Manufacturers and wholesalers’ Web sites and online shopping carts have improved drastically over the last few years, and jan/san distributors are taking note of the changes. Many distributors order at least a portion of their products online. In general, distributors say their experience has been positive as ordering on the Web is often more efficient and saves time.

Web site features such as product descriptions, photos and video demonstrations make it easy for distributors to quickly find and order exactly what they need. And special online discounts can entice distributors with the promise of additional savings. But what distributors really appreciate is when buying online is the option to check inventory levels.

Stock Options

Brian Rencher, president of Boise, Idaho-based TechniChem Corp., favors a particular wholesaler’s Web site and orders from the company on a weekly basis. He says one of the reasons he keeps coming back is the detailed stock information.

“I can enter a part number, and it recognizes by customer name and log-in what warehouse I’m going to pull from,” says Rencher. “[The system] will tell me the Seattle warehouse has 50 cases, so if I want 100 cases I know instantaneously that it’s not there, and I can backorder 50 cases.”

Inventory details like these translate into better service to distributors’ customers.

“It’s made a tremendous amount of difference ordering online through wholesalers,” says Dan Josephs, general manager of Spruce Industries Inc., Garwood, N.J. “It’s important to be able to check inventory levels and pricing, which changes frequently for wholesalers. It helps us service our customers faster because we don’t waste time calling or e-mailing the wholesaler back and forth.”

Mark Newhouse, CEO of Laymen Global, Edison, N.J., has been begging one of his major suppliers to make inventory levels available online, but the company refuses.

“We’d like to know available quantities because if we have an order for 80 cases of an obscure item we don’t have in stock, we’d love to be able to tell the customer yes or no on the phone without having to call them back,” he says.

Faster, Quicker, Better

Ordering on the Web allows distributors to respond to customers in real time with detailed information about their purchases — and can often yield more accurate information than a phone call.

“Sometimes when I talk to someone and order something, when the order comes in I find out something was backordered,” Rencher says “I talked to a human, and they didn’t even tell me that they didn’t have inventory.”

On the flip side, out-of-date content on Web sites can also mislead distributors with incorrect prices or product quantities.

“Sometimes product pricing isn’t current,” says Frank De Rosa, PhD, president of Mesa, Ariz.-based Advance Paper & Maintenance Supply, Inc. “Manufacturers aren’t updating their sites as quickly as they should. If we get a confirmation and see a difference in price, we call and ask them to honor the old price.”

Avoiding long hold times on the phone is a significant benefit of ordering online as is the flexibility to place orders at any time of the day or night, distributors say. Rencher says he orders from one company’s site that allows him to save an order for seven days.

“You can start an order and go back three days later and it’s still there so you can add more items to it,” he says.

Distributors enjoy being able to save common items in their shopping carts for repeat purchases as well.

“If you only buy particular items from a particular wholesaler, you can keep that in your cart instead of scrolling through everything to find it,” says Eric Cadell, vice president of operations for Dutch Hollow Janitorial Supplies Inc., Belleville, Ill.

Ordering online also reduces the potential for errors in the ordering process.

“A lot of times when we used to fax in orders or e-mail them in, a couple of numbers were transposed, and suddenly you have the wrong product,” says Josephs. “From this end, you really know what you’re putting into the system, and you get the confirmation immediately so you can double check your work.”

Now there’s little chance for error because distributors are looking at the products while ordering them. Electronic confirmations of purchases also give distributors a second-line paper trail, says Cadell.

“You’re getting more security because you have extra documents of the entire event behind it vs. a call record that you may have written down somewhere,” he says.

Reaching Limits

Despite the numerous advantages of online ordering, distributors sometimes have orders or requests that are better handled with a phone call.

Kevin Ervin, sales manager for Dee Janitorial Supply Inc., Chicago, conducts a small percentage of his business online, preferring instead to talk to his reps.

“There are too many variables,” he says. “For us, it doesn’t seem to be any easier to order over the Internet. If I need a special product, I ask the manufacturer to research it, which you can’t do over the Internet. Sometimes it’s easier to tell your supplier what you’re looking for over the phone.”

Indeed, distributors need to know exactly what they are looking for when searching for products online. For example, Rencher orders from a container company, but without the exact part number, finding the right product on the Web site is challenging.

“If I talk to the customer service department, I can tell them I want a six-gallon pail, and they can tell me what the part number is,” he says.

It can be beneficial to talk to someone on the phone when trying to replace an out-of-stock item with something else.

“If an item is out of stock or on backorder, a lot of times we want to swap it out with something similar,” Newhouse says. “If you’re not talking to someone on the phone, you’re not going to get an answer about what you can use instead, and whether it’s the same price, etc.”

Another disadvantage to ordering online is it’s more difficult to cancel an order, says Josephs.

“It’s harder to remove products from an order that’s already been placed,” he says. “We found if we made a mistake, we have to call up and start a line of communication.”

Online ordering does reduce communications with wholesalers and manufacturers, but it’s still wise to follow up online orders with a phone call.

“We like to check and double check,” says Newhouse. “We like to make sure they have the right item, it’s in stock, and it’s going to ship when they say it will ship, as opposed to just entering it and hoping everything goes right.”

And when it comes to pricing, the telephone is often best.

“We still communicate with them,” he says. “We still have questions and want more detailed information. If we want special pricing for larger quantities, we call to find out if we can get a better discount. That’s something you still need to do over the phone.”

While online ordering is becoming more commonplace, the old-fashioned phone call is by no means dead.

“There are a lot of old-school buyers that believe in phone calls and a personal touch,” says Cadell. “You don’t lose that communication with manufacturers by choosing to go online. You just add a whole new realm of communication. You still have that same security and those same people to talk to if you need to.”

Kassandra Kania is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C.