2020 and the coronavirus pandemic brought sudden and formidable challenges for B2B companies. But it also ushered in new opportunities. Companies with the right ecommerce platforms and strategies entered 2021 in a prime position to grow as more businesses transitioned to shop online rather than through in-person sales representatives.
Consider Mission Linen Supply. Launched in 1930, the company’s core business is supplying and laundering tablecloths for restaurants.
The company began expanding its horizons a few years ago, a strategy that really took off in 2020 as it faced the pandemic and grew new business with the help of its new ecommerce technology platform.
Forging ahead into new markets
“We’ve always been an industrial laundry company, and our business model has been a rental model,” says Dave Pattison, chief information officer and vice president of information technology. “A restaurant needs tablecloths; we buy the tablecloths, rent them to customers and clean them. That’s our core business.”
Santa Barbara, California-based Mission Linen relies in large part on its field sales force to land new customers and process their orders, and it fulfills the orders with its own fleet of delivery vans.
But in recent years, president and CEO John Ross has pushed for ways to grow a direct-to-consumer sales channel. The idea was to build a new digital commerce platform for both businesses and consumers and leverage the company’s existing delivery network for order fulfillment.
The company, Pattison says, had a ready business model: “We’re driving a truck to your business maybe once or three times a week—what else can we bring on that truck to sell you?” The next step, he says, was to build a digital commerce platform that would connect with customers, suppliers and its own delivery drivers.
These plans all accelerated early last year when the coronavirus pandemic knocked out much of Mission Linen’s core business of serving restaurants and hotels. The company has since launched its first B2B and business-to-consumer ecommerce sites on a headless commerce platform, forging what it expects will be new long-term revenue streams, selling products ranging from groceries and household cleaners to pet supplies and personal protective equipment.
Mission Linen Supply’s ecommerce mission
At Mission Linen Supply, the company started working about two years ago with headless commerce technology from commercetools, which provides a commerce engine designed with APIs to connect with any customer-facing front end. Mission Linen’s first project: a mobile sales application on its drivers’ tablets to let them place orders for customers who want to make additional purchases when they receive a delivery of products they had ordered through sales reps.
Mission Linen was planning to also use commercetools to eventually launch a B2B ecommerce site to provide customers an online self-service ordering option. When the pandemic hit early last year, however, it pushed ahead that plan and launched a B2B site in May.
“We had started down that path before COVID, but it accelerated during the pandemic, and we launched the B2B site five to six weeks after the pandemic hit,” Pattison says. “It was in direct response to COVID.”
As the pandemic quickly knocked out much of Mission Linen’s regular business of providing tablecloths and other products to restaurants and hotels, the company realized it was also seeing a surge in new direct-to-customer sales of COVID-19 masks, hand sanitizer and cleaning products. The new B2B ecommerce site, at BuyDirect.MissionLinen.com, helped to build a base with such customers.
Fast-tracking a business-to-consumer ecommerce site
Mission Linen had also been planning to eventually launch a business-to-consumer ecommerce site in the future, but decided to fast-track it and went live with that site in December 2020 at OneLessTrip.com. The B2C site offers product categories ranging from groceries to office supplies and products for pets and babies.
The company is not breaking out figures for online orders, but ecommerce sales are “rapidly growing,” Pattison says. He adds that drivers’ use of the tablets embedded with the new online sales application has led to a significant increase in extra orders placed at customer delivery locations.
Pattison says Mission Linen has relied on the headless commerce architecture—and what it describes as the ease of building on it—to roll out each step of its B2B and B2C online technology strategy.
When the pandemic hit, Mission Linen and its six-person I.T. team benefitted from already having completed some work on the commercetools technology for the tablet sales application. Becoming familiar with using its APIs to build microservices and connect software applications helped it more quickly and easily launch the B2B site and, in turn, the B2C site, Pattison says. The drivers’ tablet app and the B2B and B2C ecommerce sites are all built on the same version of commercetools software.
Managing inventory and faster order fulfillment
To make the online, direct-to-customer system work, Pattison’s team built order management connections from the company’s ecommerce platform to its suppliers’ ERP systems—including cleaning products, office supplies and restaurant take-out containers for its B2B customers; and grocery, household, office, pet and baby products for consumers.
As suppliers receive orders, they ship them in either individual or batched orders to Mission Linen’s warehouses for nearly immediate delivery to customers. The setup saves Mission the cost of holding inventory for extended periods while providing expedited order fulfillment, Pattison says.
The headless commerce architecture, he adds, enabled Mission Linen to connect its ecommerce engine to multiple points—the driver’s tablet-based sales applications, the B2B and B2C websites and its suppliers’ ERP systems.
“For us, the headless approach really helped out,” he says. By comparison, a more traditional ecommerce platform would likely have required more modification of the ecommerce engine with the customer-facing interfaces and back-end business operating software, requiring more time and expense to customize Mission’s platform, he says.
Going forward, Mission Linen is considering deploying additional sites on the commercetools technology. Mission Linen currently operates a legacy ecommerce platform that offers customized ecommerce sites for corporate customers, such as large hospitals, where buyers can purchase products like medical scrubs and lab coats embroidered with their name and their organization’s logo.
“We’d eventually like to migrate all of those online stores into commercetools,” Pattison says, adding that the headless architecture would provide more flexibility in building more customized sites for customers. “It gives us the flexibility to help us respond to customer needs.”
(This article was excerpted from a longer report on B2B and B2C ecommerce technology, The 2021 Ecommerce Platforms Report.)
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