At the turn of the 21st century, company Web sites were just after-thoughts for most jan/san distributors. But, times have certainly changed since then.

Today, distributors have a strong online presence and rely on their Web sites to help drive sales, while at the same time strengthen relationships with their clients. In fact, distributors have moved beyond the basic Web page that contains contact information and company history and are now focusing their attention on building e-commerce platforms within their sites. These online purchasing programs are designed to accommodate seamless, automated business-to-business sales transactions, while also improving a distributor's operational efficiency and overall profitability.

The decision to move into the e-commerce arena comes as no surprise. Following the consumer trend of buying products via the Internet, distributors say they are noticing a market of customers (building service contractors and in-house service providers) that no longer want a typical sales representative calling on them, says Matt Johnston, director of technology for Kelsan Inc., a Knoxville, Tenn.-based jan/san distributor.

"Customers simply want the ability to place orders on their own accord," he says.

As more end users are turning to their distributors' e-commerce sites to handle ordering and purchasing, distributors are going the extra mile to make sure the ordering process is as flawless as possible. They're also making sure proper applications are in place that help take the online shopping experience above and beyond the basic online shopping cart.

"We really try to position our e-commerce platform as more than just simply an ordering platform," says Randy Hammond, senior training and Web specialist for Waxie Sanitary Supply, San Diego. "We try to position it as an account management tool and let our customers know that they can do more than fill up a shopping cart and send an order in. We try to give them visibility into their account and all the things that are happening with it."

A Win-Win

While most distributors will say that their business is all about face time, there's no denying the added convenience that online ordering brings to distributors and their customers, particularly those that purchase the same products on a regular basis.

"We still rely on our sales reps to introduce our customers to new and exciting things, but we do have a big push for online ordering because it's a win-win for the customer and for us," says Hammond. "It saves time for the customer, gives them all the information they need to know, plus it helps us on the ordering cycle because it gets us orders coming into the system without human intervention so to speak."

Customers who buy online are first given authorization with a user name, which is password protected. What that allows is rather than just filling up a shopping cart, customers with their own online account can go into the system and drill into a distributor's backend system where they are able to see what products they've previously ordered, how much they've ordered, their specific price for certain items, as well as personalized shopping lists created by customers that are able to be saved for future repeat orders.

End users are looking for a standardized and convenient ordering process that cuts down on purchasing inefficiencies like ordering too much product or ordering products that are back ordered. Because they have repeat spending on a regular basis, distributors say customers can appreciate e-commerce sites for their ability to be custom-tailored for each individual customer.

"Customized order guides are a must," says George Abiaad, president of Santa Fe Springs, Calif.-based Royal Corp., whose company supplies a movie theater chain that has over 700 locations across the United States and Canada.

For this particular client, Abiaad says each location has different departments that place orders through Royal Corp.'s online ordering system. What in previous years resulted in over-ordering errors, now is streamlined through Royal Corp.'s e-commerce platform. In fact, Abiaad says the customer's corporate office has eliminated ordering infrequencies by being able to go into the system and set a pre-approved guide of what products should be purchased and setting limits on the number of product purchases for each individual location.

"This prevents redundancy of items and helps those locations be more efficient in utilizing their buying power," he says.

Customers are also able to use custom order guides for certain product lines. For example, if a customer was interested in only green products, then those products could be set up on the site to be the preferred products that show up when they search for various cleaners and other chemicals.

A related feature is a quick reorder form. Because customers typically order the same products repeatedly, in the platform, customers can easily set up as many lists as they desire so they can go directly to the checkout screen, select the shopping list, review the order and approve the order. This saves customers the time of having to go through the process of searching for the needed products each time they order.

Another time-saving feature that customers can take advantage of is the ability to view product inventory availability in real-time. So instead of placing a call to their distributor sales rep to check on inventory, they can view the actual stock levels of those products they are interested in purchasing in their distributor's warehouse.

"This can benefit the customer in many ways, by reducing backorders to forecasting order points," says Paul Melzer, project manager for New Berlin, Wis.-based Nassco Inc. "It also allows the customer to request additional stock on individual items."

Some distributors' e-commerce platforms can take real-time inventory even a step further than what is in their warehouses.

"When customers go to the product detail page, we can also show them the next amount of product coming in on the next inbound purchase order for the warehouse they get delivered from," says Hammond. "So if they are a San Francisco or Northern California customer, they could see that that division has 350 cases coming in and the date it's due. So they can see both and figure out if they have product available to them. It's very detailed."

While commerce is central to a distributor Web site, helpful information and educational tools are also perks that are helping to retain customers.

The Move To Online

In the past, customers were hesitant to purchase online because distributors just didn't provide enough information about the product for the customer to make an informed purchasing decision. Because unanswered questions create doubt, distributors were urged by their customers to provide as much detailed information about their products as possible, including multiple photos, feature specifications, product reviews, known issues, material data safety sheets (MSDS) and customer testimonials.

Today, distributors are making it a personal goal to ensure they provide customers with the most accurate and up to date descriptions and pictures to make the online ordering process as easy as possible, says Johnston.

As a result, the ranks of online shoppers have begun to swell. In fact, Nassco recently redesigned its Web site in August of this year to incorporate up-to-date product literature and how-to product video demonstrations. Since then, Melzer says the company has had more than 100 additional requests for online ordering. The company currently has more than 300 customers utilizing online ordering and Melzer says he expects that to grow significantly during the next year.

Hammond also predicts an uptick in online ordering, but says not all customers do business online. In fact, smaller and mid-sized customers may not feel the need, he says. But as the future of business becomes more entwined with technology and the Internet, and more distributors continue to introduce comprehensive e-commerce sites, more end users will seek products and equipment online, he says.

"There are some users who are hesitant to move to e-commerce for one reason or another, but when we tell them that they can help manage their account, find out where orders are, invoicing, where their stuff is aging, all those kinds of things, they get interested," says Hammond.

To the surprise of some, today's e-commerce sites can also be used to extend customer service. Though the Web may seem like a less personal way of doing business, e-commerce sites are giving distributors more free time to give customers extended customer service.

"It frees our sales consultants up to help their customers with their product issues and concerns rather than going out and asking them for an order all the time," says Hammond. "That gives them the time to help customers in other areas."

It is also freeing up time for customers. For instance, customers have more time to call their distributor about other issues other than checking on the status of a product or backorders, so distributors are spending more time engaged with the customer, helping them solve problems and training them on product usage.

Although online ordering systems don't replace the need for distributors to provide skilled and experienced customer service people in the field, moving online will be necessary in years to come, distributors say.