Getting ready to start the journey from no digital commerce to full-service electronic and electronic commerce sales channels is never an easy course to travel.
But if the path to rollout already includes a mandate for change from key stakeholders such as top management and employees, traversing the terrain is less of a challenge.
A case in point is Alaska Rubber Group, a 41-year-old manufacturer and distributor of industrial and hydraulic hoses, fittings, and related products. The company also sells additional product lines for custom wire rope, chain and nylon sling assemblies, and other rigging supplies.
Alaska Rubber sells to customers in Alaska and Washington State in the agricultural, marine, oil-and-gas, construction, mining, and fishing industries and to various original equipment manufacturers and government agencies.
Today, the Anchorage-based manufacturer and distributor sells primarily to customers through a network of nine branches, including four in Alaska and five in Washington. Alaska Rubber, which is an employee-owned company, is an established business and actively involved in industry affairs, such as membership in a distributor cooperative.
Enriching online displays of products
It is that type of relationship with other partners and customers that is facilitating Alaska Group’s fast approaching launch into B2B ecommerce. For example, rather than do everything entirely on their own, Alaska Rubber is working with two members of its cooperative—Tipco Technologies Inc. in Owens Mills, Maryland, and Western Hose & Gasket Co. (Westflex Inc.) in National City, California—to develop a common website taxonomy and digital product enrichment tools specific to their respective markets.
“We partnered with Tipco and Westflex because we all have similar businesses in the same industry and sell many of the same products,” says Alaska Rubber CEO Mike Mortensen. “It didn’t make sense for each of us to pay to enrich the same group of products, so we partnered on the cost of enrichment for those shared products.”
Alaska Rubber has plans to launch B2B ecommerce as soon as the end of March or early April, says director of ecommerce and digital marketing Mike Powers, who previously worked in a similar position at Hill & Markes Inc., a distributor of industrial, food-service and office supplies.
A big emphasis at the launch of the ecommerce site will be giving digital buyers comprehensive information to research and find specific products—fast, Powers says. “We will have approximately 26,000 SKUs available on our website at go-live,” he says. “Our site will display rich product information for the various industrial and hydraulic products we carry including hoses, adapters and fittings, as well as rigging and lifting equipment.”
Live chat and customer text messaging
The new site will operate on an ecommerce platform from Unilog Inc. linked to an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system from DDI System Inc. When the ecommerce site is operational, Alaska Rubber also will deploy live chat from LiveChat Inc. and add business customer texting messaging from Moblico Solution LLC.
Alaska Rubber has ambitious plans to make ecommerce a bigger part of total sales—and sooner rather than later, Powers says. “Our annual revenue is between $35 million and $40 million,” he says. “Our goal in the first year of being live is to implement a customer adoption strategy that will result in approximately 25% of our customer base ordering online.”
Alaska Rubber envisions a fast-track rollout for ecommerce mainly because, in the wake of accelerating change for more digital customer technology brought about the global coronavirus pandemic, the company did not want to risk being behind the times, Mortensen says. “We understand that there are moats around our current business model with assembly, and custom application engineering, local stock, and customer support and relationships,” he says. “We also understand that the buying behavior of many of our customers is rapidly changing due to what has been referred to as the ‘Amazon Effect’—people want to buy for work in the same way they buy in their personal lives.”
Going forward, Alaska Rubber will make ecommerce a fundamental sales channel that fits with the company’s existing business model, Mortensen says.
“We stopped thinking about ecommerce as a standalone project where we needed to compete with everyone on the web and instead started to view our investment in terms of a fundamental transformation of industrial distribution in our space,” he says. “This vantage point allowed us to evaluate the investment not only in return on investment (ROI) terms, but in opportunity cost—we needed to allow our customers to access us the way they wanted.”
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