While many manufacturers know they need to meet buyers’ demand for ecommerce, many have been slow to embrace the channel. Take Bedford Industries, a 55-year old plastic fabrication manufacturer. Entering 2020, ecommerce was still a twinkle in Bedford’s eyes, even though it had long-range plans to open an ecommerce store.
The reason for Bedford’s foot-dragging is familiar to many manufacturers: ecommerce is a sales and fulfillment channel quite different from the traditional B2B distribution model. “Plus, we weren’t sure what percentage of customers would use it,” says Jay Milbrandt, president of Bedford Industries.
Moreover, the company had more pressing concerns to address, such as replacing its home-grown enterprise resource planning (ERP) platform. That process had just gotten underway earlier in the year when the coronavirus pandemic began ravaging the United States.
Coronavirus forces changes in products and sales
Then the pandemic rushed in, pushing Bedford into a new business line of producing personal protective equipment and into a new ecommerce channel to handle surging demand for it.
Almost overnight, the demand for personal protective equipment exploded as businesses scrambled to find PPE for employees. As a manufacturer of plastic-coated twist ties and other bendable components used in commercial packaging, Bedford saw an opportunity to pivot a portion of its production line and begin using its materials to manufacture face masks.
But as executives huddled with the research and development team, a new thought emerged: Why not produce face shields instead? After all, Bedford’s ElastiTag product, a large rubber band with a label used on food products and bottles, could easily be altered to become a band that fits around someone’s head and holds a face shield in place. Plus, demand for face shields was expected to be high because they not only protect against the spread of COVID-19 respiratory droplets, but their use helps conserve N95 respirators and other types of face masks.
Building an ecommerce site to handle customer demand
Within 24 hours of that meeting, Bedford developed a production-ready prototype. After gathering feedback on social media, the company decided to put the face shield, dubbed the ElastiShield, into immediate production. But as word began spreading that Bedford had face shields and a key component for face masks for sale, support staff became overwhelmed with calls from customers. Bedford, which already sold to major medical institutions and hospitals, also started receiving calls from nursing homes, grocery stores, first responders, hospitals, medical centers and meat processors looking to purchase its PPE products.
The surge in call volume created the need for Bedford to quickly pivot again and launch an ecommerce store to better manage PPE sales. To get an ecommerce site up and running as soon as possible, Bedford worked with NetSuite Inc., which had already begun installing the manufacturer’s new ERP system for a fall 2020 launch.
“As calls for PPE poured in, we realized we had to change our mindset when it came to how we interacted with customers, and that meant setting up an e-store right away,” Milbrandt says. “We knew that if we waited months to build out an ecommerce site, we’d miss the window of opportunity for demand.”
Integrating ecommerce orders with ERP
Building an ecommerce site from the ground up in a matter of days was a tall order for NetSuite and required a coordinated effort between its ERP and ecommerce services teams, he notes. One of the biggest challenges facing NetSuite’s ERP team was developing an ecommerce store that would not interfere with the full implementation of Bedford’s new ERP platform down the road.
The starting point was developing basic ERP functions, such as creating matrix items for the three PPE products Bedford wanted to sell online—500-count boxes of nose wires for face masks, 100-count boxes of face shields, and 500-count boxes of face shields. Next, Bedford need to build an auto-billing workflow that allowed online orders to flow through its financial system. Then it had to write software code to integrate its website with parcel carriers and payment processors.
A week after Bedford’s request to develop an ecommerce site, its new site was up and running, the manufacturer says. Bedford employees underwent a condensed training period of a few days. Typically, it can take about 30 days of training for staff to become comfortable operating a new ecommerce site.
Within an hour of launching the site, Bedford received its first order. Within 24 hours, it received 40, and within two months, more than 850.
Expanding into B2C as well as B2B
But B2B buyers weren’t the only ones placing orders. Customers Bedford typically did not service—such as small medical practices, dental offices, consumers sewing homemade masks for co-workers, family and friends, and individuals in search of PPE—were also placing orders.
To better manage PPE orders, Bedford directed all inbound callers looking for PPE products to the website. For orders existing clients placed offline, Bedford’s sales reps inputted them manually into the ecommerce store. For new customers who landed on Bedford’s non-transactional website while searching the web for PPE products, Bedford placed a link on that site to the ecommerce store at Store.Bedford.com.
“Having the website has freed up staff to manage small orders and orders from consumers, which we weren’t prepared to fill otherwise,” Milbrandt says. “The move to ecommerce made it possible for us to service smaller and direct-to-consumers orders.”
In the months following the online store’s launch, orders for PPE have slowed as industry-wide manufacturing capacity ramped up. Still, ecommerce orders account for about 10% of Bedford’s total orders per day. And the manufacturer’s experience with ecommerce so far has management thinking about maintaining direct to consumer sales through its website, while offering a portal for B2B buyers to review past orders, digitally receive invoices and make payments.
“The pandemic has migrated more B2B buyers and consumers to ecommerce,” Milbrandt says. “Looking ahead, we see B2B and B2C merging as a sales and marketing strategy, because they don’t look all that much different now that we have undergone this transition in our business.”
Peter Lucas is a Highland Park, Illinois-based freelance journalist covering business and technology.
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