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While we've discussed various aspects of webstores in recent columns, it has been a while since we provided a more comprehensive list of thoughts about selling online that you might want to consider. Selling on the web is not a “no-brainer” topic; in other words, it is definitely a “yes-brainer” topic. You will need to adjust and adapt this list to specifically address how you want to go to market, the types of customers you want to serve, and the unique buying customs of your market. Your objective is not to just have any old webstore, but to have a great to best-in-market webstore.
As with many columns, this is your starter list for the creation, upgrade or replacement of your webstore.
1. Webstores are marketing work — Would you have your tech folks write advertising copy or plan marketing promotions? Hopefully the answer is no even if your team wears a lot of different hats. Webstores are about selling product to customers more than anything else. Your tech people will be a big part of the project, but it should be driven by the marketing team. Even though they may not be tech savvy, it is becoming more critical that your marketing team get on board with their part (content and promotion of the webstore to your customers) of the project.
Further, some techies are more interested in a webstore that embraces the most recent list of IT acronyms-du-jour versus what your customers really need and want. There is an old cartoon showing a child swing designed by engineers constructed of the latest materials with manufacturing processes. It is over-engineered and beyond the budget of any normal family. The other side of the cartoon is entitled, “What the kid really wanted.” The picture is an old tire hung from a tree with a piece of rope. To be fair, there are great IT folks who do care about customers but have little contact with them and thus are not able to build empathetic systems.
2. Average is probably not good enough — The big nationals and regionals are investing a ton of money in an attempt to lure customers away from their independent wholesale competitors. Webstores are one of the few areas where they can leverage their size to differentiate themselves from independents. In many areas like personnel, product lines and inventory, there is a fairly level playing field. Sure, the big wholesalers may buy better; but buying groups have removed much of the buying advantage that large wholesalers once enjoyed. Plus, a great webstore plays across the country or region they serve without much incremental investment. Most independents cannot invest at the same level but, they can set their sights on providing a great webstore versus an average webstore. When they translate their great empathy for the customers they serve into a focused webstore, I think they can build a best-in-market store that trumps the bigger investment of their larger competitors.
3. The idea is to outsmart, not outspend, your competition — Good webstores require an investment of money and expertise. In my experience, throwing money at the project will not supplant the need to invest your expertise in the project. There are a lot of very expensive webstores that just don’t work well for customers. Recently, a wholesaler was telling me about a demo from a company selling a very pricy webstore. They searched one of their plumbing stores for a 1/2" copper el…zero products found. Good stores are directly related to the amount of intellect you invest and not directly related to the dollars you invest.
4. Blocking and tackling first — In our opinion, a competent webstore will have three things:
• A good engine (software) to run the webstore. To manage the cart, search, report and guide the user through product selection and purchasing. We have seen some great-looking webstores that just don’t work and that’s not what your customers want.
• Great content. A million-dollar webstore that uses the product information from your ERP will probably look like crap. Unless you are very unusual, your product information was entered in uppercase by many people over many years and was formatted and abbreviated, inconsistently, so it could be shoehorned into a small data field. Further, the intended use of the information was to maintain the inventory — not to sell the product. The type and amount of information needed to make a buying decision and search for items is very different. Also, there are many ways to obtain content — build it yourself, have someone build it for you or steal it from someone else’s website.*
• Integration with your ERP and other software that may help your customers.
(* We strongly recommend against grabbing information from other wholesalers’ websites. It may be illegal and certainly isn’t honorable. We also recommend that you carefully consider content companies that use web “crawlers” to grab copyrighted content, without the owners’ permission, for your webstore. We aren't lawyers, but this is a situation to run by yours before you move in that direction.
5. One-site fits-all webstores are often a compromise for all users —In our industry there seem to be three types of sites:
• B2B (Business to Business) sites where the wholesaler is serving the trade customer primarily in the wholesaler’s normal trading area.
B2B sites are all about providing a tool for trade customers to use in their business. Ordering product, planning jobs, tracking job costs and paying on their account seem to be the most important features.
• B2C (Business to Consumer) or Retail sites targeting consumer customers primarily limited by the shipping costs of the product. B2C sites are still the unrealized dream for most wholesalers. Their dream is to use their warehouse full of product and a separately-branded webstore (so the unsuspecting contractors don’t discover that they are selling around the contractors directly to consumers) to sell to consumers across the world in a series of high-profit, one-night-stand transactions to people they will never meet. The dream is seldom realized since B2C introduces a whole new set of challenges and problems to be addressed. Some wholesalers— who have invested in getting good at it — claim to be generating good returns. Others, who were just looking for quick incremental sales from outside their market (aka easy money), have not faired as well.
• Showroom sites to promote the wholesaler’s bricks-and-mortar showroom. We don’t think showroom sites are about necessarily selling online; they are there to generate traffic to your showroom so your team can help them plan their projects. So the goal is to convince these prospective customers that your team has the skills and taste to guide them through their expensive, stressful and very-personal projects
It's our belief that one site does not fit all situations. When you attempt to serve these different groups from the same site, you are probably providing a sub-standard experience to each of your targeted groups. Plus from a marketing viewpoint, the branding, look and feel for each type of site should probably be different.
6. Function first but looks do matter — A trade plumber wouldn't stop using a site because it is attractive or unattractive — but they''ll abandon your store in an instant if it makes their job harder. For a majority of trade users, it is real simple: Find the item; Order the item. With the smallest number of steps and diversions that are possible. They are not looking for an inspirational shopping experience or their favorite “Plumbers Gone Wild” site. This is a tool to get their job done.
7. Your ERP company may provide one possible webstore solution, but not the only possible webstore solution and maybe not the best option for your company — One misconception many wholesalers have is that the solution from their ERP provider is their only option or that it is the optimal one. In some cases, this falsehood is proffered by your ERP provider’s sales person. (Who might have a significant financial stake in getting you to buy his solution. He might even tell you that other solutions cannot integrate with the ERP to access the customer and product information. This is seldom the case.) To be fair, our company sells webstores that bolt onto many of the popular ERP packages so we, too, have a vested interest. We'd just encourage you to objectively consider all your options and choose the best solution for your company and customers.
8. Like it or not, Mobile is hot — Generations A through Z are using phones for more things. Some webstores claim to be “responsive.” This means that they use pages that adapt to the specific device and screen size automatically. So it’s the same pages on the PC, tablet or phone with only one set of complicated pages to maintain. Sound too good to be true? Most webstores claiming to be responsive are actually “somewhat responsive” and thus may be a compromise to efficiently getting the job done on their phone or tablet. The best mobile experiences that we have seen use mobile-specific code that is tuned to the smaller screen size. Both approaches can work, but crappy responsive sites are not the answer.
9. Providing other tools to your customers can sweeten the experience — A site that provides collateral marketing materials, system matchups, piping diagrams, manuals, heat load calculations, training schedules, parts lookups, inquiries into your suppliers’ inventories, etc. The idea is to allow a one-stop experience to customers who visit your site.
10. Your team needs online tools too — The ability for your sales team to use the webstore to create orders or quotes to users and to review their customers’ account information will make them more efficient. Doing all of this from their PC, laptop, tablet or phone allows them to work more efficiently.
11. Punchout is growing in popularity — First a short description of Punchout: Many companies, especially large companies, are trying to get their procurement processes under control and make them more efficient. One of the promising ways to improve efficiency is by buying on the web. One roadblock to buying on the web is that these companies have hundreds or even thousands of suppliers — and each has its own webstore. So the buyers have to bookmark or remember who they buy from and also the web address of every supplier, as well as the user id and password for each.
To manage all these moving parts, procurement systems like Ariba, IProcurement, GEP and others are being installed. Typically, these systems can maintain and enforce an approved supplier list, audit purchases and provide a single access point to all the hundreds or thousands of supplier webstores. The single access point often involves automatically “punching out” of the procurement system into the suppliers’ webstores. So when Buyer A needs a relay, he may see that ABC Supply supplies relays, so he clicks a button to “punch out” to the ABC Supply webstore. His procurement system automatically makes a secure connection to ABC Supply’s webstore. The buyer then navigates through the store like any other user and adds items to his cart. When he “checks out,” the order is not sent directly to ABC Supply. Instead the cart is sent back to the procurement system to be combined with other purchase orders destined for ABC Supply. The actual consolidated purchase order to ABC Supply will be sent via EDI or through the procurement system.
These systems are becoming more pervasive and required in order to do business with some companies. If you want to get into the game of selling to these large sophisticated buyers, Punchout is in your future.
12. Get your team on board and trained in using your store — All of your customer-facing team should be trained and able to demonstrate the features of your store. Some of your team may not be tech savvy. Others may think your webstore is a threat to their relationship with the customer. They need to understand that customers who are interested in shopping online are going to use your store or a competitors store. The notion that a tech-interested customer can be dissuaded from buying online in favor of the “old way” is very naive.
So that’s our quick list of webstore issues for your consideration. If you don’t have a webstore or your webstore stinks, you are probably losing business to a local or national competitor. It is time to get going to stop that erosion.
As you may know, our software company Schmitt ProfiTools, Inc. offers webstores and website design. We've really tried to write this column as neutrally as possible about the issues that you will face.
However, if you would like to discuss these topics with us and see our solutions, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and she will set up a webex so you can see some examples of what we've described.
(Final note from Rich: You will notice that Jennifer Schmitt, my daughter, is now sharing the byline with me for the Smart Management column. She has been a contributor to the column on and off for several years. Her contributions to the column have grown to the point where I am proud to share the byline with her. I am delighted that Jen understands how great our industry is and continues to expand her participation in it.)
Rich Schmitt is president of Schmitt Consulting Group Inc., a management consulting firm focused on distribution and manufacturing clients for pricing, consulting seminars and profit improvement. He is also the co-owner of Schmitt ProfiTools Inc. (SPI), which provides web storefronts and handheld tools, print catalog software, content creation and services, and pricing management and analysis. Visit his company websites at www.go-scg.com and www.go-spi.com. Schmitt can be reached directly at email@example.com