While the days of dictating purchasing orders over the phone and waiting for catalogs in the mail haven’t disappeared, the faster pace of business and the necessity of real-time digital communication have driven wholesalers to augment their customer service offerings for a variety of customers. Wholesalers have added portals for e-commerce as well as e-commerce platforms that distributors can integrate onto their own sites for added functionality. Both options make it easier to buy cleaning products online.

“Our customers vary in size and technology needs so we offer a variety of solutions,” says Brian Schuster, marketing manager for Saalfeld Redistribution, Loveland, Ohio. “Many of our customers shop our online catalog for product availability and place orders, but we also integrate directly with customers’ purchasing systems for seamless ordering and invoicing.”

These information-rich websites give distributors the freedom to access  private account data on their own time, and the power to place orders at will. On the wholesaler side, these web capabilities free up the time of salespeople and customer service reps, requiring less administrative work and enabling them to engage more in relationship-building with distributors.

“It facilitates the processes for both customer service and our outside salespeople,” says Jeff Heeren, vice president of RJ Schinner Co., Menomonee Falls, Wis. “We want our field sales team to strategically work with their distributors. If they’re simply answering questions like, ‘What’s your price?’ and ‘Do you have it in stock?’ that’s not strategic. So we want to help the distributor grow the top line and improve the bottom line. To do that, we have to do more than answer questions of that simple nature.”

Private Accounts For Online Ordering
Wholesalers have upgraded their websites to allow them to reach out to customers and provide personalized customer service to members who log in to the wholesaler’s system.

Wholesalers don’t use this to market to new customers — their target audience is existing customers, and the e-commerce option is a value-add for that group.

For Sheppard Redistribution Inc., in Oaks, Pa., offering a members-only login option has appealed to many customers, says Charles Moon, director of marketing and communications.

“We have several customers who use it quite frequently. As a matter of fact, they’ve almost entirely substituted their business from the traditional faxing of P.O., or calling in to customer service and doing it that way, to doing it entirely over the web,” Moon says. “We would like to drive more business to the web. We think it’s more convenient for our customers.”

The system works best for customers who already have an affinity for technology, as well as those who place regular orders for the same or similar items, he adds.

“I think it’s much easier for them to do it that way and they can do it any time of day. Honestly, that is where I see most of our web traffic coming from,” Moon says. “People who have questions about pricing or availability or who are looking to add on to orders or are going through bids, those all still require the traditional one-on-one customer service.”

Giving existing customers access to a wholesaler’s site by providing them with member status can give them useful tools that empower them to make decisions on their own time, without the need for a customer service representative’s help. Distributors can get answers to questions about price, what’s in stock and what their order history is without necessitating a phone call.

“They have full access to pretty much our whole order entry system,” Moon says. “They can see current inventory levels, they can see their specific pricing on items they have bought or been quoted on. They can also see their order history, find out when they last bought a certain item, or what items they bought in the past but couldn’t remember — that toilet tissue, they forgot the brand and stock number, let’s look it up.”

Other benefits for customers include 24-7 access and no waiting in line or being put on hold. They can also get manufacturer rebate forms, any outstanding invoices and where their credit limit is, creating conveniences for customers.

Providing e-commerce platforms for distributors to integrate into their own sites is something many wholesalers are working on. Logistics Supply in Charlotte, N.C., is already doing it.

“Our e-commerce data allows for easy integration of our stock product into our customers’ current sites, regardless of design, size, etc.,” says President Donna Currie Bruno. “Our standard site also allows distributors to export pricing by line and with their profit expectations, which again makes it easy to get data to use for their sites.”

Serious Growth Potential For e-commerce
Even in the midst of the recession, many wholesalers have been seeing double-digit percentage increases in online sales the past few years.
“What we have seen is, the growth on the web, as a percentage, has grown faster than the company growth rate,” Heeren says. “Last year’s company growth was 22 percent but our sales growth on the web was 31 percent.”

Wholesalers across the board predict that the popularity of their websites and e-commerce platforms with distributors will continue to grow as business interactions transition more and more to digital applications.

“We continue to see more customers using the web more,” says Schuster. “Even in a challenging year such as 2011, we saw a 16 percent increase in online sales.”

Most customers benefit from the marrying of traditional practices with more modern tools of exchange — but it’s undeniable that e-commerce will continue to grow in popularity. The recession may have helped force distributors out of their comfort zones in traditional business practices and onto the web, trying new ways of reaching out to their customers, Currie Bruno says.