Members of the Vanguard Distribution Group have been rolling out the new Web sites that they jointly developed through their Pittsburgh-based e-marketing group.

Launched in late-2000, the Vanguard Distribution Group is a group of 18 non-competing Allen-Bradley/Rockwell Automation distributors who pool their resources to develop online marketing and management resources, such as a template-based Web site, e-mail newsletters, product data and business management tools.

Vanguard combines the resources of its members and suppliers to perform marketing functions that the individual members couldn't afford themselves, said Neil Gillespie, president of Vanguard. The Web sites are a prime example of these economies of scale, he said.

“We've built links for three communities: OEM, contractor and industrial/MRO, and we've got about 2,200 links,” he said. “Each of the members' Web sites can access those links. They're not just on products; most of it's on how to run your business, and application things. For the MRO segment, there's information on supply-chain management. For contractors, there are articles about legal issues, contract negotiations, managing people on the job site and other business management issues. There's also manufacturer links.”

Currently, 12 of the 18 members have their own sites up and running, including OneSource Distributors, San Diego.

“It's extremely easy, and it's very powerful compared to anything we could have developed on our own,” said Bob Zamarripa, president of OneSource. “The cost was much more palatable to swallow, so we got a product that really none of us would have been able to develop on our own.

“The Web site that Vanguard designed was really a completely new front end (for us). Our business system's e-commerce link is hooked right into the Web site. Customers can order product, check product availability, browse through a product catalog, check shipping status of orders or check accounts receivable.”

One of the most important aspects of the Vanguard Web sites is the continuity between them, said Gillespie.

“If somebody builds a page or a landing page for a product promotion, they can save it as a template and everybody else in the group can use it too, and they can edit it to their tastes,” he said.

Vanguard is also developing e-mail newsletter templates for its members that have built-in links to their Web sites. This gives members a low-cost way to extend product promotions to customers instantly, said Art Cook, president, Buckles-Smith Electric Co., San Jose, Calif., and a founding member of Vanguard.

“There are collaborative electronic newsletters that we can draw from the manufacturers,” said Cook, “We can create a local e-newsletter and add our own local news if we choose.”

While members agree that Web sites are Vanguard's most valuable resource, they also enjoy the benefits of sharing best practices, point-of-sale data and networking, said Gillespie. They often use Web conferencing though a third-party Web conferencing and teleconferencing provider to exchange this information, and say it has cut down on travel costs. Vanguard members also use Web conferencing for manufacturer training of salespeople.

Additionally, Vanguard plans to take the point-of-sale data that it has collected from its members and vendors and put it into a central database. Manufacturers could then use this customer information to focus marketing activities on target markets.

“Your classic marketing database is made up of companies, contacts at those companies, and transaction information by line item,” Gillespie said. “We've been working on a specification for a common hierarchy of market segmentation coding so you can reach the type of companies that you want to reach.”

Additionally, he said this database would include the number of employees at a customer's location so users could reach companies of a certain size. Gillespie envisions the tracking of who bought what and when, so manufacturers can offer them upgrades and other related products — through Vanguard's network of distributors.

According to Buckles-Smith's Art Cook, Vanguard initially costs Allen-Bradley distributors $20,000 to join, plus 2 percent of electrical products and services. That number goes down the next year of membership. “Our membership fees are somewhat in proportion to our size,” said Cook. “So it allows the big members and the small members to participate.”