E-commerce remains a priority for Grainger, as sales through online channels continue to grow. Paul Miller, vice president of global e-commerce, customer information and innovation for Grainger, spoke with Editor Jenel Stelton-Holtmeier at the 2015 Grainger Show, a trade show for Grainger’s employees, customers and suppliers. Miller discussed how the $10 billion distributor is addressing data challenges that come from having such a broad portfolio and how it is trying to streamline the process for customers.
Sales through e-commerce continue to make up a larger percentage of revenue for Grainger, Chicago, IL. But challenges remain for ensuring that customers can find what they want when they want it, according to Paul Miller, vice president of global e-commerce, customer information and innovation for the distributor. Miller spoke with MDM at the recent 2015 Grainger Show, its annual event for employees, customers and suppliers.
“A million and a half products creates a computational and data problem that exponentially grows as you add more products,” Miller says.
Tackling that data issue has been a huge focus for Grainger, because it impacts the functionality and usability of its e-commerce channel. Everyone has their own way of searching for items; the key is making sure that each of those ways works to find the right items.
There are many different scenarios for how people search, Miller says. Sometimes people search with the exact product number; some just know the general descriptions. For example, if a customer is looking for a power tool with a nickel-cadmium battery, he may search using NiCd, NiCad, Ni Cad or some other variation. Each of those terms should direct them to what the customer is looking for.
“How do we make sure that they find the right product in each of these cases?” Miller says. “Not one size can ever fit all, you’ve got to be able to understand those search scenarios or those use cases and know which are going to be most problematic for customers.”
To that end, Grainger has an entire team focused on taxonomy and making sure those connections are made. “A lot of this gets back to grungy, gnarly data work,” he says.
And then there are the customers who know what they need something for – a certain task or a certain power output, for example – but don’t know how to search for the specific parameters. Grainger has developed a tool to help customers search for the correct motors, called “Motor Match,” that walks them through a set of questions to winnow down the options “to just the right motor for them,” Miller says. The distributor is looking at ways to replicate the tool into other product categories, as well.
Another challenge is that the initial data needs to be complete and standardized. Working with vendors lessens the problem at the origin, but Grainger also designed its system to minimize the variance. When manual entry is required, the system includes drop-down boxes for common attributes, creating “harmony” in the descriptions, Miller says.
“I’m not ever going to say that the data is perfect, but I am going to say it’s getting better and better,” he says. “The barometer for us is we look at search. … We’ve seen dramatic increases in what we call ‘search to cart.’” More of the products that are searched for are being placed in customer carts, which Grainger translates as meaning the customers were able to find the product they wanted through the search function.
“We’re thinking about, from top to bottom, what does it take to be not just a player, to not be just somebody who has a channel called e-commerce, but for e-commerce – and mobile – to be something that really drives value to our customers,” Miller says.
Mobile has been one of the fastest growing
channels for Grainger, with about 20 percent of website traffic coming from mobile devices. “It’s not a question of if our customers are going to embrace mobile, it’s not even a question of when,” Miller says. “It’s now.”
Customers are not differentiating between the platforms they use to access the information, so the information has to be accessible and usable across all of the platforms. Additionally, customers want the experience to be seamless across the platforms.
Staying ahead of customer needs is becoming more challenging because the time between development and adoption is much more compressed than it has been in the past. It requires identifying issues before the customer knows they have them.
For example, Grainger recently launched “personal lists” to help customers manage their product portfolios based on varying attributes, such as location or customer. Based on the idea of wish lists on business-to-consumer sites, these lists will pop up the specific needs of a specific location – for example, the right light bulbs for a particular branch – when the individual walks into that location. “That saves time, that saves effort,” Miller says.
In order to keep ahead of the game, however, Grainger needs to stay in touch with its customers’ needs. Feedback is a critical piece to make sure the company is addressing the “right things,” Miller says. As a result, Grainger has incorporated numerous feedback channels on its website to give those customers easy access to Grainger agents at any time.