Five years ago a building service contractor came calling and forced Milhench Supply into unfamiliar territory. Set in its ways as a traditional brick-and-mortar supply house, the New Bedford, Mass.-based jan/san distributor was convinced by its new customer to start offering an online purchasing tool that would allow the contractor to simplify its ordering process for the two dozen facilities it managed.

Feeling a bit rushed, Milhench Supply's first attempt at e-commerce didn't go over well. That's because customers were only able to order products from the company's online catalog that they purchased in the past, instead of having access to the company's entire gamut of products.

"Our initial attempt at online ordering was really slow and it was kind of awkward," says Heike Milhench, the company's president. "People tried it once, and they were like, 'forget it,' and they picked up the phone."

Recognizing the disservice not only to its customers, but themselves, too, Milhench Supply began the initiative to start overhauling its website last year.

"If you have it set up where it's fast and it's efficient and it's easy to use, then people will use it," says Milhench, who expects the company's new site to be up and running this spring. "I'm really looking forward to being able to push more customers to the Web. It will cut down on our time here internally, so the cost of processing an order will go down."

For many jan/san distributors like Milhench Supply, e-commerce continues to be a work in progress, with little to no results to show for their 'e' efforts thus far.

Building Blocks

Most jan/san distributors offer some form of online ordering on their websites, nowadays. However, not many customers are really taking advantage of it, according to two separate surveys of end users by Sanitary Maintenance. Our results show that just 27 percent of building service contractors (BSCs) and 21 percent of in-house service providers (ISPs) polled make 50 percent or more of their product purchases online. And despite being in a digital age where online ordering is widely accepted virtually in every other industry, 47 percent of ISPs and 34 percent of BSCs still aren't purchasing any products online from their distributors.

But given the nature of the industry, jan/san distributors aren't too surprised by these numbers.

"The jan/san industry is old. Older thoughts and older process," says Eric Cadell, vice president of operations for Dutch Hollow Janitorial Supplies, Belleville, Ill. "Because it's so old and distributors don't make the changes to embrace some of the new technologies that are out there, things don't change."

But as long as customers continue to show interest in ordering online, distributors should continue to venture down the path of e-commerce. Cadell says distributors are missing the mark by not offering efficient online ordering tools that make customers want to order online from them. Today's process of ordering online from distributors' websites is often uninviting, boring and not user-friendly — a world of difference compared to what end users experience when buying online from consumer websites in their personal lives.

"In many cases a distributor's e-commerce website is an offshoot of their back-end legacy systems, their ERP systems, whatever they're using to manage their business in the offline world," says Bob DeStefano, online marketing strategist and president of SVM E-Business Solutions, Somerset, N.J. "And in many cases, that site really is not designed around providing the optimal customer experience. From a business-to-business perspective, it's easier to pick up a phone and call to make a purchase in the offline world than it is to go onto these websites."

Late last year, Dutch Hollow revamped its website. Instead of just giving its customers a place to order products, the company's goal was to make its site an "online experience" for customers. This includes giving customers 24-hour access to the company's entire product lines, inventory levels, Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), product spec information, video demos, and links to manufacturer websites to name a few features. Customers also have the ability to check their order status, access order history and place budget parameters on orders when given an online account.

With a strong push from its sales force, just six months after revamping its site Dutch Hollow's online orders have jumped from 1 percent up to 12 percent. Cadell says because the company's site allows customers to take control of their shopping experience, they are purchasing products that they never did before.

"It now basically takes the customers and says, 'OK customer I'm not feeding you with anything, I'm putting you in the driver seat. We're just asking that you let us ride shotgun,'" says Cadell. "And once you've put that customer in the driving seat and they have access to all of these products and all of this information, it's unreal what they do with it. They buy. They do exactly what we want them to do with it."

According to our survey results, the most important Web features for BSCs and ISPs include detailed product descriptions, customizable accounts and access to MSDS.

Keeping websites fresh and current with new information and up-to-date product details and prices also helps drive customers to distributors' sites.

"If there's different things on your e-commerce site, they keep coming back to your site to see what's new because they become accustomed to the fact that when they're at home surfing the Web, those sites that they regularly visit are changing every day," says Cadell. "So they expect you to, too."

Distributors also often go wrong by leading with products on their websites instead of using it as an educational platform to demonstrate their specialized knowledge, says DeStefano.

This includes showing customers how they can be more effective when they're using certain products, demonstrate their specific expertise, short articles or blogs, how-to guides and video product demos.

"That will turn their website into more of a resource center that their customers will visit very often because it's so extremely helpful in a lot of different aspects of their business," says DeStefano.

Keeping a website current and constantly updating content also can help boost a distributors' ranking on search engines.

Search Engine Optimization

According to research done by DeStefano's group, 80 percent of the time when people go online to find products or product information, their first step is to visit search engine sites such as Google or Yahoo!.

A lot of distributors when they're creating their Website and creating their content make the mistake of not thinking strategically about search engine optimization. They're populating their websites with product offerings, but those product names and descriptions may not include the terms that their customers are searching for most often. So what they need to do is go through a keyword research process, says DeStefano.

"There's an art and science to this," he says. "They need to brainstorm about the key phrases that they think customers may be searching on when they're looking for their product offering and then they can access a number of research services that will tell you that for every phrase that you're looking at, how many people are searching on that phrase per month; also what variations may exist."

DeStefano advises distributors turn to keyword research tools like Wordtracker or Google Adwords' Keyword Tool to create a list of highly searched terms that will help drive targeted traffic to their sites. Distributors should then write their product names and descriptions accordingly.

According to SM survey results, end users are introduced to their distributors' websites foremost by their distributors (32 percent of BSCs; 37 percent of ISPs), but search engine follows behind closely (30 percent of BSCs; 27 percent of ISPs).

SEO optimization has been a major reason why Consumers Interstate Corp., in Norwich, Conn., has seen remarkable success with online ordering. Jessica Fischburg, the company's e-commerce project manager, says that nearly 80 percent of its customers order online. Of those customers, 85 percent of the traffic to its two cleaning specific domain names ( and comes through search engine search.

"A large portion of our time is spent on SEO," says Fischburg. "That's the easiest way to get new business and it's free, besides the time. There's so many ways we optimize our sites, whether it's building links or doing blog posts, making meta tags or uploading content. It's very efficient and very cost-efficient."

Besides attracting customers to their websites through online search, distributors can also build more online business through e-mail marketing. E-mail marketing offers distributors an opportunity to generate repeat business for existing online customers or attract customers who otherwise don't purchase online.

To generate repeat business, distributors can set up an e-mail marketing trigger that sends out an e-mail to customers when it is time to repurchase products.

"So they're setting up an e-mail marketing trigger that basically sends out an e-mail to them to remind them that they're probably going to have to reorder this product, maybe provide a little bit of a discount to encourage that new order, plus cross-promote some other related products that they might be interested in," says DeStefano.

In fact, Milhench Supply is entertaining the idea of giving discounted pricing for customers who order online in the future to help drive online sales.

This tends to work well according to our study results as reorders are popular among BSCs (64 percent) and ISPs (61 percent).

Distributors should also be sending out monthly educational e-mail newsletters that link back to their content on their Websites.

"What that will do is strengthen that company's name in the customer's mind as they're really here to help me," says DeStefano. "So it's just making sure they'll think of you when it's time to place that next order."

Using Website As A Lead Generator

A major issue that DeStefano sees with distributors' e-commerce websites is that they are designed solely around just placing an order online. The problem with this is not everyone is ready to buy.

"According to research, only 10 percent of people who are on a website actually have an immediate purchase intent," says DeStefano. "The other 90 percent are at some early stage. Maybe they're kicking tires, maybe they're performing research, maybe they have a pre-sales question, so what I think distributors should do is in addition to having an e-commerce website where people can place orders, they should also offer calls to action that will generate leads and generate inquiries that will appeal to buyers who are at the early stage of that buying process."

The first call to action that distributors should have easily accessible on their website is their company's telephone number. This encourages online visitors to call if a question arises.

"According to our research, people are at least as likely, if not two to three times more likely to pick up the phone when they're on a website," says DeStefano.

In addition, if distributors are going to offer lead generation forms that customers are going to have to complete, those forms should be as short as possible.

"Just ask the basic information that someone would need to make an intelligent follow-up," says DeStefano. "A lot of times, distributors are making a mistake by trying to qualify customers asking for too much information. From the customer's standpoint, that form looks as daunting as a tax return and they're just not going to complete it."

As more distributors make the effort to enhance their e-commerce websites, more savvy customers are expected to migrate to online ordering. The key for distributors is making the experience as user-friendly and easy as possible to order products, while also providing tools to make informed purchasing decisions.