Editor’s note: As CEO of BettyMills.com, an online medical supplies superstore in business for nearly two decades, Vic Hanna knows how to weather a crisis and challenging times. But the onset of the coronavirus is challenging Betty Mills in new and very different ways.
From inventory and supply management to customer service business planning and operations, Betty Mills is operating in an ecommerce environment with a whole new set of dynamics.
In this question and answer piece, Hanna talks about how Betty Mills as a digital commerce company is meeting the challenge of the coronavirus and offers perspective and advice on how other business-to-business and business-to-consumer web merchants can as well.
Q: What is your biggest immediate concern and how are you handling it?
Aside from the obvious supply chain constraints, as an online retailer we depend on technology and bandwidth to deliver our service to the customer.
If the weight of the pandemic on our national internet infrastructure were to fail, it would send all of us back to the Stone Age—it wasn’t designed for these conditions.
Q: How are you getting inventory from suppliers? What can’t you get and when will you be able to?
We are 100% drop ship and we have a number of supply partners which are the largest of the large, so we have a deep and diversified catalog and plenty of inventory to work with, but even our largest suppliers were caught off guard and it took a few weeks for them to regain their bearings.
We are beginning to see replenishment on many core items, but at the same time inventory levels are very fluid and what you see now may not be available 30 minutes from now. So in certain instances timing can be a factor.
Q: You said “it’s a war out there” How so?
We’ve long been positioned as America’s medical and sanitary supply superstore so when the first signs of an epidemic appeared, shoppers showed up in large numbers. The first wave of (demand) began in mid-January with the initial run on masks.
Those quickly went on allocation and all the attention turned to gloves and hand sanitizers. Next was liquid alcohol and aloe gels to make your own hand sanitizers. We figured that was the end of it, and then we had a massive run on toilet paper.
Even our business-to-consumer (B2C) customers were purchasing jumbo commercial rolls that you would typically see in a public restroom. Then the panic buying began and everything in our catalog lit up and it hasn’t stopped since.
Q: What adjustments are you having to make for order processing, fulfillment and delivery? How and why? What adjustments are you making to customer service? How and why?
It’s been a good stress test for us. You wake up one morning and many of the operational processes and software tools we had designed over the years which worked fine in the pre-Covid-19 world were not designed to work at this new level of scale.
Much of my day is working with our engineering team to add the next generation of automation to our existing systems to keep up with the demand and the associated workload on the backend.
We are writing code in real-time and rolling it out live within 24-48 hours. I’ve said all along that we will come out of this a much more optimized operation and better prepared for anything similar in the future. Our customer service teams are up very early in the morning and working late hours and on weekends.
Everyone is overworked but we feel we are playing an instrumental role in providing vital supplies at a historic moment in time.
Q: What adjustments are you having to make for marketing? How and why?
Our teams which are responsible for creating product demand and traffic generation have been redirected to support our order processing and customers service teams.
Right now it’s about servicing the customers who have trusted us with their order which they need for their facility, family member or themselves.
That’s not to say that we have suspended all marketing activities, but most of the current traffic is arriving through word-of-mouth and from longstanding repeat customers.
Q: What kind of web sales increase or decrease are you seeing? What about for the year?
I can tell you that for the first 18 days of March, our year-over-year our order count is up 160% and revenue is up 180% during that same comparable period.
Q: You a veteran ecommerce executive – how is this crisis different than 2008 or any other?
We were not very affected by the financial crisis of 2008, but we have seen our share of epidemics since 2002. The product demand onset is fast, sudden and overwhelming.
The inventory is decimated in a matter of days, then it’s all over and things go back to normal. It’s like a hurricane passing through. This one is much different in that it has been sustained across a broad range of categories and it hasn’t let up for the past 60 days and only seems to be increasing.
We’re not sure yet if this is the new normal.
What’s the mood of your customers?
In just a flash everyone’s lifestyle has been upended and it’s very difficult to comprehend. Many customers are feeling anxious, but also grateful to be able to speak with someone on the other end of the phone.
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