MSC Industrial Supply Co. has long focused on a digital commerce strategy that has put its ecommerce sales at close to $2 billion, more than half of total sales.
Backing those numbers is a digital technology platform that supports MSC’s holistic strategy of engaging customers across channels, and through coordinated sales, marketing and service operations.
Raising the bar
The strategy has worked well. In MSC’s most recently reported financial period, the fiscal second quarter ended Feb. 26, 2022, ecommerce sales increased 14.2% from the same prior-year period to $523.2 million, as total sales gained 11.4% to $862.5 million. That put ecommerce sales — including transactions through MSCDirect.com, vendor-managed inventory, internet-connected vending machines, and EDI — at 60.7% of total sales, up from 59.2% a year earlier. For years, MSC has posted steady increases in both ecommerce and total sales, with ecommerce typically running at about 60% of total sales.
Now the distributor of metalworking and industrial products is raising the bar further to bring cross-channel customer experience to a new level, Faisal Hussain, vice president of ecommerce, and Mark Pickett, vice president of cross-channel growth, said in an interview.
To maintain and improve on its cross-channel customer experience and the financial performance it produces, MSC’s ecommerce and cross-channel marketing teams are building out their technology stack and coordinating their operations to constantly review and improve the customer experience across channels.
What can make or break customer experience
In effect, MSC is expanding on its legacy of having developed a customer-focused digital experience by hiring an extensive team of subject matter experts (such as in its MSC MillMax® metalworking program for advice regarding parts and operation of milling machines), developing a culture of focusing on the customer journey, and deploying the tools to monitor and analyze the customer experience.
“We continue to build the structure and evolve the culture at MSC for taking a look at every transaction through a digital lens,” Hussain said. “We take a look at every single transaction, every feature, every capability, every small thing on the website, which can make or break the experience.”
“What does digital really mean?” he added. It is not just developing digital commerce applications and tools, but “actually measuring scientifically every single piece of experience” in a journey that you develop for your customers, internal sales staff, field staff and customer service reps, he said.
This comprehensive digital approach follows an “agile” development strategy, where MSC will adjust technology based on what it learns about how better to connect with customers.
In the past year, that scientific approach led to a critical improvement on MSC’s flagship ecommerce site, MSCDirect.com. The company replaced its legacy site search with one built with artificial intelligence and machine learning technology from Bloomreach, a technology vendor that started out as a site search vendor but now offers a more wide-ranging suite of digital customer experience technology and services. The new site search is designed to constantly measure the tool’s ability to present relevant results that convert customers to buyers and generate revenue.
Upgrading legacy ecommerce technology
MSC is upgrading its legacy ecommerce technology, which is based on a monolithic WebSphere Commerce platform, with APIs to make it easier and faster to deploy additional features designed to improve customers’ buying experience.
“We’re building our own APIs and microservices to make our business more nimble and better able to serve our customer experiences and journeys better,” Hussain said.
A new carting and checkout system is on the drawing boards for next year. MSC is also working with Fabric, an API-based commerce software developer, to develop an ecommerce mobile app.
Making frequent changes – and faster
Hussain wasn’t free to name additional features MSC has in the works. But he noted that the new agile, API-based infrastructure will enable the company to make “iterative changes every two weeks, or every week in our smaller features” instead of taking months under the legacy technology. “We’re placing ourselves in a way where we can make these changes much faster, and we can respond to the market needs.” Eventually, MSC will completely replace the WebSphere platform with hybrid of commercial and in-house technology, he added.
Operating in an agile technology development environment responsive to changing markets also extends to MSC’s marketing operations.
“We’ve made the point of changing philosophically to a more agile approach in our development of marketing-related tasks,” Pickett said.
This strategy helps MSC quickly update marketing campaigns with new collateral and digital enhancements to market new products and offers more effectively.
“That’s key because it allows us to now operate with our product and ecommerce teams on the same schedule,” Pickett said. “From a digital standpoint, there’s a ton of closely knit, integrated, interwoven work that has to occur.”
A boon to customer service
Since the API infrastructure also fosters more effective data sharing among ecommerce and marketing applications, it is also fostering better flow of customer information in customer service.
“If you come in on live chat, we should know you,” Pickett said.
Connections through other digital channels also can provide the same customer with such information as order status, while automated marketing messages may also reach the same customers with information on delivery schedules.
MSC recently deployed the Salesforce Marketing Cloud, which is designed to capture digital signals from any venue where a customer interacts with the MSC brand, such as through online ads, product videos, or webinars. This helps MSC to understand customers’ interests and their preferred customer experience.
More marketing and analytics
In addition, MSC is deploying Google Marketing Platform, which complements the Salesforce technology with analytics and tools for measuring the performance of marketing content. Google’s suite includes Google Analytics and Display & Video 360 for managing video campaigns like MSC’s Tooling Up product demonstration videos on YouTube.
“We’re really going to tip the scales on display advertising this year, and we’re going to jump more heavily into advertising with our videos,” Pickett said. “We have very rich content, but we have to market it more effectively.”
Along with other developments in ecommerce technology and customer service, “we’re expecting to see a much more enhanced integrated and woven experience with customers,” he said. “We’re always pushing the envelope on where we should be because we know that’s what our customers expect.”
This article is from a broader DC360 report on B2B customer conversion strategies.
Mark Pickett will give a general session address, “Digital Drives Cross-Channel Growth,” June 9 at EnvisionB2B in Chicago.
Faisal Hussain will speak June 9 on two EnvisionB2B panels, “Going Headfirst into Headless” and “The (Digital) Customer is Always Right.”
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