Online Product Information Crucial To Manufacturer Web Sites
By Liz Greenawalt
All proactive businesses in the Internet age are on an endless mission to create the ultimate one-stop resource for customers and prospective customers. Manufacturers in the jan/san industry are enhancing their Web sites, and distributors are taking notice.
Many industry manufacturers are in the process of — or will soon begin — rethinking and restructuring their entire Web presence to make their sites easier to use for both distributors and end users.
Manufacturers agree that the most essential service their sites can provide users is product information. This information can be conveyed through product brochures posted on the site, or through more complex — and increasingly popular — means, such as videos.
More manufacturers are also including online ordering on their sites. They overwhelmingly prefer automated order entry because it saves staffs time and provides a quick and easy way for distributors to communicate product orders.
Adam J. Fein Ph.D., president of Pembroke Consulting, Philadelphia, notes that by 2008, manufacturers anticipate that they will receive more than half of their distributor orders by electronic methods.
“Greater electronic data sharing will let manufacturers evaluate distributors according to the costs incurred in serving them,” Fein says. “Today, most manufacturers still receive virtually all orders by traditional methods and compare distributors primarily by their average order size and annual volume.”
Providing product information is the most crucial element of a site, according to manufacturers, but they also think it’s important to include the company’s background and mission statement, a news center with press releases and testimonials, and an easy way to contact the company.
What Distributors Look For
Distributors have different opinions on what features they want to see on manufacturers’ Web sites. With the increasing array of offerings on each site, and an increasing amount of sites to visit, knowing what to look for can save time and make it worth a visit.
Manufacturers need to provide one main thing, according to Jim Clayton, president of Clayton Paper and Distribution, St. Joseph, Mo.: product information. If the site doesn’t provide this, he will not utilize it, no matter what other features the site provides.
“The biggest thing for me is having MSDS sheets, technical information and specifications,” says Clayton. “While it’s not the only resource for this information, it is one of the easiest ways of obtaining it. A lot of that information we have in print, but sometimes you have to go dig it up and it’s easier to just go to the Web site and hit three or four buttons to get it.”
Clayton started using his manufacturers’ Web sites about two and a half years ago, and they have become an important part of his business. “It’s a day-to-day thing now,” he says. “I’m on some of our manufacturer’s Web sites every day placing an order or putting a price quote together or trying to gather information for a customer.”
For Mark Newhouse, owner of Laymen Global, Rahway, N.J., there are four main issues that he believes manufacturers need to address. “Number one, it has to be easy to navigate,” he explains. “It needs to be quick to load, offer real-time inventory and pricing, and access to shipping and billing information. I would say those are the main — and maybe only — features that we’re looking for when it comes to manufacturer Web sites.”
Newhouse started using manufacturer Web sites about 4 or 5 years ago, and has seen a clear evolution. “As manufacturers maintain and update their sites, they keep getting better and better,” he says.
Only a few manufacturers that Clayton works with offer online ordering, however, he says it is an option that many manufacturers are implementing or exploring.
A simplistic ordering system is ideal, he adds. “A quantity and an item number allows you to order fairly quickly, which is important because everybody is in a hurry to get things done and move on to the next project,” Clayton says.
“Also, [order] history is helpful if you’re looking for an item that you haven’t bought for awhile.”
Newhouse says he uses some manufacturer sites for ordering — but only those that offer real-time inventory. “That’s one of the key things that they put on their site, because we can’t put an order in online unless we see the inventory to see if it’s going to be shipped complete,” Newhouse says. “With those manufacturers and vendors that don’t have real-time inventory, we usually call it in, because we don’t want to get a back order and find out about it two days later.”
Clayton and Newhouse are generally satisfied with the service they receive through manufacturer Web sites. The efficiencies that are afforded by Web-based business transactions and the easy access to product information largely overshadow the biggest drawback — lack of personal contact. Clayton says he learns a lot through conversations with manufacturers.
“[In person] they’re going to talk about that product and the benefits, why you should use it and how you should use it,” says Clayton. “When you’re looking on a Web site at a spec page or MSDS sheet or whatever, you may lose some of that, so my biggest worry would be that I would just assume something about a product and not ask for more information about it.”
While Newhouse and Clayton find value in visiting manufacturer sites, D. Bruce Merrifield Jr., president of Merrifield Consulting, Chapel Hill, N.C., says the industry has not yet fully embraced the Internet age.
“The people that really don’t want to use it won’t, and so statistically, maybe only 10 to 15 percent of [distributors] might be heavy users of [manufacturers’] information resources, but those distributors are going to get 80 percent of the profitable growth over the next five years,” Merrifield predicts. “The most aggressive, progressive distributors use Internet information more.”
It is evident through speaking with manufacturers that they are focused on making their Web sites a bigger part of their businesses. Many are currently improving their sites and several others plan to do so soon.
Merrifield says it is clear that manufacturers that he considers the “leading visionaries” and “early majority” are in the thick of enhancing their Web sites. “I still think that the late majority — 50 percent of manufacturers — really have Web sites that are pretty simple, or they don’t have one at all,” he says.
Manufacturers are at various stages of innovation. Most Web-savvy manufacturers have already created password-protected areas for ordering, history, more detailed product information and more. Those that haven’t will soon, especially as the industry begins to demand more of it.
Some manufacturers are developing password-enabled pages that will provide features useful to salespeople and distributors.
Password-enabled users can obtain detailed information on specific end user markets and the site will provide that salesperson or distributor with information on what the needs of these facilities typically are. Features will include examples of proposal outlines as well as a calculating function that distributors or salespeople can utilize when showing a customer the benefits of a value-added purchase versus a commodity.
Manufacturers will continue to upgrade their sites, but it is important for them not to push forward without an audience. Distributors are catching on to the benefits of using the Internet for business, but Fein says it is too early to tell how a heavy reliance on Web sites will affect distributors — especially the smaller businesses.
In the coming years, distributors will have to make a decision on where they stand as far as how they will communicate with their manufacturers.
“Establishing and maintaining technology is costly,” Fein says. “Many small distributors do not have the available capital to make needed investments in technology or build private exchanges with their manufacturers. For others, the initial investment, along with the integration and ongoing maintenance, negates the benefits of communicating electronically with suppliers.”
|End Users Seek Information On Manufacturer Sites |
As the Internet grows as a worldwide information resource, distributors’ role in informing end users about products and services has changed. More and more end users are visiting manufacturer Web sites to obtain the information they need before approaching distributors. When end users have a question, chances are, it’s already an Internet-educated inquiry.
D. Bruce Merrifield Jr., president of Merrifield Consulting, Chapel Hill, N.C., says distributors need to do themselves a favor and continually visit manufacturer Web sites to remain familiar with the sites that end users visit. “End users are apt to go to distributors with specific questions that are based on these sites,” says Merrifield. “When end users explain what they saw on the Web site, some distributors, can only say, ‘Really?’”
End users also want what they need as soon as possible. Many visit Web sites, inform themselves, and decide then and there to make a purchase. End users also try to avoid having to explain what they want, Merrifield says.
“Sometimes, end users will call their distributors with questions based on the Web site, and the distributor may have no idea what they are talking about, so it’s kind of a ‘black hole’ of service hand-off,” Merrifield explains.
To help end users avoid the “black hole,” manufacturers will sell direct at retail price with a huge service and freight charge. They typically do not try to eliminate distributors from the sale process, and when a customer insists on buying direct, the manufacturer will instead refer them to a local distributor.
“Manufacturers will send the lead information to the distributor, saying, ‘By the way, some guy in your area found us on our Web site, wanted to buy this thing and we wanted to take care of it right away, but we asked them to pick a distributor, and they picked you, so here’s the person’s contact information,’” Merrifield says.
Knowing the details of your suppliers’ Web sites — and making sure manufacturers know to turn to you when they need to — can go a long way in providing the best service for customers.
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