If you’ve purchased popcorn at the movie theater or picked up some candy in the checkout aisle at The Home Depot, you probably didn’t know it was likely Performance Food Group Co. that provided it, Jim Lyman, the executive behind the company’s ecommerce strategy, said at the 2023 EnvisionB2B Conference & Exhibition last month. Lyman, the vice president of ecommerce and customer enablement at Performance Foodservice, PFG’s largest division, went on to describe in a keynote presentation how PFG is building out a corporate-wide ecommerce growth strategy across its market segments.
The Performance Foodservice division supplies meat, seafood and other foods and products to restaurants and other businesses and accounted for more than half of the parent company’s $50.9 billion in net sales for the year ended July 2, 2022. PFG operates in two additional reportable segments: Vistar snacks and beverages to movie theaters and other businesses; and “convenience” products ranging from snacks, beverages and tobacco products to fresh produce and bread to convenience stores and other merchants.
PFG also provides such value-added services as help in menu development, procurement policies, and operational strategy. It has about 150 distribution centers, 300,000 customers and 35,000 employees.
Lyman was tasked with bringing together the multiple segments of PFG’s business on a digital commerce platform. He first wanted to know how PFG interacted with customers.
“What we found is that we have disparate systems because of all the acquisitions we’ve made over the years,” Lyman said, noting that PFG acquired Reinhart Foodservice in 2019 — a transaction valued at $2 billion. “Our customers were ordering through multiple ecommerce platforms. We were using multiple mobile apps with our customers. And our sales team had multiple tools as well. Frankly, it was confusing for everyone.”
The online customer experience also needed improvement, Lyman said. Not only were there multiple ecommerce systems running for different arms of the business, but search performed differently for each as well, he said.
“If you did a [website] search, any one of those results came back different,” Lyman said. “There were no consistent products. Descriptions were inconsistent.”
Overhauling the B2B ecommerce experience
Lyman and his team met with the company’s board to ask for capital to invest in revamping the online customer experience.
“We said, ‘Let’s redo the online customer experience from beginning to end,'” Lyman said.
The goal? Create a single platform for customers to buy from any of the multiple segments of the business, Lyman said. Customers can order what they need as well as receive product recommendations.
“We had to take a look at the segments and figure out how to bring them all together,” he said.
To do so, Lyman and his team had to better understand its customers. For example, customers purchase more than candy and snacks. Some customers are restaurants. Restaurants purchase items like meats and other food items in bulk.
“And the way a food service or a restaurant operates can be two wildly different things,” he said.
Upon further inspection, Lyman’s team discovered its products didn’t have consistent images and product descriptions. There were no allergens listed, for example.
“We didn’t have all the things we needed in a format to present to our customers,” he said. “And this is very serious because if we give the customer the wrong product, and it has allergens, that’s a real problem. Somebody could die.”
Data quality control
Quality of data is just as important as volume of data, he said. Internal product descriptions with cryptic abbreviations were just as detrimental to the online search experience as lack of images and product descriptions.
“You can have the best search system, powered by artificial intelligence, but if your data is bad, you’re going to get bad results,” Lyman said.
The company’s marketing and IT teams went through product descriptions to streamline abbreviations and descriptions.
The next step? Marketing language, he said. “Now we’re on the journey to get to the next level of marketing descriptions,” Lyman said. “We’re not there yet, but we’ll get there.”
Converting customer data
Another important piece of data is customer data, Lyman said. “When we convert customers’ data, whether it be invoice, transactional or lists they ordered/pricing, it gets converted from the [old] system to the [new] system,” he said. “That’s a painful process. And no matter how much you check, there’s going to be some [errant] hyphen that throws something off.”
So, Lyman tested each iteration — and monitored customer behavior.
“We asked customers what they wanted to be able to do,” he said. “But then we watched what they actually did — and it’s amazing how those are usually two different things.”
Like, how many clicks did it take for a customer to search and complete an order, he said. “Several,” Lyman said, which PFG also worked to reduce and make easier for customers to convert.
Lyman continues to survey customers and monitor behavior to see where the company can make improvements.
“We got great comments as well as points of frustration,” Lyman said. “You have to have some pretty thick skin.”
After two and a half years, PFG has a single integrated system, he said.
A new way of thinking
PFG also looked beyond the customer-side of its ERP system and reviewed its internal system. In order for Performance Foodservice to improve its ecommerce experience, Lyman said it was essential to think beyond “legacy thinking.”
“Avoid thinking like, ‘We’ve always done it this way,’ or, ‘We have to do it this way,'” he said.
PFG had to test multiple approaches. When developing for multiple brands or business segments, it is necessary to first choose where to start. In this case, the company focused on candy and snacks and then food service.
“We now have one version of truth for product information, product descriptions and all the informational images,” he said. “Instead of customers seeing different systems across our system, we now have one version of truth for them. And that was a pretty heavy lift.
Moving forward with best practices
“We have a search technology that we continue to learn from. And we’ll continue to build upon that. We have enterprise [software] best practices.”
Those best practices include an easy to identify and use “Reorder” button for its Foodservice customers. “We always had that [capability] in snacks and customers loved it,” he said. “These are simply things that bring real value.”
Other examples include consistent product information and a fast-moving website.
“We’re watching the APIs to make sure nothing is stopping” or slowing the customer down, he said.
Lyman is looking forward to future technology expansions. “The way our site was built by our technology team allows us to take advantage of artificial intelligence tools as they mature,” he said. “We can take advantage of truck-tracking and start plugging those capabilities into our roadmap.”
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 senior editor Gretchen Salois at [email protected] and follow her on LinkedIn.
Follow us on LinkedIn and be the first to know when we publish Digital Commerce 360 B2B News content.Favorite