As a wholesale distributor of chimney products, selling direct to consumers was never on Lindemann Chimney Supply’s radar when it came to ecommerce. B2B sales are its core business and remained so after the company relaunched its ecommerce site in 2016.
Nevertheless, the distributor’s revamped site unexpectedly opened up a thriving B2C channel.
Like many B2B suppliers, Lindemann found that it had outgrown its original B2B platform, which was a hodgepodge of systems from myriad vendors that had become too difficult to manage.
“It was a random mix of applications and it got to the point where we hit the breaking point,” recalls Michael Schaefer, director of operations for Lindemann Chimney Co. “We knew we had to upgrade and wanted a solution that could grow with our ecommerce business the next 5 to 10 years versus an ERP system that we’d probably outgrow in 2-3 years.”
After surveying the software market, the company settled on Oracle Corp.’s NetSuite SuiteCommerce Advanced platform. While Lindemann knew that a cloud-based platform could handle all of its customer-facing and back-end needs under one hood, which is what it wanted, SuiteCommerce Advanced was on the high-end of Lindemann’s price range.
“We were also on the low-end of customers in terms of size that NetSuite targets, so it was a pricey proposition for us,” Schaefer says.
But Lindemann decided to bite the bullet and invest in the new platform for the long-term.
Part of the company’s strategy in launching the new ecommerce site, at LindemannChimneySupply.com, was to make the user experience more intuitive by not requiring all buyers to log in to make a purchase. As a result, first-time buyers do not have to set up an account and can see retail prices for chimney caps, dampers, cleaning tools and other products. Quick ordering options and order-tracking features were also available to buyers that opted not to log-in. Existing B2B buyers, on the other hand, can see their discounted pricing by logging in to their account.
“Our intent was to create an ecommerce platform that is easy to navigate and provides fast, easy ordering for B2B buyers because the last thing chimney professionals want is to be talking to a supply house during business hours when they are on a roof working on or cleaning a chimney,” Schaefer says. “Chimney professionals prefer to order early in the morning or later in the evening when our call center staff is not available. Having a website that allows for fast, easy ordering 24/7 lets them place orders on their schedule.”
A sudden surge in direct-to-consumer sales
But a surprising thing happened after launching its new site, Lindemann found it was attracting a whole new customer base—do-it-yourselfers. Suddenly, the distributor had a new direct-to-consumer ecommerce channel that was undergoing explosive growth.
It wasn’t long before Lindemann, which sells primarily via ecommerce channels, had to add staff to manage its B2C channel, which now accounts for 20% of its ecommerce sales and has helped to generate more sales during the COVID-19 pandemic. The distributor also realized it needed to learn how to properly service consumers because their needs are different from those of B2B customers.
“One of the things we realized is that we had to be careful about the products we made available to our B2C customers because they are not chimney professionals,” says Schaefer. “They also ask a lot of technical questions, which raised concerns about how qualified they are to install and use some of the products we offer.”
Lindemann operates LindemannChimney.com, which links to the products site LindemannChimneySupply.com and a site for researching and scheduling residential chimney maintenance and heating, ventilation and air-conditioning services, LindemannChimneyService.com.
LindemannChimneySupply.com sells products ranging from chimney parts and cleaning supplies to fireplace equipment and masonry repair materials. It caters to B2B commercial and wholesale customers who can log into their accounts and do-it-yourselfers who can make online purchases either with an account or by just entering their email address for order confirmation.
Lindemann’s customer service agents direct consumers on the product site with technical questions to The Chimney Safety Institute of America, which can also help consumers determine whether they need a professional to inspect their work.
Matching the UX of Amazon and Walmart.com
“Building a B2C business was never a strategy; it was simply a byproduct of launching a new site that is easier to navigate and provided a better user experience,” Schaefer says.
Lindemann, which also sells to consumers through Walmart.com and Amazom.com, discovered that B2C shoppers wanted the same kind of helpful digital user experience, or UX, those sites offer. That also made the distributor realize that offering the same kind of user experience on its B2C site—which is a public-facing site sharing the same platform as the log-in portal for B2B buyers—would make it a complementary sales channel to its core B2B business.
“The user experience doesn’t vary much between the two sites,” Schaefer says, noting that both are designed for such features as quick-ordering, order-tracking and access to customer service. “The biggest difference is that B2B users can log into their account portal to get the functionality they expect, such as the ability to reorder, see their discounted pricing and order history, and pay their bill.”
Balancing the pricing for B2C and B2B
Another difference between the two sites is that Lindemann makes sure to keep its retail prices high enough on its B2C site so as not to draw the ire of its B2B buyers, Schaefer adds.
With its B2C presence established, Lindemann is preparing to tweak the user experience on its B2C site to make it more aesthetically pleasing. Many of the lessons the distributor has learned about the user experience for B2C customers also apply to B2B buyers, such as more easily finding products and fast checkout.
“B2B and B2C buyers all want the same experience,” Schaefer says. “Interactions with both sets of customers also help us understand how to service them better through our ecommerce channel and what kinds of new products to add. We focus on our ecommerce channels as a whole, not as separate entities.”
Peter Lucas is a Highland Park, Illinois-based freelance journalist covering business and technology.
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