The distributor of plumbing and industrial supplies is seeing pay-off from a carefully planned move into ecommerce that involves its nationwide network of distribution centers.

A year into its relaunch and expansion of business-to-business ecommerce, Winsupply Inc., a distributor of residential and commercial construction and industrial supplies and equipment, is holding its own, says senior vice president of marketing Steve Edwards.

We used to view ecommerce more as a technology and less as a solution. We had to be pretty tenacious to make the change to a new way of doing things.
Steve Edwards, senior vice president of marketing
Winsupply Inc.
SteveEdwards-Winsupply

Steve Edwards, senior vice president of marketing, Winsupply Inc.

But during the years leading up to the relaunch, the toughest challenge was convincing senior management that ecommerce was a viable sales channel that could generate a good return on investment, he says.

Winsupply, a 64-year-old company based in Dayton, Ohio, has more than 600 distribution locations nationwide. The company’s business model is unusual—each of those locations is essentially a joint venture between Winsupply and a local entrepreneur. Winsupply has equity in each location and provides corporate support services, including ecommerce, to all 600 of them.

Early on its ecommerce experience, Winsupply had to replace an outdated ecommerce platform running on technology applications from Elastic Path, with new technology that would help Winsupply achieve its goal of providing a central back-end approach to ecommerce—enabling it, for example, to provide accurate and consistent information on available inventory ranging from plumbing valves to welding equipment to each distribution location’s dedicated website—but also give local owners individual and unique front-end ecommerce sites.

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Along the way, Edwards, as senior vice president of marketing and the organization’s primary ecommerce executive and champion, had to convince internal departments, senior management and affiliated local partners that centralized ecommerce could work, he says.

Ecommerce “was a big investment and challenge,” he says. “It had to be high quality and bring a big-business approach to helping our collection of small businesses grow.”

Several years of drum-beating to push ecommerce

It took seven or eight years of “drum-beating” to get Winsupply ready to deploy ecommerce, Edwards says. Like many distribution businesses that had essentially been doing the business the same way for decades, ecommerce had to prove that the technology “could help build relationships,” he says.

Local Winsupply partners also have a high degree of autonomy. “Each location sets its own pricing and determines how to serve its customers,” Edwards says.

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To begin an ecommerce makeover, Winsupply first deployed new ecommerce technology from Oracle Corp. that could process orders faster and easier from the company’s product inventory of more than 3 million SKUs from thousands of suppliers. Next, Winsupply deployed a product information management (PIM) system from Informatica and a faster site-search engine that led to a 25% increase in ecommerce sales in 2019 from 2018. Today, ecommerce accounts for about 0.4%, or $16 million, of all annual revenue of about $4.o billion.

But Winsupply is just getting started with ecommerce, Edwards says.

Breaking down the barriers to going digital

Today, Winsupply has about 113 distribution locations, each with its own custom website, hooked up to its Oracle ecommerce platform. By the end of 2020, Winsupply expects that number to grow to about 200 locations.

Getting buy-in internally to revamp and take a new approach to ecommerce wasn’t easy, Edwards says. “We used to view ecommerce more as a technology and less as a solution,” he says. “We had to be pretty tenacious to make the change to a new way of doing things.”

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What ultimately persuaded the company’s owners to invest more in ecommerce was more demand from customers—and positive feedback from local partners that liked selling and generating more business online and, therefore, making their business more efficient and profitable.

Building a community of users

“Building a community of users based on customer satisfaction helped ecommerce take off,” Edwards says.

The experience Winsupply has with launching and expanding ecommerce in very traditional industries, where most sales are still generated manually through an older and likely non-technical sales force, isn’t unusual, say ecommerce experts.

To break down barriers and grow ecommerce, the sales force needs to be involved early on, especially when it comes to their compensation, says Lori McDonald, CEO of Milwaukee-based ecommerce services and website design firm Brilliance Business Solutions.

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“Sales teams can perceive digital to be a threat that might replace them, so the key here is to show how digital can make their lives easier,” she says. “Organizations should compensate sales reps the same for sales that come in via digital commerce and for those that come via traditional channels because, this way, sales reps see digital as a tool that will make their lives easier and will work to encourage their accounts to use it.”

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