Caroline Ernst, vice president, eCommerce Solutions, for Affiliated Distributors, discusses what AD’s more than 850 member companies learned in 2020 and how they are moving ahead in 2021.

Editor’s Note: The pandemic upended how distributors conducted business in 2020, making many distribution organizations adopt a sales model driven in large part by B2B ecommerce. The dynamic of a digital-first business customer will accelerate even more in 2021. While this dynamic creates new digital commerce sales and growth challenges for distributors of all sizes, it also creates new challenges, especially for many older companies that traditionally have relied on non-digital sales channels to drive their business.

In this Digital Commerce 360 B2B question-and-answer interview with Caroline Ernstwho is vice president, eCommerce Solutions, for Affiliated Distributors, she looks at how distributors fared online in 2020, some of the key lessons they learned, and what lies ahead for digital commerce in 2021. Affiliated Distributors, or AD, is an association that serves more than 850 independent distributors and related companies involved in such product categories as bearings and power transmission technology; electrical equipment; gypsum supply; heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC); industrial and safety products; pipes, valves and fittings (PFV); and safety network equipment.  

DC360-B2B: How has the pandemic changed how distributors are doing business online?


Caroline Ernst

Ernst: While an emphasis on digital was already apparent pre-pandemic, the shift to a virtual environment caused by the pandemic forced an acceleration of digital adoption, especially ecommerce. Introducing more buyers to its benefits—such as online ordering and quick order-lookup functionality—is altering their behaviors and their expectations. Importantly, the independent distributor’s mindset is shifting from defining digital narrowly as a web store for selling things, to an enabler of transformative, user-first experiences that boost loyalty.

DC360-B2B: What were the top three challenges distributors had to deal with in the last year?

Ernst: Distributors’ sales teams needed to shift focus to helping their buyers navigate the digital environment and needed to leverage their ecommerce site as a platform for product education and self-service: the logged-in experience. Beyond the need to accelerate digital plans, a big challenge many distributors had to face in 2020 was getting their end-user customers buying from them online—and quickly. Another challenge was that communication channels shifted to digital, and customer support and sales teams needed to meet their customers’ needs without having that in-person touchpoint.


DC360-B2B: What is the top challenge for this year?

Ernst: The top challenges that distributors are facing in 2021 all roll up into one common challenge: adjusting to and innovating in the new normal. Distributors are continuing to reimagine their core value-added services: How do we run events and provide services remotely? How do we provide contactless pickup (buy online and pick up in branch)? How do we promote ecommerce growth for our customers’ convenience? How do we service customers through the “always-on” digital channel with technologies like online chat? Distributors thrive by anticipating and then meeting their customers’ needs.

DC360-B2B: How are distributors meeting these challenges given that many companies still have significant barriers to entry both internally and externally?

Ernst: Marking an unprecedented milestone of living with the COVID-19 pandemic for over a year, independent distributors stayed true to who they are, displaying resilience, creativity, and adaptability in the market. Building on already strong foundations, distributors are investing in people, processes, and technology. In 2020, AD’s eCommerce Solutions saw 30 independent distributors partner with AD on strategy and ultimately go live with AD eContent, bringing our total to 140 total sites live. In an already challenging year, distributors saw their customers’ needs, and made the necessary investment to continue serving their customers and growing their businesses.

DC360-B2B: B2B buyers want more business-to-consumer tools such as product personalization and curbside pickup developed and implementing for B2B buying. Are distributors prepared to make good on these customer expectations?

Ernst: Independent distributors spend a lot of time listening to and understanding what their customers need. They have proved they are adaptable in the marketplace and can continue to meet and exceed customer expectations. One of AD’s members recently said it best. Turtle & Hughes chief information officer Ajay Kamble noted, “Most of our solutions come through the journey of problem-solving for customers. We allow our teams to learn and make mistakes, step upward, and collaborate in real time. We bond with our customers onsite, observe their processes and come up with strategies.”

DC360-B2B: How can independent distributors compete against Amazon Business? Can you give some examples?

Ernst: Distributors thrive with their domain expertise and a service culture that is highly valued by their customers. One positive that came out of the pandemic is a heightened awareness of the value of our local communities and more consumers than ever are focused on shopping local. Google’s “Think with Google” reports a sharp increase in the “near me” and “where to buy” searches. When someone searches to locate a distributor “near me,” independent distributors show up. AD helps distributors with demand generation campaigns via paid search, driving local inquiries directly to local AD distributors. It has always been a part of their culture to support and service their local communities.

DC360-B2B: COVID-19 has permanently accelerated B2B eCommerce and digital buyers now want more—not less—access to buying across multiple digital touchpoints. Are distributors ready for this shift in business buyer behavior? 

Ernst: Absolutely! Digital is just one of the many ways that independent distributors have already adapted to meet their buyers’ needs. We are seeing distributors respond to how their customers want to buy whether it’s levelled approvals, wish lists, mobile, punchout, or marketplaces. Ultimately, AD members see digital as a process, not a project. They are tuned into their customers and are well-positioned to continue to shift.


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