Jumping into e-commerce with both feet

Bill
Updated Aug 26, 2020
E-Commerce-Pool-min

Earlier this month I wrote a feature about diving into e-commerce to sell more heavy-duty truck parts.

One of the aftermarket distributors interviewed was Blaine Brothers. The distributor, along with its sister company North American Trailer, launched a parts ordering site for existing account holders on April 1 and a site for any customer in the continental United States on June 1 of this year.

As one might imagine, launching two sites within a span of two months is no small feat, so I thought it important to highlight Blaine Brothers’ experiences a bit more in this editorial to better explain to parts providers considering offering parts online what potentially is involved.

But first some housekeeping. Granted, whether you’re selling parts to an existing customer or a new customer across the country, it’s still technically B2B e-commerce. I get that. But for brevity’s sake, in this editorial I will be referring to sales to existing customers as B2B and sales to anyone else who orders online as B2C. With that out of the way, let’s move on.

Whether the site is B2B or B2C, launching an e-commerce site to sell parts is not for the faint of heart. However, a B2B site makes the purchasing process more convenient for current customers and a B2C site greatly increases the amount of potential customers — and Blaine Brothers felt it was well worth the effort.

From the start of planning to the day of launch, the process took about a year and a half and, to a large extent, Blaine Brothers developed the two sites simultaneously, says Director of Marketing Wendy Sorquist.

Ongoing development work is required to enhance the user experience as well as continuing investment in advertising, SEO and, in general, driving sales and traffic to the website.Ongoing development work is required to enhance the user experience as well as continuing investment in advertising, SEO and, in general, driving sales and traffic to the website.

Just because a B2B site has a more limited audience doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easier to develop than a B2C site. Blaine Brothers’ B2B site development required specific system requirements to capture the features existing customers expected, Sorquist says.

“We built several custom features into the B2B user experience to match the experience one might have if they called or emailed an order. We wanted the experience to be as close to their current ordering process, or seamless in terms of process and features,” she says.

B2B customers are allowed to place orders, pay with purchase orders or with an approved credit card, write notes to their salesperson, save and “favorite” commonly ordered parts for future use and choose between multiple delivery options, including local delivery or in-store pick-up, among other features.

The B2C or front facing e-commerce site was developed in a much more traditional way than the B2B development and has slightly simpler features, at least initially, Sorquist says. B2C customers can only pay by credit card, like any traditional e-commerce website.

If a distributor has plans to develop either type of site, Sorquist has some words of warning: “Get ready to clean your data.”

Sorquist says the company greatly underestimated the time necessary to initially prepare, organize and maintain parts and product data for the sites. Part of the reason was the sheer volume of parts and data to be input, the other reason was a lack of information and photos from suppliers.

“We now see looking back it was a positive thing, and the [data is the] most powerful asset we have,” she says.

On the topic of inventory data, Sorquist offers additional words of wisdom: “Because we are showing on-hand quantities, we recommend keeping a close eye on your inventory levels and increasing your cycle counts and inventory accuracy.”

Nothing moves faster than technology, which means ongoing development work is required to continue to enhance the user experience as well as continuing investment in advertising, search engine optimization (SEO) and, in general, driving sales and traffic to the website, she says.

So, the e-commerce infrastructure is solid, the parts data has been input with the best descriptions possible, advertising campaigns are launched and SEO has been optimized. Now you just sit back and wait for new and existing customers to flock to your sites, right?

Nope.

When Blaine Brothers launched the B2B site, customers didn’t take to it as quickly or as independently as the company would have liked, Sorquist says.

“We’ve had the most success by setting customers up in person, giving them an incentive to try the new system and following up with them several times to remind them to continue to order,” she says.

As for the B2C site, the company has been seeing a gradual increase in traffic and orders and Sorquist says Blaine Brothers will focus its efforts over the next five months to growing that part of the business through marketing and e-commerce efforts.

Despite the slow start, Blaine Brothers expects its e-commerce business to pick up — and the company is ready for it.

“We welcome this and are anticipating this through our forecast and planning,” says CEO Dean Dally. “We have a dedicated e-commerce support manager who monitors the ongoing situation as orders begin to increase. We have strong marketing and cross-functional support teams that set the strategy and goals and [address] any obstacles or opportunities as they arise.”

Blaine Brothers’ e-commerce experience has taught us anything worth doing well usually isn’t easy. I thank the company for its candor in sharing the trials and tribulations of such an undertaking. Distributors planning to develop a B2B and/or B2C site would be wise to heed the company’s warnings and helpful hints.

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