The way electrical distributors employ the Internet to fuel and streamline business continues to evolve. For electrical distributors' customers, the online offerings of one electrical distributor and a competing distributor can be miles apart. How is your company positioning its Web site for customer use? It may be time to take a close look and re-evaluate.

Begin by talking with your customers. Ask them to critique your online menu and make suggestions on offerings they'd use.

Large electrical distributors serving industrial, institutional and commercial accounts have had to meet customer demands for online services and information. Most have well developed online offerings. For industrial, institutional and commercial accounts, online buying occurs because these companies have standardized purchase orders using procurement systems based upon negotiated agreements. These companies have a vested interest in tracking their purchasing behavior. Large distributors who serve industrial, commercial and institutional accounts had to meet customer demands.

But electrical distributors don't see as many electrical contractors making Web purchases, and this customer segment accounts for a huge portion of sales for the typical electrical distributor. When the process becomes more intuitive, more accurate and as easy as buying from Amazon, online sales to electrical contractors will occur. Challenges to increasing online contractor purchasing include:

  • Accuracy of data
  • Ease of online product searches
  • The ability to receive pricing
  • A preference for personal interaction

Channel Marketing Group recently surveyed electrical contractors to learn their online usage and needs. The results show contractors use the Web more than we previously thought, and that they would like to use it more. Key findings:

  • 39 percent of the electrical contractors surveyed visit distributor Web sites at least once a week; 22 percent visit multiple times a week.

  • 48 percent have purchased from a distributor Web site.

  • 74 percent receive at least one distributor e-newsletter.

  • 13 percent purchase between 11 percent and 25 percent of materials online.

  • 32 percent have not purchased electrical materials online.

  • 44 percent purchase less than 10 percent of their materials online.

Of particular interest is where these purchases probably occur. When asked, “Which Web site is most useful to you?” the two most frequently mentioned sites were Grainger and Ruud Lighting.

The survey also asked contractors which features they'd use on distributor Web sites. The contractors identified features currently offered by distributor sites and those features that should be offered. (See sidebar, “What electrical contractors want from a distributor Web site” on page 46.) Look at your company's current Internet offerings through the eyes of an electrical contractor. Grade your Web site by comparing its offering to those electrical contractors want.


David Gordon is a principal of Channel Marketing Group Inc., Raleigh, N.C., which develops growth strategies for manufacturers and distributors. Gordon can be reached via e-mail at dgordon@channelmkt.com.

Overhauling Your Web Site

If your Web site lacks many of the features electrical contractors customers want (see sidebar below), it may be time to consider revamping it.

“Distributors should make their sites into destinations by aggregating manufacturer content,” says Keith Peck, president of Electricsmarts.com, Glastonbury, Conn. “Content, in addition to the account management services that contractors desire, will help distributors strengthen their relationship with customers and further position the distributor as a solution provider.”

Electricsmarts.com provides a comprehensive Internet resource for manufacturers, distributors, contractors and other electrical industry professionals. Its manufacturer content package is used by around 70 distributors as a “plug-in” to their Web sites at no expense. These distributors easily aggregate manufacturer content, promote their vendors and provide value-added information to their customers.

“Once the customer starts visiting a site more frequently, there is a greater opportunity for one-to-one marketing,” says Peck.

WHAT ELECTRICAL CONTRACTORS WANT FROM A DISTRIBUTOR WEB SITE
  Currently Offer Should Offer
Ability to verify delivery 29% 87%
Track back orders 23% 87%
Links to manufacturer training 17% 87%
Links to electrical contractor resources (NEC information, for example) 24% 83%
Ability to download statements and invoices 29% 82%
Purchase history reporting 32% 82%
Ability to check pricing 35% 78%
Line card with links to manufacturers 49% 74%
Online ordering 43% 73%
New product information 46% 73%
Branch contacts 60% 70%
Directions to branch locations 48% 69%
Promotions 45% 69%
Branch overview 53% 69%
Links to manufacturer catalogs 56% 65%
Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) 43% 64%
Links to manufacturer spec sheets 56% 59%
Company overview 62% 57%
Note: Low scores on existing services indicate that this is an expectation of what should be included on a Web site.

Marketing Your Internet Offerings

Don't forget to promote any new additions you make to your Web site. Just because you've built it, doesn't mean folks will flock to your Web site. As always, marketing is key.

To make your Web site a destination, it's important to tell customers what is on your Web site in as many ways as possible. Here are some ideas on ways to increase visibility.

  • Train your sales force and customer service staff on your Web site and have them share the information with key customers.

  • Include articles in your print newsletter about your Web site's offerings. Be sure you illustrate how the offerings make your customers' lives easier.

  • Consider a direct-mail piece. One electrical distributor that relaunched its Web site sent customers a mailer with a scratch card. Scratching the card revealed an alphanumeric code. Customers went to the Web site, entered the code and had the opportunity to earn prizes. It's a creative way to quickly gain visibility.

  • Use the prerecorded message customers hear when they're on hold to alert them of new services you offer via the Web.

  • Develop an e-newsletter, tailored to your customer's interests. E-newsletters are great marketing tools.

  • Offer Internet specials.

  • Develop promotions to drive traffic to your site.

  • Don't forget about search engine optimization strategies, and make sure your metadata is accurate.