In a Q&A report, Wendy Sorquist, director of marketing for truck parts distributor Blaine Brothers, discusses the company’s ecommerce plans and why it moved up the launch of its new website after the coronavirus pandemic hit.

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Wendy Sorquist, director of marketing, Blaine Brothers

Intent on being at the forefront of ecommerce in the aftermarket trucking parts industry, Blaine Brothers Inc. set out to build an ecommerce website to meet the needs of owner-operators, small and large fleets and repair facilities. The shop.blainebrothers.com ecommerce site, which lists more than 35,000 parts and will eventually have a B2C sister site, was launched ahead of schedule in April when the coronavirus pandemic forced many of its customers to work from home and changed the way many B2B buyers do business.

Online shopping is becoming more prevalent, and we wanted to be at the forefront of this movement in the heavy-duty industry.

As part of Blaine Brothers’s plan to make ordering online as convenient and easy as possible, the new site allows buyers to receive orders via direct shipment anywhere in the United States, via local delivery or in-store pick-up. In addition, the site provides one-step checkout and real-time inventory at all Blaine Brothers facilities. Blaine Brothers, which also provides truck maintenance and repair services, has five locations in Minnesota and Wisconsin under four different brands: Blaine Brothers, North American Trailer, Blaine Brothers Truckaline, and Hydraulic Specialty brands.

In this question-and-answer article, Wendy Sorquist, director of marketing, provides insight into how Blaine Brothers went about planning and developing its ecommerce platform, how big a part ecommerce is expected to play in its overall business and why it sees the need for a B2C component.

DC360: What prompted the need for an ecommerce platform?

Sorquist: We’ve always looked for ways to better serve our customers, their needs and how they do business. Online shopping is becoming more prevalent, and we wanted to be at the forefront of this movement in the heavy-duty industry. We are thinking both short term and long term with regards to our growing parts business and we chose to prioritize ecommerce because we are confident it is a growing way to do business that will continue to gain more and more traction over time.

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That said, we’re still family-owned and operated, still stand on a foundation of honesty and respect, and we still believe in developing long-term personal relationships with our customers. When you call, we answer the phone, but this may take time that you just don’t have. Now, with our ecommerce site, when you need a part now, you can buy it online and choose to pick the parts up or select the delivery option that best suits your needs. By providing an ecommerce option for those who want to use it, it allows our team the time to provide more individualized attention to those items needing additional research.

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Workers at a Blaine Brothers warehouse.

DC360: How is the platform designed to meet the needs of fleet operators, independent owners and repair facilities?

Sorquist: Certain customers keep inventory while others do not. Either way, they want to know that, when they need something, the part and brand they need is available so they are not stalled in any way. They can also make repeat orders of whatever part or brand they prefer.

Our larger fleet customers are focused on optimizing and controlling their inventory and often don’t have time to work directly with a salesperson. This customer may be checking our inventory levels and relies on easy, modern online ordering to increase efficiency.

DC360: Why did Blaine move up the launch of the new website when the coronavirus pandemic was changing how many B2B sellers are doing business?

Sorquist: We moved up the launch of our ecommerce platform to meet our customers where they are at, during this time when there has been a shift in the way we are all doing business, and when many have been forced to work from home or close their doors to an in-person visit from our outside salespeople.

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DC360: Have sales been affected by the coronavirus pandemic?

Sorquist: At Blaine Brothers and North American Trailer, we are happy to report that the business levels with regards to parts sales remain steady.

DC360: What kind of volume do you expect to generate through the new ecommerce site?

Sorquist: We’d like to grow the ecommerce site to be 15% of the total part sales.

DC360: What portion is ecommerce likely to be of your total business?

Sorquist: 2% to 5%.

DC360: What platform is the new web site running on?

Sorquist: The new site runs on Magento 2. We chose this platform because it provides a development framework that makes it easy to integrate with our Karmak (business management) system for product, customer, and order synchronization. In addition, it supports multiple storefronts, allowing one platform to run two different store views. In this case, the two store views will be for Blaine Brothers and North American Trailer, two of our largest business entities.

DC360: Prior to your new ecommerce site, what kind of online ordering option did you offer, if at all?

Sorquist: We had an online ordering module called Business Online, where customers were able to create orders electronically. The idea with the new platform was to not only match those features, but to enhance and improve some of the features and the user experience, by adding pictures, better part search functionality, and a platform that could also drive more brand visibility over time to be more public-facing.

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Blaines Brothers truck products.

DC360: What kind of sales volume did you have through your previous online ordering option?

Sorquist: With the prior site, sales were less than 5% of the total parts business.

DC360: Have there been any issues coordinating inventory in real time across facilities?

Sorquist: Not so far. The site is designed to show inventory in real time at all of our different facilities and pass that real-time information onto our customers. Our B2B customers can order out-of-stock items and place back orders, but the messaging around that is very clear so the customers’ expectations are met.

DC360: How can the site’s digital ordering tool extend the expertise of service technicians and shop managers?

Sorquist: Phase 2 of the rollout will be increasing the amount of data we display at an item level on the site. Given the roll-out of the new HDDA standards (from the Auto Care Association, which are best practices for communicating product information under one format between heavy-duty aftermarket suppliers and buyers), we plan to model our product attributes after this streamlined data. This will allow us to automate much of the process and would also flow data through to our enterprise resource planning (ERP) to be a powerful one-stop-shop for our technicians, shop managers, as well as inside and outside sales teams. It will also eliminate the need for current paper resources that supply the information and can be manual to retrieve.

DC360: Why add a B2B site?

Sorquist: Currently, we have quite a bit of walk-in traffic, over-the-counter sales, phone sales, and sales from those just passing through town that we call consumer business. Making this digital platform available will allow us to increase our footprint and also remarket to that customer over time.

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DC360: How will the B2C site differ from the B2B site?

Sorquist: The B2C site will have slightly simpler features, at least initially. B2C customers will only be able to ship orders and they will not be able to place back orders. B2B customers, on the other hand, are allowed to place back orders, enter purchase orders and pay using terms if they are an approved account, and can choose between multiple delivery options including local delivery, in-store pick-up and ship-to-location.

DC360: What portion of your business is service?

Sorquist: Our service business is more than half of our overall business. We’ve been around for 40 years, but started solely in the service business but in recent years moved into selling parts and have been growing the business ever since.

Peter Lucas is a Highland Park, Illinois-based freelance journalist covering business and technology.  

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