I’m frequently asked how distributors should be thinking about the year ahead. My normal (short) answer is to say, “I don’t know.” With the pandemic, so much has changed in the past two years, and still much has remained the same.
But maybe the more accurate answer is, “I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling 22,” to quote Taylor Swift. Anyway, I stand by both answers. The longer I serve the same industry, the more humble I become in my ability to determine what is next. However, it’s also possible to “feel 2022” as a year for seizing opportunity. Here’s what distributors should do or contemplate if they want to keep dancing.
1. Improve the buy-online, pickup-in-store (BOPIS) experience
There is no doubt that the B2B distributor has to emulate or catch up to the experiences we all get in the B2C world. In the wake of the pandemic, retailers reacted and created “touchless” or curbside pickup, which transformed the shopping experience and made it easier than ever. Just recently I had an experience at a retail sporting goods store that was so mind blowing and amazing that I have now come to expect the same from other merchants. After arriving at a store, and before I could even pull my phone out, an employee was walking towards my car to give me something my wife had purchased moments before.
In the B2B world, exterior lockers are a great option for providing this experience. Remove a few parking spaces near the entrance to a brick and mortar store, put smart lockers in place, and you allow your customers to place orders and pick up the material at their convenience, any hour of the day. Once their order is placed in a locker, the customer receives an email with the locker location and entry credentials for their order. Better still, the process can be automated on the back end, sending out notifications and alerts and lockers can be opened with the scan of a barcode. At the very least, in ’22 your customers must be able to place orders online and pickup at the will call counter.
2. Experiment with light manufacturing
The news of boats in port and the supply chain issues reminds me of something I say around my house all the time. I say to my kids, “If I wanted it done right, I should have done it myself.” So, if distributors want stuff done right, 2022 may be the year to start doing it. And that means small scale manufacturing. This is the perfect time for distributors to look into and invest in industrial-grade 3D printers that can produce the product you sell. I understand that resin/composite is currently expensive, but I do foresee a time where much of the “behind the walls” material that goes into construction and industrial distribution will be manufactured in real-time on the job site via 3D printers.
Who better to jump on that and lead that wave than the distributors? If 3D printing seems too far-fetched for right now, then look into some assembly, light manufacturing, or service that differentiates you and provides value. After all, you are a value-added reseller, and it’s important to find ways to maintain that value proposition. For example, if you are a janitorial distributor, think about packing the janitorial service with the supplies as an offering from your company.
3. Remember that (product) content is still king
“The queen is dead, long live the king!” Product content is king when it comes to the eCommerce and mobile experience. Of course, it’s incredibly difficult for distributors to develop and maintain rich product content, a proper taxonomy, and awesome digital assets. Still, it can make all of the difference between a customer spending with you, or going to a competitor. There are lots of ways to develop content: distributors can team with their manufacturer partners and host content directly from the manufacturers. They can task an in-house team with developing video and written content for the eCommerce store. And they can also find a partner — or several — to help provide this content. In today’s world, it’s possible to add clean content via subscription service, similar to music subscription streaming services.
Dreaming instead of sleeping
For me, ’22 will be a year for thinking about technologies that may help distributors in ’23. Machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies are growing, in terms of capabilities and accessibility. Distributors have decades worth of data buried deep in their ERP systems, and turning AI loose on that data may reveal great new monetization opportunities. At minimum, these technologies may proactively do the tasks that distributors do reactively today.
To be truthful, I really don’t feel 22 years old. Maybe in 2022 I need to stretch, meditate and exercise so I feel closer to age 22. However, in mindset, I am as excited about the industry that I continue to serve since I was 22.
Joe Bennett is SVP of North America at Unilog.