Pam Macharola, founder, co-owner and director of e-commerce at family owned Blair Candy Company Inc., is sweet on the wholesale candy business in multiple ways.
She works with retailers and suppliers throughout the United States to move products that are selling well, pull back on those that aren’t and help small—as well as large—candy retailers better play in a market more and more dominated by Amazon.com Inc. and other mega merchants.
In turn, Macharola and her Blair colleagues have kept their 79-year-old company growing amid many big changes in their industry. “We’ve been a wholesaler/distributor since 1939 and have been through the highs and lows,” she says. “Sam’s Club and others came in and affected us, and now it’s e-commerce.”
Blair has learned to adapt to the online world—and in the process has helped to bring a traditionally offline distribution market along with it.
The company jumped into direct-to-consumer retail sales in 1999 with its own e-commerce site to expand beyond its traditional wholesale market and went on to learn by its mistakes. “It was a total disaster,” Macharola recalls. “We hired tech people who built the website for us, but it was too hard to operate. It wasn’t user friendly. It wasn’t worth what it cost us to run it.”
Three years later, Blair migrated its website to an e-commerce platform from Yahoo Inc.’s Yahoo Small Business division. The Merchant Solutions e-commerce platform, also known informally as Yahoo Store, worked well from the start, Macharola says. “We saw a dramatic difference in online revenue, but it was all retail.”
More important, those added retail sales from the web eventually helped to develop an online channel for its wholesale market.
“Online retail customers were shopping for holidays and birthdays and came back for work-related things—like for company breakrooms,” Macharola says. “We weren’t even going after online wholesale customers, no marketing; they were just finding us online from their own personal shopping.”
Blair realized it was again time to adapt, this time to accommodate increased activity from online wholesale customers. The Yahoo e-commerce platform doesn’t come with a B2B option. But at a retail industry conference and trade show, Blair met a firm that specializes in developing wholesale applications for Yahoo Merchant Solutions.
It hired Practical Data, which designed and deployed for it a separate wholesale section on BlairCandy.com. Now, once Blair’s retailer customers register online as wholesale buyers, the candy distributor learns their purchasing interests and personalizes product displays and pricing, Macharola says. It also uses the administrative interface to quickly upload and test new merchandise, so it can learn retailers’ interest in it before Blair commits to ordering large quantities from suppliers. “It’s very easy to test new products, what’s hot in one area and or not hot in another area,” she says.
That ability paid off in a recent Easter season, when it was able to test demand for a new Easter egg candy that became a big seller. “I’m testing another one now, but can’t say what it is yet publicly,” she adds.
Since deploying the wholesale section three years ago, Blair has introduced about 3,000 new products.
As a privately owned company with about 100 employees, including 21 dedicated to the website, Blair doesn’t report its revenue figures. But the new wholesale site has enabled it to significantly expand sales by reaching wholesale customers online, including large, small and mid-sized retailers, Macharola says. “We’re reaching some that are a lot bigger than we had expected,” she adds.
The Yahoo Merchant Solutions e-commerce platform and the Practical Data wholesale application, known as PD/ONE Wholesale, are each provided under a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model, where clients subscribe to access it through a web browser.
The cost to deploy Practical Data’s PD/ONE Wholesale application includes a one-time set-up fee of $900, plus a monthly SaaS fee ranging from $50 to $125, depending on a website’s order volume, according to Practical Data co-owner Joel Jimenez. It may also come with software add-ons, such as a shipping and payment feature that costs about $300, he adds.
The cost to subscribe to a Yahoo Merchant Solutions website starts at a fee of $25.95 per month, plus 1% of the value of transactions for a standard version, or $254.95 per month plus a per-transaction fee of 0.75% for the professional version, which is designed for higher-volume businesses, according to pricing on the Yahoo Small Business site. Both versions include such features as an unlimited number of product listings, unlimited bandwidth and data storage, live chat customer service and web analytics software.
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