simply post their line cards, locations, and contact information on a basic website. “These are pretty basic, and if a customer is researching products or intends to buy online, it leaves them dissatisfied and are much less likely to return.   says Keating.

Others list out their manufacturers and brands in textual lists that are broken out alphabetically (line card style) and linked to a supplier’s website, but lack shopping cart capabilities. “Basically, what these companies are doing is leading customers off their sites,” says Keating.

These moves are counterproductive for a company that wants to increase its online sales and create a customer-centric e-commerce presence. “As a distributor, the last thing you want a customer or prospect to do is leave your site and go somewhere else,” says Keating. “Link to a manufacturer and the next thing you know, that customer has found a competitor site to view.”

To avoid this problem, Keating says electrical distributors should focus on keeping customers on their sites for as long as possible (i.e., increase your site’s “stickiness”). That means not only creating a shopping experience supported by an easy ordering mechanism, but also creating engaging content (e.g., graphics, videos, tutorials, tip sheets, etc.) that customers want and need. “Distributors can promote the value-added services they do offer that keeps their customers thinking of them first when they need assistance (same-day delivery, jobsite delivery, kiting, etc.),” says Keating.

“Get the content from your manufacturers in a digital format—or create it on your own—and integrate it into your e-commerce site,” says Keating, “in a way that keeps customers there, versus encouraging them to go elsewhere.”

Filling in the Gaps
In comparing a few NAED member sites with those in other industries, Keating says one of the biggest mistakes she sees B2B sites making is the need for a registration and login process for someone who simply wants to browse the site. “That’s very restrictive, and it only works well if your only goal is to serve your existing customer base,” says Keating, who knows of one distributor that increased its online sales by 20% by removing that restriction from its own site.

“But if you’re looking to attract new buyers to your site—and if you’re asking them to create a login before they can even start browsing—it’s not going to work. Offer potential customers a chance to view your site as a guest,” she adds. “They will be less likely to leave if the experience is not cumbersome.”

Keating tells distributors to use tools like live chats on their sites, complete with photos of the individuals whom customers will be speaking to online. “That makes it more personal,” she says. Integrate Google Maps with all listed locations (so customers can get quick driving directions without having to leave your website) and utilize phone number hyperlinks on your contact page so that customers can dial directly from their mobile phones or tablets (without having to key the numbers into their phones). Advertise after hour or emergency services prominently on the home page.

“Distributors should review their site from the perspective of potential customers who have just found their site, rather than fall into the, “Well, my customers already know my phone number and where we’re located” trap. Assume the opposite, she says, and  you just may see an exponential increase in the number of new customers that come to your e-commerce site and interact with it.

“These are some little changes that distributors can incorporate immediately,” says Keating, “and when you develop a site with great customer-centered features, provide live chat options, and really let your customers interact with it, the efforts will pay off.”

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Bridget McCreais 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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