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The digital age has been upon us for a while, but it is still daunting for companies to start their foray into the digital frontier. Where does one start? What is the cost of investment? How will it take shape? Will your customers use it, and how does it enhance your current offerings? These are questions that every company asks before jumping in, but perhaps the most crucial question of all is - where do you go for guidance?
For First Supply LLC, the answer was simple. The company turned to its buying group AD for guidance to establish itself in the digital landscape. We connected with AD on its eCommerce offerings and how the buying group helped First Supply expand its digital presence.
Digging in to understand AD’s eCommerce Solutions
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit our shores, eCommerce was one of the fastest-growing sales channels. AD understood early on that providing solutions and support in the digital arena to its members would add tremendous value, and launched its eCommerce Solutions to enable its members to evolve, survive, and thrive in the digital world. By providing eContent – such as product descriptions, photos, a member PIM (Product Information Management) portal, webstore, and consulting services, the buying group’s offerings help members every step of the way. With more than 20 years of digital commerce and marketing experience in her pocket, Caroline Ernst, vice president of AD eCommerce Solutions, noted, “Our offerings are member and supplier driven—building on the relationships within AD and partnering with our strategic service providers.”
It’s not just experience in eCommerce that sets AD apart; it’s understanding all the different moving pieces within the digital strategy. In 2016, AD’s eCommerce Solutions launched with 200,000 SKUs available to its industrial division. “What we learned was you can offer your content, but if you don’t teach members how to build their catalog, how to extract the information, and why it’s important to their end customers’ experience, we weren’t hitting the mission of helping members win online. So, we changed that,” Ernst said. “We quickly learned that while updated and normalized product content is important, members wanted a digital business partner to help them win online.”
AD eCommerce Solutions now offers four services. The first is the product catalog. AD offers a master catalog of 5.8 million SKUs in a member-driven taxonomy with authorizations by suppliers, by brand, by division, and by category. “We work with a diverse group of suppliers to build product content. To date, we have built a product catalog of 5.8 million product SKUs, all enhanced and categorized,” Ernst said. Last year, the group made more changes and updates to its products than it has products—updating more than 7 million times. “From enhancing content such as adding 360-degree images, shipping weights, and dimensions to new pricing —we continue to add value by making the products complete and more robust,” Ernst said.
Ultimately, each member has their own member PIM with their specific eContent catalog – the second of four services - that they can further customize. “The AD member PIM enables a member to export or sync their product content to use in their ERP or eCommerce platform,” Ernst noted.
The third offering is a webstore service. “AD has forged relationships with strong technology and implementation partners who work together to deliver on-time, on-budget eCommerce capabilities,” Ernst said.
The fourth pillar is that of consultation service. “Consultative services means listening to members’ business needs and offering support to help drive success wherever members are in their journey, and we are certainly here to help. Our member engagement team holds quarterly calls with each member. We also offer a private eCommerce Digital Community for eContent management, program updates, digital maturity assessments, networking, and education. It allows for great information-sharing and collaboration.”
Using community and experience to nurture the digital landscape
The AD community is strong on networking. AD’s 5th Annual eCommerce Summit is coming soon, connecting independent distributors with industry experts, AD service providers and AD suppliers, and the dedicated AD eCommerce team. In addition, the group rounds out its offering by providing in-depth training. “Last August, we offered an executive eCommerce analytics dashboard training, and 275 people attended virtually. With the help of our educational partner, we showed members why you need to measure digital, what you need to measure, and how to measure and report using an analytics dashboard template built-in Google Data Studio, customized to key metrics of their business and their digital branch,” Ernst said.
She added, “Over the last five years, we’ve adapted the AD eCommerce Solutions services to look at where our members are today and help them chart a path forward. AD has a dedicated eCommerce team that collectively has more than 100 years of digital commerce experience. When we’re talking with members whose experience ranges from just starting their digital journey to those who are doing 25% to 30% of their business online, we can adapt our conversations to meet them where they are and help to move them forward in their eCommerce journey.”
Today, AD has helped more than 140 members go live with AD eContent, and more than 200 members subscribe to the eContent Service. The buying group is just getting started as more members are taking those steps toward digital commerce.
Ernst sums it up best: “The goal of the AD eCommerce Solution team is like that of the old saying, ‘We will teach you how to fish.’ We help guide the process step by step, and we have a team of dedicated professionals who are in it with you. We help members wherever they are on their journey and have a member engagement team to provide guidance along the way.” Ernst was quick to point out that it is imperative to get executive buy-in. “I encourage our participants to take that first step. Sometimes you’ve just got to get the ball rolling to get the ball rolling. It starts with putting the customer first and ensuring that you articulate throughout your organization what to expect from this digital experience. The most successful endeavors we see have executive buy -in. That’s a key driver of eCommerce success.”
She added, “The AD eCommerce team is here to support our members wherever they are in their journey. We want them to win online.”
First Supply LLC Begins Its Digital Journey with AD
First Supply LLC is a family-owned and operated wholesale distributor that planted its flag more than 120 years ago in La Crosse, Wisconsin distributing wrought iron pipe, plumbing supplies, windmills, and more. Today, with more than 650 employees, the company serves the upper Midwest, offering its contractor and industrial customers a wide selection and Service in plumbing, HVAC, municipal, waterworks, well and septic, PVF, and industrial supplies. The company serves the upper Midwest with 28 distribution locations, 15 Gerhard’s Kitchen & Bath Stores, and four Kohler Signature Stores. With one central distribution center in Wisconsin and an inventory of more than $60 million, the company wanted to establish a value-added online presence to help its customers research product, manage its account and purchase supplies more efficiently.
First Supply’s mission is to provide customers with quality products and services in a timely, accurate, and cost-effective manner. A cornerstone to deliver on the mission is to provide creative solutions to customer needs.
The company, a member of AD since 1996, turned to the buying group’s dynamic ecommerce offerings and solutions to improve its existing interface and output. First Supply has customer personas with different objectives and was looking for a way to integrate all of them into a cohesive and easy-to-use system. Some customers wanted to go online to check product inventory and availability. Other customers—both current and returning—were looking to utilize the site for self-service. They were also looking to appeal to new customers—those who were going online, connecting with the company, and starting a dialogue. Overall, the website needed to be designed to hit on all personas and act as an extension of its sales team.
I sat down with Tim Winter, director of ecommerce, and Staci Otradovec, ecommerce manager at First Supply, to hear of the undertaking. Here is what they had to say.
Ruth Mitchell: Tim, tell me about yourself and what brought you to the front door of First Supply?
Tim Winter: I’m the director of ecommerce for First Supply LLC and have been with the company for three years. When I was brought onboard here at First Supply, company ownership stated they recognized we needed a more robust ecommerce solution, making it widely available to our contractor customers. Up to this point, it was basically an ordering platform. It was encouraging to know that ownership recognized the fact that they needed a solution, and that resources would need to be brought in to build and maintain running a successful site. The owners said we have a strong partner in AD, and they can help us; it was our starting point.
RM: Who’s your ecommerce customer?
TW: It’s the contractor, the tradesmen, the plumbers, and HVAC specialists. As we are strictly business-to-business, they need an account or a credit account with us to conduct business.
RM: How long did it take to go from where the site was to where it is today?
TW: Our ecommerce site has been live now for 16 months. To facilitate our objective, we undertook a parallel PIM/Platform implementation with an aggressive 18-month timeline. After months of setup and data manipulation, we matched a total of 145,000 AD enhanced items and created 2,541 product families. We opted for a two-stage phased site launch that included a soft-launch reveal to select customers. To facilitate a smooth transition, we appointed and trained a cross-functional team of 14 extended branch specialists (EBS). The EBS team gathered feedback and provided outreach, support, and training to our soft-launch customers. Additionally, we created an online video library demonstrating 21 website features and BlueVolt training modules for all customer-facing employees. We launched a Constant Contact email campaign with a series of teasers (Coming Soon) and instructional (ProTip) messages to encourage customer adoption.
RM: Do you have an individual/team dedicated to the ecommerce platform, including digital marketing and visuals?
TW: Our ecommerce team is comprised of smart, creative, energetic, talented, and diverse individuals who embrace the core vision, mission, and values of our company. The team would not be here if First Supply ownership had not recognized the importance of establishing a strong online presence sooner rather than later. They saw the need and invested in the solution. Our team includes a director of ecommerce, an ecommerce manager, a web designer/developer, an SEO specialist, a digital content strategist, and a digital content specialist.
RM: Tell me about the ecommerce features that are built-in on the site.
Staci Otradovec: A feature that has been a game-changer for our customers is the search function. With enhanced content and an elastic search solution, customers find what they’re looking for without typing the exact item number or stock code. This is a change from our previous system – a big change. It is a vital tool to assist in time savings and add-ons. We have search “type-ahead” where relevant items are displayed as the search terms are being entered and can present content pages related to the search query. We also have the customer’s order history, allowing for ease in reordering (lists), and our site offers solutions such as product comparison. We also added a mobile app. Probably the most significant win we heard right off the bat was how the search functionality was a tremendous improvement. And people were able to find what they wanted so much quicker.
RM: What other features help your customers save time and money within their business?
SO: We had great conversations and feedback from our customers while building the site, and what we found was they like to build lists and keep things in their cart for a time while doing so. Typically, carts will be “abandoned” after 24 hours, but our customers will not necessarily check out right away, so we extended the timing. In addition, as customers create their list of products that they may order every month, we can send out a customer-scheduled email reminder each month telling them it’s time to order these products. It’s a one-click system to add it to their cart and proceed to checkout. We also offer integrated live chat, FAQs, and “How To” videos, making the site user-friendly and self-serve. There is a lot of content on the site to help customers.
TW: Staci hit on this, and I can’t emphasize enough the importance of search. Customers are not coming to our site just to browse—they have job lists and want to check availability and purchase. They usually know what they are looking for, so product discovery is very important. That’s where the AD content comes into play. If a customer can’t find what they’re looking for, they can’t buy it. If you have good product content, it will also include product recommendations in the cross-promotion. So, product content leads to product discovery in search, and that is also important to monetize. We are looking to increase the average order value. Many times, customers find products that complement what they are purchasing, and instead of going to another online retailer, they can add it at the same time.
RM: Does the brick-and-mortar support or compete with your ecommerce platform?
TW: That is hard to answer, as we were launching around the time COVID-19 presented itself. But what I can say is it helped accelerate the adoption of our website and online ordering. The fact that customers could search, find what they wanted, check local inventory, see their customer-specific pricing, order and have it waiting for them when they pick it up - was a game changer! As COVID-19 restrictions were in place, we also offered the service of bringing the order to your car. We made it as easy as possible for our customers. Our salespeople have responded that it helps them save time while focusing more on the customer needs. We have many customers that have been with us spanning 30 to 60 years, and we are all about taking care of each customer as they look to us as a solution provider, and a true customer partnership. While many of our customers appreciate that they can look at pricing, see the product photo and description and have it in a timely fashion - they also appreciate the real-time inventory, order history, account management, and the Mobile app with QR label scanning.
RM: How does utilizing your ecommerce site help your customers save time and money?
SO: I would say that our number one question is probably, “Where is our order?” It’s all about saving time. We recently implemented a feature where customers can see their order status in real-time. If you ordered it an hour ago, you can login and see if it has shipped. They can also see availability at each branch along with their customer-specific price. We make it easy to do business with us. If you have a return, you can initiate the return process online. Fill out a form and hit the button, and we connect with the customer offline to complete. It saves time, money, and fewer phone calls to achieve the result.
RM: What percentage of your contractor customers do you believe are utilizing your online services now?
TW: We have about four times more users today than in the previous 18 months on the older platform. We have had great growth in customer adoption and overall sales, so things are going well. We still have work cut out for us to continue to adapt our existing customers and onboard first-time customers. As our customers span the age bracket, we still have lists written out in pencil, and they will never be the power user of the site. And that is OK – as they trust we will service them with the same level of care and support to help run their business like any other.
RM: Well, from what I’ve heard, this has been an amazing project. How has your networking group within AD helped you along the way?
TW: It’s great! AD does an amazing job of bringing member companies together to work together. We all have the same goals, and everyone is open and honest. Our peers are willing to connect and talk because we are one big team. We are not competing with one another; I can reach out and know that we all want each other to succeed. They help us succeed in fulfilling our mission.