Distributor E-Commerce Run Amok
Common Investment Mistakes in Digital Strategies
by Scott Benfield
Since the late 1990s, wholesale distributors have invested in e-commerce. Many early investments were in self-programmed systems that offered limited features and simple functions. Nearly two decades later, however, the market for packaged e-commerce solutions and additional software to drive the digital strategy are required. The investment for basic functionality can be in the seven figures — several times over. However, our work in the distribution sector finds that, too often, these investments don’t yield sufficient income to justify their cost. The result can often turn off the millennial buyer, so sales suffer.
Our work and research in e-commerce1 over the past decade finds that many of these mistakes are avoidable and fall into common categories. The purpose of this article is to give distributors guidance on where common pitfalls lie. The supporting examples are from our field work and are disguised; research is from our 2014 Wholesaler/Wholesaler Customer research.2
The Investment Need is Now
Anyone who doubts the distribution sector move toward e-commerce should understand the customer perspective. In our research of wholesaler customers, 81% highly agree with the statement “Wholesalers who invest in e-commerce and e-business capabilities will win more of their customer’s business in the future.” If this isn’t convincing enough, when asked Agree Scale statements, wholesalers offered the following:
- Customers will switch business to wholesalers with easy to use e-commerce sites in the next five years. 54% (Agree/Somewhat Agree)
- E-Commerce will be used to drive sales, outside the sales effort, in the next five years. 51% (Agree/Somewhat Agree)
Currently, 45% of distributors admit to having a satisfactory e-commerce platform while 44% are in an upgrade or investment mode.3 In short, 89% of wholesalers have an e-commerce platform or plans for investment/change in e-commerce efforts. The issue at hand is that the technical wants and needs of the online buyer are increasing and becoming more sophisticated. The technology exists to answer the need but staying current with the software, including integration costs, can easily run into the millions of dollars. This type of investment, if done poorly, can harm the growth prospects of all but the largest wholesalers. Hence, prudent wholesalers should, as much as possible, make sure their investments bear fruit. Following are common areas where we find wholesaler e-commerce efforts often run amok, with much of the loss being avoidable.
Where the Investment and the Digital Buyer are Lost
1) The digital strategy has no underlying marketing strategy.
Digital strategy is a common buzzword in today’s distribution knowledge circles. What the phrase means, exactly, is up to interpretation. The general understanding is that the digital efforts of IT support the company’s overall go-to-market efforts. Our observation is that too many distributors don’t link their marketing strategy to their digital investment. Markets aren’t segmented, current profiles of different customer segments and their e-commerce needs aren’t made, critical products to be transacted via e-commerce aren’t identified, and key vendors aren’t engaged. Yet many IT departments build away on e-commerce capabilities without consulting with marketing on where the technology is needed and how it should be structured based on current marketing intelligence.
In one instance, we found several full-time employees building product content. The problem, with tens of thousands of SKUs fully built-out in the content management system (CMS), was that 90% of the top selling SKUs weren’t in the online mix. In essence, the folks responsible for building the SKU content took no time to consult with marketing or do a basic marketing analysis. They were too busy getting the SKU count up and could never really understand why, with such great content, e-commerce buying was on the decline.
2) What customer research?
In a recent conversation with a top 20 distributor, we asked about research done before investment in a new e-commerce platform was made. The question was left unanswered as there was no current research on customer uses and preferences in digital commerce. Too many wholesalers believe their customers’ use of e-commerce will be the same tomorrow as it was in the past. The problem is that past usage almost always means our site and our customers’ e-commerce experience. The realization that customers use other e-commerce sites and may find the experience of better value is lost unless current research is done including competitive offerings. There’s no blueprint for research on e-commerce preferences. Our research focuses not only on the functional aspects of content but functionality of the entire buying cycle including post-sales support and support when the customer can’t find what they are looking for. Too, borrowing from number 1, research should have a segment identifier, as different segments want different things from the digital experience.
3) We left the marketing mix up to IT, the E-Commerce Vendor, or copied
what we did in the past.
Content presentation, specification and technical documents, item descriptions, product taxonomy, product strings, pricing, sales promotion, and service offerings are part of the planning needed for the e-commerce effort and should come from a seasoned, qualified marketer.
Too often we find where the wholesaler’s sales and marketing are left out of the loop. To fill the gap, we find a pastiche of heuristics for the marketing mix proffered by IT, outside vendors, and executive management. In several instances, we’ve seen where software providers are all too happy to offer generalist experience /advice about the e-commerce marketing mix. Often these advisors are IT educated and experienced; they have limited formal training and work experience as a professional marketer. Unfortunately, too many wholesalers who follow this “wisdom” find it doesn’t work as planned.
4) Me-too and they don’t know that they don’t know either
Too many wholesalers rely on the predictions/prognostications of their counterparts when it comes to crafting a winning e-commerce strategy. They are happy to reference experience from wholesalers who don’t know that they don’t know. The result of this type of copy-cat learning is that it fails to push the envelope on what can be done and is not specific to the firm and its value-added. Successful e-commerce is a big change. It must amend itself to the cultural values of the organization. If these values are not a part of the technology’s design, the customer becomes confused and, too often, put off. In an instance of several years ago, we found a high-touch/high-level service organization with a sloppy, inaccurate e-commerce site. Customers refused to use the site as it ran counter to their regular sales-assisted buying experience; it cost them too much time to order and shipping and billing inaccuracies soared.
Effective learning for e-commerce and digital sales growth is proprietary and comes hard. Once learned, the lessons are ingrained in the organization and a spirit of searching for answers, including doing research, is engendered. If you are basing the majority of your digital strategies on generalist statements from an association meeting, you are likely to be disappointed. And, if outside research and advisement contains no commentary from the customer, our bias is to file it in the round file.
5) Our content is fine and we have lots of SKUs to cover the customers’ needs.
Our research finds that customers demand accurate, reliable, and current product content. If they can’t get it, they quickly and quietly migrate away from the site. Our recent research into the number of SKUs represented finds that wholesalers with over 100,000 SKUs have a higher organic growth rate than firms with the standard 20,000 to 40,000 SKUs.4 Many of these products are not stocked but reflective of “virtual distribution.” Customers who shop online want to maximize their spend on one site. The more SKUs available and the better the content, the less they waste time switching to alternate sources.
To have a large SKU count with accurate, reliable, and timely information, the billion dollar firms have Product Information Management (PIM) software that helps manage product content across different data fields. It allows vendor data to update the ERP and CMS systems with a minimum of manual intervention. It also allows bundling of common products to improve the transaction size. In a recent poll of distributors in the $100 million to $300 million range, we found over 90% did not know what a PIM system was. Our research finds that the organic growth of the billion dollar players is, on average, twice their current rate of their smaller-in-sales counterparts with the telltale difference being a large amount of online SKUs (over six figures) and the vast majority of these companies have PIM software.
6) We’re not changing our salesforce and they don’t need to sell the customer on e-commerce usage.
One of the upfront financial advantages of e-commerce is that it allows the distributor to trim or slow investments in sales and solicitation. The immediate payoff is in customer service and inside sales. Outside sales reduction is more difficult, but often is delayed due to a cultural bias as many wholesalers are managed by former sellers. Many customers, especially those who buy commodities, are less willing to pay for the luxury of a fully staffed sales effort. When asked if “much of the wholesaler sales effort will be replaced or reduced by e-commerce in the next five years,” 64% of customers responded with a medium/high probability of change.
If the wholesaler is updating e-commerce, management should have a plan on how the sales force will be changed. Too, remaining sellers should be trained on how the new platform is used, how to advise customers on usage or where to turn to for help. Having the sales force indifferent to or afraid of the technology only harms the customer experience. Yet, we find significant monies spent on digital strategies and no appreciable training of the sales force once the service offerings are launched.
7) Build it and they will come
Borrowing a phrase from the movie Field of Dreams5, we find that there is a bias to let a specialized team, often chock full of Millennials, develop the digital strategy. Experienced employees in supporting functions are too often not included as part of the ongoing project. Developing a digital strategy, including effective e-commerce, is a full-firm commitment that requires participation from all departments and executive vision. We’ve seen e-commerce “teams” that didn’t include operations, sales, or IT beyond the proof of concept phase or have their sign-off on the overall plan. We’ve witnessed executives who assume that a staff of e-commerce techies and Millennials are all the firm needs for a digital strategy and leave the long-term experienced employees out of the ongoing development. Our view of this type of “leadership” is that it fails from the moment the project is started. A digital strategy is a big commitment and a big change. Critical employees from all functions should be involved and engaged; otherwise they are left out and unanticipated problems occur.
Punch-out or procurement technology started in the late 1990s. It is the programming solution(s) that allow the customer to place an order on their supplier’s system and have it translate to their ERP/ in-house system. Software providers include Ariba Systems, Commerce One, and Oracle Exchange, among others. Punch-out keeps the customer from double order entry and introducing error into the ordering process. In our end-user survey, 70% of the respondents gave a high probability to the statement, “In the next five years, e-commerce sites that don’t require us to double enter our orders . . . . will get more of our business.”
Most current day e-commerce solutions have a punch-out suite; many of the first generation self-programmed solutions don’t. Anyone seriously considering being competitive in e-commerce will have punch-out technology.
The Tech is Often Not the Problem
Bad investments in e-commerce and digital strategy seldom involve the technology with the exception of PIM software or procurement punch-out. Most of the software works as planned or can be programmed to work effectively. The majority of problems stem from poor marketing information and involvement, limited customer research, limited and inaccurate product content, and not involving functions from across the organization. These issues can be solved with executive vision and regular involvement. They are largely resolved or engendered, long before the software is purchased and integrated.
Scott Benfield is a consultant for B2B channels. He is the author of six books on channel issues. Much of his work involves distributors and their vendors. He can be reached at Scott@BenfieldConsulting.com or (630) 428-9311.
4) Benfield, S. “Big Data or Not,” Industrial Supply, October 2014