With a nod to customer-pleasing practices implemented by leading B2C e-commerce companies, the Pennsylvania-based distributor is committed to continually improving the WebstaurantStore customer’s online experience through internal technology investments led by a strong talent recruitment strategy.
As 100% e-commerce businesses go, online restaurant supply company WebstaurantStore — turning 15 this summer — qualifies as an elder statesman. In the decade and a half since its 2004 founding as a division of traditional food service equipment and supply distributor Clark Associates, the Lititz, Pennsylvania-based company has been leading the way on digital innovation and excellence in e-commerce. Its pace-setting practices earned WebstaurantStore a 2019 MDM Digital Innovator Award, presented to 10 companies in the industry that are leveraging technology to advance their operations.
WebstaurantStore maintains a fast pace of independent growth that shows no signs of slowing down. President Dave Groff joined the business shortly after its launch, when the company had four employees. Now, WebstaurantStore employs about 2,400 people and is on pace to bring in approximately $1.4 billion this year.
Long past initial digital hurdles such as making basic technology investments, creating a marketing plan and other elements needed to launch an e-commerce business, WebstaurantStore is now moving into the next phase of being an online leader: “What we’re really trying to do is create an unparalleled experience for our customers,” says Groff.
One facet of getting there means stocking more product than anyone else and storing it at more locations throughout the country. A big part of the company’s business model, says Groff, is to have all customers within a one- to two-day delivery window. There are six WebstaurantStore warehouses, located in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Georgia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Nevada.
Another leadership initiative is ramping up the effort to convert customers who have made periodic purchases from sporadic to steady WebstaurantStore buyers. Last year, the company launched a membership program, WebstaurantPlus, for $99 per month. Members receive free, unlimited shipping on eligible items, priority shipping that places their items at the top of the queue in the WebstaurantStore warehouses, and special discounts on any item that might not be eligible, such as furniture or heavy equipment. WebstaurantPlus members can also apply for credit terms.
“What we’re trying to do with that is really take a lot of the customers that have ordered from us over the years, here and there as they’ve had spot-buy needs, and convert them into customers who are ordering from us as their primary source,” says Groff. “That’s been the driver of a lot of growth for us over the last year or so.”
A Unique Experience
On the IT and marketing side of the business, Charlie Garber, WebstaurantStore’s chief information officer who joined the company shortly after Groff, says their focus continues to be on having the best, most unique content. For one, that means writing their own product descriptions from scratch — discarding vendor-provided ones — in order to incorporate WebstaurantStore’s unique experience with the product. “We touch and feel every product. We take our own photographs. That allows us to be the one in the industry that everybody goes to,” says Garber. “Our competitors are often on our website because we have better content than most of the vendors have about their own product. And a lot of times we have far better photography.”
New this year is an augmented reality feature the company is working on that will allow WebstaurantStore visitors to ‘see’ the product inside their own space. Using a desktop PC, they can see a 3D model of items such as dinnerware, place settings, plastic cups, etc., and make comparisons between products. “You’ll get a real feel for the actual size of it compared to the plate or the glassware,” says Garber. “We’re always trying to be one step ahead of our competitors.”
The technology is live already for a select number of products, about 100 so far, with plans to reach 10 or 20 thousand by the end of the year. In addition to the desktop version, it can also be used on a mobile phone — Apple’s iOS system supports it currently and Android recently announced it will support it soon.
This type of technology, as well as features such as one- and two-day shipping and a membership-based perks program will remind anyone who’s shopped online of the business model run by e-commerce leaders in the consumer market, particularly Amazon with its Prime membership and recently announced drive toward single-day shipping. And that’s not unintentional, says Groff. “We try to benchmark ourselves against really any e-commerce company. We might not directly compete with another e-commerce company, but we try to look and see what the leading companies are doing,” he says. “Every industry, B2B and B2C, we try to see what might work for us. From a benchmarking standpoint, we look at everybody.”
Noting Amazon’s leadership with providing a great customer experience, Groff says he’s tried to emulate that drive at WebstaurantStore as well by aiming to create a sense of instant gratification for its customers. Not only in the products they purchase through WebstaurantStore, but also how easily and quickly they get information and responses to inquiries. The company tracks everything from email response times to average waits on the phone or online chat system, with management accountable for keeping the metrics to company standards. “It’s something we definitely care a lot about,” Groff says.
As far as competition in the restaurant supply industry specifically, Groff estimates only about 10% even offer online ordering today. That means, even though WebstaurantStore is 100% e-commerce, they’re looking closely at that 90% of the market that are offline and trying to convert their customers to the web. “What we’re trying to do through strategies like the [WebstaurantPlus] membership program is give customers a reason to take that business from offline to our channel,” he says.
Over 15 years of building the e-commerce business, WebstaurantStore has learned some important operating practices specific to online selling. One of the first was the true speed at which e-commerce operates, especially high customer expectations of speedy shipping and delivery. Initially, they thought it would be enough to operate WebstaurantStore out of the back of a Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Restaurant Store (another division of Clark that serves the cash-and-carry channel).
“That was a good way to get started, but we found that the demand need justified a full distribution center,” Groff explains. “And then as we grew, we decided to branch out and add regional distribution centers so that we could reach our customers in that one- to two-day timeframe. That was a big lesson learned as we expanded. We really saw an increase in conversion rates as we were able to lower shipping costs and get closer and closer to our customers.”
Another operational need that quickly became apparent: Invest in highly skilled people. Even as an e-commerce-based platform, Groff didn’t want a customer to call in, email or live chat about a technical question relating to a piece of equipment and not be able to get an in-depth answer from a knowledgeable person right away. WebstaurantStore now has about 175 Customer Solutions Specialists to meet that goal. “We really try to empower them to be industry experts and be in control of solving our customers’ problems,” says Groff.
On a near weekly basis, vendors will visit the WebstaurantStore headquarters, where the company has its own test kitchen, to do hands-on training that allows the WebstaurantStore team to develop and strengthen its product knowledge. “That’s something that I think is really important,” Groff adds.
On the IT side, Garber has learned to limit the amount of third-party software the company uses. In fact, all of WebstaurantStore’s current technology was developed in-house, from its chat software to routing software, warehouse picking, everything is custom-built. “That took years and years to develop. But the more we pushed in that direction, the more we’ve been able to integrate all of our systems to talk seamlessly to each other,” Garber says.
When a customer reaches out for help, WebstaurantStore can draw from their full customer profile across all of the available forms of communication. For example, the WebstaurantStore live chat software will automatically pull up relevant order information that seamlessly ties into its warehouse and email system.
“Every time we’ve used a third-party resource to simplify something, it ended up complicating things more. And along the way, they all want their piece of your pie. If you give enough of those pieces out, you’re not going to stay in business long,” says Garber. “So that’s why we’ve really focused on creating everything in-house, proprietary to us. It’s not available for our competitors to just go out and replicate what we have because it’s all our intellectual property that we’ve built.”
An expensive lesson learned, he adds, is the need to be strategic with spending money on Google. “They will give you endless ways to spend it, but they’re not all profitable,” Garber says. “If you don’t have a team in-house devoted toward fine-tuning and tweaking your profitability of your Google AdWords, you’re not going to be competing in our space very long.”
Building all of those in-house capabilities requires the talent to do it. Distributors often feel challenged when working to build an in-house team, thinking they’re in competition with snazzy Silicon Valley-type organizations. How do you recruit an up-and-coming technology pro to Pennsylvania Dutch Country? It’s not as complicated as one might think, Garber says.
“It’s a different type of person that wants to work for a Facebook or an Amazon or a Google than wants to work for Clark Associates. [We’re looking for] that person that has the [mentality of], ‘I can figure everything out. I want to own this piece. I don’t want to work through endless bureaucracy to get a button color changed. I want to be able to just do it.’
“We’ve been able to, from a tech standpoint, enable people from intern level to director level to have ideas that are — within days — executed on the site,” he explains. “And we keep a pretty flat structure in order to get those entrepreneurial elements, versus a team of 20 that works for six months to develop just a dropdown menu on Amazon. It’s a very different world in development from a tech standpoint here, than if you get bogged down in the politics of say, an Amazon or a Grainger.”
To increase WebstaurantStore’s recruiting reach, the company has a group of employees known as college ambassadors — all recent graduates within the last roughly five years — who visit several dozen colleges within about a two-hour radius of Lititz to talk about working at WebstaurantStore. The ambassadors will speak to professors and classes. They’ll go to club meetings and traditional job fairs.
The company has also sponsored scholarship programs at a number of the colleges and universities — “a really big source of incoming talent for us,” Groff says — as well as invested in developing an internship program. Last summer, WebstaurantStore had roughly 70 interns working for the company in all departments. Many will return for full-time work, Groff predicts. Or at a minimum, go back to campus and talk about their positive experience. “That’s a good way of getting our name out there,” he adds.
“Being in distribution, we don’t have as much name recognition,” says Groff. “For us, it’s really important to tell our story, and talk about our culture here, some of the things that you can do in a company like ours.”
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