In many parts of the country, the weather-induced seasonal slowdown is upon us. It provides an opportunity to take a hard look at where we are and where we are going. We believe the forward-thinking wholesaler will continue to focus on marketing. Those of you who had a good 2018 may believe you can simply rest on your laurels. Don’t sit counting your past accomplishments, start earning your next award.
Marketing is never done. It certainly would be nice if we could declare that, “After years of hard work the marketing project has been completed. All those who worked on the marketing project will be assigned to other duties.” More than ever before, the nature of marketing is changing and evolving in our industry. The people we sell to are evolving. The buying habits and preferences are changing quickly.
The advances in the retail marketplace are influencing how we conduct transactions in our industry. Social media and the Internet are combining to create the best-informed end user our industry has ever experienced. If you aren’t moving forward, you’re probably falling behind.
What the Online Customer Wants
So, you completed your webstore project. It certainly seems like a good time for laurel-resting. Wrong! The work is just beginning.
You need to keep your product content up-to-date. If you stock a product, it should be available on your store. If you no longer stock a product, it should be gone from the store. When users perceive that your store is out-of-date, they will begin looking for a wholesaler’s site that is up-to-date. The best wholesalers are making changes on a daily basis while good wholesalers are syncing their store with their ERP on a monthly basis.
Users’ expectations continue to evolve and expand. The features and functions of your store should also continue to evolve and expand. Several years ago, having a rudimentary webstore was all that customers expected. Simple order entry and basic account reporting was pretty good. As contractors purchase personal items online, they are exposed to better and better webstore experiences.
These experiences raise their expectations and are the basis for continually improving webstores in the hardgoods industry. Large online sellers, large national wholesalers and large regional wholesalers are investing heavily in their online presence. The bar continues to be raised. Wholesalers who do not have an ongoing project to maintain and enhance their users’ online experience are in danger of falling behind.
Here are some features and functions to consider adding to your basic webstore so it wins additional laurels going forward.
• Provide better searches. Let’s say we are playing a game of “Family Feud” and the question is: “What do contractors care about most in a wholesaler’s webstore?” In our experience, the No. 1 answer would be being able to find the items they need. They don’t want to memorize your item numbers. They don’t want to remember all the goofy, inconsistent abbreviations your descriptions contain. They want to type in the words they use (possibly misspelled) and find the product they want.
The best stores provide analytics the webmaster can use to tune the search engine to provide more accurate searches in the future. Many stores provide this information but most wholesalers do not invest the time to leverage the information to improve their users’ search experience.
• Add associated items. The best stores provide high-quality lists of associated or related items as appropriate. A user who is buying PEX pipe is probably going to need elbows and couplings, plus some crimp rings to complete the job. Make it easy for the user to buy all those products from you without additional searching or clicking.
Experienced people with years of product knowledge about how the product is used and installed create the best products associations. These expert-created associations are time-consuming and expensive to build, thus are often available for only a small percentage of items. Sadly, they are so time-consuming, they are seldom updated as product lines evolve. Over time, they become inaccurate and particularly unhelpful when they link to products that are no longer available.
High-quality associations also can be created using complex, sophisticated statistical analysis of large quantities of transactional data. While not as accurate as the expert-created associations, this approach can provide pervasive coverage of all the items in your inventory and be updated periodically as product lines evolve. We believe the best stores will use statistical associations reviewed and augmented by product experts.
Some webstores provide what we consider to be low-quality associations created by logging a user’s searches on a store during a session and then, erroneously, assuming those searched items are related. While simple to implement, the resulting stupid associations can distract and aggravate the user. Our all-time favorite is a link to toilet paper after entering a search for 12-gauge wire. (This occurred on a national wholesaler’s store.)
• Use more industry-specific terminology. When a user searches for an ELL, the search engine should return elbows. When a user searches for “fart fan,” bathroom vent fans should be returned. If a user enters line set, lineset or line-set, the same list of linesets should be returned.
• Normalize content across all manufacturers. When a customer searches for a chrome faucet, the search should return all faucets that would be reasonably considered to be chrome. In other words, even though the manufacturers have created alternative trademarked finish names for chrome — such as “really shiny,” “extremely shiny,” “shiniest of the shiny” — most buyers will reasonably consider them to be chrome faucets.
They will expect to see and compare them all in a search for the term “chrome.” Good webstores also normalize certain product attributes used in selecting a product. If an HVAC tech selects a filter labeled “3 ton” for condensing units, generally speaking, he would want to see 2.99 ton and 3.01 ton units. For his purposes, they are essentially the same.
• Use customer part numbering. This allows your customers to establish and maintain their own part numbering or search terms unique to their company. Ideally, the customer part numbers they establish while using your store should also be available when they order from your salespeople.
There is a downside: Some contracting companies use their part numbering so they can easily order the same items from several different wholesalers. If they are already using this technique with other wholesalers, you may need to provide this functionality to get into the game.
• Add mobile capability. This means real mobile designed and optimized for small screens and navigation using a finger or stylus. A shrunk-down view of your desktop store just doesn’t cut it anymore. There is a lot of talk now about “responsive” stores. These are stores that respond to the device. Unfortunately, this technology is still evolving and many stores respond badly to many situations.
A modern mobile store will detect the type and size of the device, then adjust to a variety of screen sizes automatically. Users should be able to override this process if desired to use either the desktop or mobile store.
• Provide system or product configuration aids. Some products involve complicated system matchups or product configuration. The best stores provide tools or aids to help users order the correct products for their application. Some HVAC wholesalers provide matched-up kits referencing an AHRI number for the components in the kit, making it easier for a contractor to order a complete system. Other wholesalers provide a step-by-step motor selection tool to help a contractor find the correct replacement motor for a repair job.
• Include selling aids and collateral marketing materials. Good stores provide contractors with marketing materials that help the user to properly present and sell the wholesalers’ products. In our experience, many contractors are good at installing but not as good at selling. When provided with easily accessible selling materials, smart contractors will make use of them, especially when they can conveniently access them from your site at any time.
The better stores provide this information personalized to the specific contractor with his name and logo. This gives the contractor credibility in the eyes of the end user, whether a homeowner or business owner.
The best stores provide this selling information with the customer’s marked-up costs ready for presentation to prospective customers. If you make it easy, they will come.
• Provide data to be used in the contractors’ internal systems. Small- to medium-sized contractors struggle to properly manage their businesses. Many can afford simple accounting and quoting systems but not the staff to keep the pricing and product data updated in those systems. Operating with obsolete data often means they are not charging enough for the equipment and parts they use for a job. Their profitability and viability suffer.
Additionally, some of their systems can utilize purchase order feeds from their wholesaler partner to improve the accuracy of their billing and inventory control processes.
The best wholesalers’ webstores allow contractors easy access to their data whenever it is needed (in an easy-to-use format) or send out electronic updates periodically as requested.
• Support for contractor truck and shop replenishment. Contractors also need help with basic replenishment. The best wholesalers support the use of bar-coded truck and shop bins for easy order creation and submission.
• Add serial number lookup. Contractors, in general, don’t keep great records. Providing tools they can use in your store to look up an invoice by serial number are extremely helpful.
• Support online warranty processing. We understand that most of the complexity surrounding warranty claims can be attributed to the manufacturers’ convoluted processes and rules. However, we believe the best wholesalers shield their customers by creating straightforward, online tools to complete the needed paperwork. They then process claims promptly and don’t leave their customers hanging
• Provide order cancellation. When contractors create an order on your online store, why can’t they cancel it from your online store?
• Support return material authorization entry. Like warranty processing, we believe the best wholesalers make product returns as straightforward as possible. The best wholesalers allow users to complete required paperwork online and then issue legitimate credits promptly.
• Offer credit card payments on account. Many contractors and institutional customers are using credit cards to make payments on their account. Credit cards offer rudimentary reporting and control, plus many offer some form of rewards program. Some wholesalers continue to resist this since they are the ones who pay for the benefits offered to the user.
The best wholesalers seem to understand that, “this is the way of the jungle, Simba.” They get their pricing and payment terms straightened out and enjoy the feeling of getting paid promptly.
The best wholesalers offer partial payment options. They also may provide information to the user about available prompt-pay discounts to encourage the user to use their available credit to pay the wholesaler first.
• Offer credit card order payments. The benefits of credit card use may be significant enough that contractors choose to pay for their orders by credit card instead of taking advantage of the wholesaler’s trade accounts. See “way of jungle” and “enjoy prompt payment” above.
• Add procurement systems or webstore punch-out support. For those who are unfamiliar with these terms, a little background. Many large companies are working to reduce their procurement costs, manage budgets, create audit trails and control buyer access to the hundreds or thousands of supplier stores that are accessed. This causes these companies to use procurement systems such as Arriba and iProcurement.
If you want to sell to larger companies, you should assume that you will need to interface with their specific procurement system. Fortunately, there are some standards in place for these systems. Unfortunately, as with most standards, different software companies often interpret them differently.
We also understand that the company named after a polluted river has decided to build a procurement system offered to users for free. This means that procurement systems will now be available to the small- to medium-sized companies and, increasingly, become a requirement for doing business with those companies.
Not all these features and enhancements will apply to your situation. A webstore implementing all the features on this list might be overly complicated and off-putting to users. We believe, with your understanding of your target customers and prospects, you can implement those features that give your company the reputation for having the best webstore and website in your market.