When it comes to deploying a B2B e-commerce site, the third time appears to be the charm for a big electrical parts distributor.
State Electric Supply Co., a 67-year-old regional distributor of electrical, data communications and power transmission products, first tried e-commerce in 1998 with a basic, internally developed website. The site let customers, primarily engaged in contracting, buy only a limited number of products online, says vice president of e-commerce and strategic sales David Gravely.
A few years later State Electric relaunched its e-commerce site, expanded beyond contracting to reach new buyers in diverse markets ranging from public universities to such industries as mining, oil and gas and utilities.
The second generation website helped educate State Electric about online selling of electrical supplies across multiple categories, including: automation products, ground rods and grounding systems; lighting fixtures, electric power line construction and utility products; motors and motor control products; and products used in air conditioning, data communications and power distribution.
But the updated e-commerce site still lacked the complex, personalized features web customers wanted; it integrated poorly with State Electric’s enterprise resource planning system from Infor; and it had only a rudimentary data taxonomy and a clunky search engine, Gravely says. “It didn’t do what we needed it to do, and we saw new competitors like Grainger and Amazon beginning to come into our space,” he says. “I went to the CEO, told him we had to get a lot more serious about e-commerce and he told me: ‘Great, you’re in charge—get us plan.’”
New website, new goals
Today, after more than two years of researching vendors, interviewing customers about their online wants and needs, and building a new e-commerce infrastructure, State Electric has a more effective B2B website—along with new ambitious goals and objectives. “We want to get to e-commerce as 10% of all sales,” Gravely says. State Electric doesn’t break out specific e-commerce sales or total revenue.
The new State Electric site was designed by suburban Chicago e-commerce design firm Americaneagle.com and runs on ROC Commerce e-commerce technology platform from Real Omni Channel Commerce Inc.
The retooled website features faster and better organized site search that lets users search through an inventory of about 60,000 products to find products by category, manufacturer or such metrics as voltage or lamp wattage. Product pages have been updated for better images with zoom, customer reviews, more content including detailed product specifications, and better images that site visitors can enlarge with a zoom tool.
Features for registered customers also have been updated. Among the new changes: registered customers with accounts can access online to pricing specials, ordering tools, quote requests and stored user profiles for expedited checkout. Registered customers can also review orders and manage account details.
State Electric spent about 28 months completely rebuilding its e-commerce site and strategy—a process the company originally believed would take only about a year.
Benchmarking for best practices
But State Electric took a methodical approach to its third go around with B2B e-commerce. Gravely first recruited a core team of four employees from sales, business operations and information technology to benchmark other B2B e-commerce sites and draw up features and best practices they like for those sites.
Next the group interviewed the distributor’s department heads and staff on internal e-commerce wants and needs; it also surveyed customers about their online concerns.
Two key priorities that customers wanted were a responsive design, which makes content render properly across desktop and mobile screens, and better site search. Equally important to State Electric was an e-commerce site and infrastructure that the company could use to build a bigger web business going forward.
The process to build the new site was time-consuming. After State Electric found the right technology, it took about a year to reshoot images for thousands of products, rewrite and expand product descriptions and add more technical specifications.
State Electric also sells through 44 physical branch locations in seven states— Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia—which customers can located on an interactive map on StateElectric.com. The map provides an image of each branch, with daytime and emergency after-hour phone numbers.
And with the B2B website rebuilt and active customer base of about 10,000 using the site each month, State Electric now has the tools in place needed to sustain and grow e-commerce, Gravely says. “We can now give customers a lot more value,” he says.
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