In a keynote session today during the virtual B2B Next 2020 conference, Grainger CEO D.G. Macpherson discussed how the prominent distributor is dealing with the pandemic and how it differentiates from Amazon Business. Above: Grainger's Lake Forest, Illinois, headquarters

The B2B Next 2020 conference and exhibition launched today as an all-virtual event, starting with a dialog between D.G. Macpherson, chairman and CEO of W.W. Grainger Inc., and conference chair Andy Hoar, the CEO of Paradigm B2B.

DGMacpherson-Grainger

D.G. Macpherson, CEO, W.W. Grainger Inc.

Macpherson, who has served as Grainger’s top executive for four years, said the prominent distributor of industrial supplies and maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) products is pushing ahead with a broad digital strategy designed to meet the needs of both large and small customers as it deals with the ongoing effects of the pandemic.

“We spend a lot of time with digital,” he said. “We’re really trying to create curated solutions based on our product and customer knowledge.”

But what makes digital particularly challenging for Grainger, Macpherson added, is making the right products available to industrial buyers who may need a particular type of metalworking product from among the millions of products Grainger sells. And that includes pandemic-related personal protective equipment (PPE) as well as non-pandemic industrial suppliers and equipment like metalworking machinery.

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Grainger is dealing with such challenges by improving and using the data it has on customer needs, product details and what’s in its supply chain, as well as making it faster for customers to search for the right products on its websites or get them through digital connections in its inventory management services.

Whether customers are large manufacturers, schools or hospitals, “we want to show products relevant to them,” Macpherson said.

Launching a visual search feature

In addition to the “nitty-gritty” work of improving data management, Grainger recently launched a visual search feature designed with machine-learning technology that improves search results the more customers use it, he said. Machine learning is a form of artificial intelligence that uses data on how software is used, such as during site search queries, to constantly improve results.

Grainger is also forging ahead with its combination of “low-touch” and “high-touch” commerce and services, providing the former in the U.S. market through its Zoro.com business and the latter through Grainger.com and Grainger’s inventory management services, including its KeepStock internet-connected vending machines at customer’s sites. Grainger still offers technical support and services to Zoro customers, but without the higher level of curated products and services Grainger provides to its largest customers with more complex orders.

Taking on Amazon Business

That approach enables Grainger to stand out, including against Amazon Business, Macpherson said. “Amazon Business can be very valuable for some customers, but typically they’re not our targeted customers,” he said. Grainger’s growth, he added, “is based on providing product knowledge and industrial products and solutions to help our customers keep their facilities up and running and their people safe.”

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Going forward, Macpherson said it’s too soon to predict the long-term effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, but that Grainger will continue the trend of recent months to spend more time checking on the personal needs of both employees and customers as well as family and friends. “It’s really opened up a dialog” and “put a human face all on we do,” he said.

For more information on B2B Next, click here.

B2B Next is owned and operated by B2B Next LLC, a joint venture of Digital Commerce 360 and Paradigm B2B.

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