When manufacturer Illumina Inc.‘s customers want to order biotech products like the chemical reagents used in DNA sequencing kits, they often have special ordering needs that can be difficult to satisfy.
For example: shipping schedules. Scientists and product developers often buy the reagents in bulk in a single order but need them delivered in small packages to suit their workflow.
“Ship schedules are a huge thing for our customers to use,” says Ash Trasi, director of IT, web and ecommerce. “A customer may need to order hundreds of reagents but doesn’t need hundreds to come immediately. They may need 20 in May and another 20 in July.”
But, until a year ago, Illumina found it hard to provide a smooth online interface on its ecommerce site. It struggled to let customers configure their preferred shipping schedules while taking advantage of placing bulk orders. Its legacy ecommerce site — running on a long-serving monolithic platform — was difficult to customize with a more customer-friendly shipping management interface.
The case for going headless
For that and other reasons related to making its website easier for customers to place orders, Illumina decided in 2020 to deploy an ecommerce site on headless commerce technology from Elastic Path that went live in mid-2021. The headless platform separates the ecommerce engine from the customer-facing front end and the back-end business operations software, enabling the manufacturer to use Elastic Path’s built-in system of application programming interfaces (APIs) to customize each part of the platform independently, cutting back significantly on the amount of overall software coding, Trasi says.
The move to the new ecommerce platform has paid off handsomely. Ecommerce sales have topped $1 billion, up nearly 100% from $600 million in 2020. And customers have responded to a more useful ecommerce site, Trasi says. For a company taking a lead in ecommerce, Illumina’s online sales now account for about 20% of total sales. That grew 40% year over year to $4.53 billion for the fiscal 2021 year ended Jan. 2, 2022. Just as important, Trasi adds: the company’s new ecommerce platform allows Illumina to “be very responsive to customer needs.”
Before technology from Elastic Path
Illumina’s former ecommerce platform, which operated on WebSphere Commerce technology, was developed to make purchasing easier for customers. It had several key features, including a “wish list” system designed to let buyers plan repeated purchasing for multiple laboratories and projects. The platform also had product recommendations and a guest checkout option for buyers without a registered account. It also had an online shipping scheduler.
But the manufacturer wanted to make its ecommerce site, MyIllumina.com, more intuitive and easier for customers to use through a new user interface. Under the old platform, for example, the ship scheduler was more difficult for customers to understand how it worked.
“But under Elastic Path, we were able to make it more intuitive to get customers feeling more confident to say, ‘Yes, I feel confident in requesting my shipments on a schedule,’” Trasi says.
Customization is critical
“Our business requires a lot of customization,” Trasi adds. “Nothing can be turnkey for us. We have to customize quite a bit, especially with the user interface.”
On a headless commerce platform designed from the ground up on APIs, he notes, Illumina now can handle customization projects “within weeks instead of months” compared to work on the former platform. Trasi clarifies that using APIs in customization projects also involves “a lot of work.”
But he asserts that customizing on a headless platform built on APIs is still far easier than working with the software code on a conventional platform. Illumina is also using its digital technology integration to open up more ways for customers to do business with it, Trasi says.
In addition to purchasing directly through Illumina’s ecommerce site, customers come through e-procurement software. That includes the option to punch out from procurement systems to MyIllumina.com. Illumina also plans to work with its headless technology to enhance its vendor-managed inventory program.
The headless technology is making it easier for the company to broaden the use of self-service ecommerce via multiple devices, helping to concentrate the work of sales agents on more high-value, low-transaction volume sales, Trasi says.
Blending ecommerce and CRM
The ability to design a better user interface also helps Illumina ensure the ecommerce site is intuitive to ensure that order management is accurate for the company’s complex customer base. That includes shipping and billing. Many buyers, for example, may act as purchasing agents for multiple laboratories. And those labs may either be within the same parent organization or multiple organizations. “We need to make sure all connections are correct and that buyers all get the same customer experience,” Trasi says.
Integration between the ecommerce site and Illumina’s customer relationship management system is also critical. “CRM is a huge tool for us to know the insights about customers,” he says. “If we don’t understand that, it can be a bad experience for purchasing agents trying to buy from our site.”
Online product content and pricing is typically based around each customer’s company ID and purchasing history, as recorded in the CRM system.
“When a purchasing agent logs into our site for a lab, we have to show the right products and the right price to move more inventory at the right price and margins,” Trasi says.
Sign up for a complimentary subscription to Digital Commerce 360 B2B News, published 4x/week. It covers technology and business trends in the growing B2B ecommerce industry. Contact editor Paul Demery at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @pdemery.
Follow us on LinkedIn and be the first to know when new Digital Commerce 360 B2B News content is published.