Lighting products distributor Atlanta Light Bulbs has a clear view of how it must turn on B2B e-commerce: “You get out what you put in,” says CEO Doug Root.

Atlanta Light Bulbs, a family owned distributor founded in 1981, has been selling online to corporate buyers of general and specialty light bulbs and related products since 2001.

But to maintain its edge as a distributor to commercial and industrial customers, it’s doing a lot to upgrade its back-end business software systems and website features to keep its e-commerce operation up to date and relevant. “We tear the guts out of things sometimes,” says CEO Doug Root.

We got complacent once when an old clunky system was making good money, and then our competitors wised up to e-commerce.
Doug Root, CEO
Atlanta Light Bulbs

In 2015 Atlanta Light Bulbs, No. 231 in the B2B E-Commerce 300, swapped out a clunky and nearly 15-year-old, mostly homegrown e-commerce platform for a new platform from BigCommerce Pty. The new e-commerce system from a commercial provider did away with the hand-coded web pages that sometimes took Atlanta Light Bulb developers hours to code a single product change on up to 12 pages, Root says.

The lighting products distributor worked with software developers from web development firm MindHarbor to use application programming interfaces, or APIs—sets of software instructions for integrating software applications—to make changes to product pages nearly instantly when and where they need to. Atlanta Light Bulbs carries an inventory of 9,800 products from a network of 110 vendors in such categories as light bulbs, fluorescent light fixtures, medical lamps, solar-compatible lamps, lighting accessories and wire-cutting tools.

The new technology has enabled the lighting distributor to introduce new website features, including Price Waiter, a tool that lets buyers calculate an order and submit a price they are willing to pay, and QuoteNinja, which lets buyers receive a detailed quote on the website or via a mobile app, and an optional emailed checkout link to complete the purchase through the distributor’s online shopping cart.

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In 2017, Atlanta Light Bulbs posted B2B e-commerce sales of $3.2 million, up 6.7% from $3 million in 2016. But if the company expects to hit its B2B e-commerce sales target of $4 million in 2018, it needs to keep adding better functionality and even more web features, Root says. “We got complacent once when an old clunky system was making good money, and then our competitors wised up to e-commerce,” he says. “We aren’t complacent anymore.”

These days the biggest forthcoming change is moving the company’s present enterprise resource planning system from the BigCommerce platform to a new ERP system from Oracle NetSuite, a unit of Oracle Corp. With a new ERP system linked to its e-commerce site, Atlanta Light Bulbs will have better and more integrated product data, Root says. That, in turn, will enable the distributor to add tools or refine existing features for generating self-service quotes, account self-management, user-specific pricing, order tracking and other features.

Better integrated technology systems will replace what Root says is too much siloed information on sales and inventory within his company’s software systems for its multiple selling channels, including its showroom, telephone sales, and orders received from resellers and overseas buyers.

“Everything is all about complete transparency, so with a new ERP system tied to our front end, all of us will know where product data and order status stands,” he says. “The nature of B2B e-commerce is changing and older purchasing agents and corporate buyers are being replaced with younger buyers—in many cases millennials—who don’t want to talk to a sales agent or make the trek to a warehouse or store to place orders. For large orders, you need to get a quote—and the modern millennial B2B buyer doesn’t want to have to pick up a phone to do that. Today’s B2B buyers just want to get things done—right then and there.”

A new ERP system in conjunction with a better e-commerce system is helping Atlanta Light Bulbs attract and retain more customers and generate bigger orders that had seemed out of reach under ALB’s prior technology setup. For instance, the average B2B ticket on the distributor’s website is about $140, but specialty orders can be much higher—and now can be more easily processed online thanks to the ability of the new site to integrate with the ERP system and pull the correct product and pricing information.

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Many large hardware and home improvement retail chains may only stock lighting products in seven or eight categories, Root says. But new and integrated ERP and e-commerce systems let Atlanta Light Bulbs stock lighting products—including many specialty items such as particular types of light emitting diodes, LED products—that other websites may not carry. “Specialty orders are pretty big ticket,” Root says. “We have a single order we are processing now for $6,700.”

Improved customer-facing and back-end business operations software systems are giving Atlanta Light Bulbs better ways to keep buyers coming back, even if they abandon a shopping cart.

Atlanta Light Bulbs has reduced its shopping cart abandonment rate by 29% with such programs as RewardCamp, which provides customers credits every time they buy something; and its QuoteNinja mobile app, which generated more than $100,000 in orders within 90 days post-launch. QuoteNinja lets ALB customers request a price they would pay for bulbs or related products, and receive back a quote, typically within the same day. Buyers next have the option to change or modify the quote for the quantity and product price they would pay and, if accepted by Atlanta Light Bulbs, use a purchase link to complete the order.

“Customers get a message that says we’ve accepted their offer, or if their suggested price is too low, we offer them a different deal,” Root says.

Despite having a long tenure and lots of expertise selling to corporate buyers online, e-commerce only accounts for about one third of the company’s annual sales of about $12 million, Root says.

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Nonetheless, the online channel helps it stand out among business buyers. “We’re a small business, and e-commerce made us a really well-known player in the lighting market,” Root says. “We need to differentiate in an increasingly competitive B2B online market.”

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