The internet offers distributors valuable opportunities to sell their products online, and those that have invested sufficiently in their website are reaping the rewards. ECJ talks to two cleaning products distributors that are actively selling online about how they set up their ‘e-shop’ and what benefits their website has brought to their business.
The growth in internet selling is surely one of the most influential trends affecting distributors of cleaning products in recent years. Those companies that have been at the forefront of developing online shops are now seeing very real benefits, and sales from their website account for a significant percentage of their business. ECJ spoke to Mandie Kemp at Futures Supplies & Support Services in the UK and Henrik Stadsing of Stadsing in Denmark. Both have invested heavily in growing their online business in recent years.
Futures Supplies has been selling products online since 2004 and Kemp explains there were many challenges to overcome when setting up its online operation. “It was vital to ensure our website was user friendly, fast and efficient – establishing exactly what other content the website should contain was challenging as we wanted it to be not just a website but also an information platform for customers. We wanted to combine what our customers had asked for through our research with easy ordering and access to product information, safety data sheets as well as provide news and industry information.
“Products were carefully selected to ensure they offered customers an informed choice including a full range of branded and value products from reputable manufacturers. Customers could benefit from quality products providing the best value, whilst taking into account their environmental impact and keeping up to date with product innovations as they came onto the market.”
Stadsing has been selling online for six years, as Henrik Stadsing explains. “The biggest challenge in developing our website was to make it as simple and as functional as possible for our customers. It’s tempting to keep adding features and making the site more and more complex, however it’s vital to always bear in mind that it must be as simple to use and as functional as possible for the customer.”
The site took almost a year to set up and has proved to be a costly exercise, Stadsing continues, with a great deal of work involved. “However, for us the investment has definitely been worthwhile.” Now the site not only allows customers to shop online but also to also view their order history, access old invoices and credit notes, compile a shopping list, etc. Futures has also invested heavily over the years in developing this type of interactive platform for their customers.
Both companies offer their full product range for sale online. “For us it was important for everything in the catalogue to be available online from the start,” explains Stadsing. Kemp adds: “Whilst our full product range of over 2,000 products is available to buy online, the website offers an easy search tool to find the products customers need quickly and easily along with a ‘favourites’ facility, so they can go straight to the products they order regularly.
“Green products are high on our customers’ agenda and to help them make an informed choice a ‘green traffic light’ facility appears next to a green rated product. Click on the traffic light and they are taken to a link that helps them to find out more about some of the commonly found green logos and labels associated to the products.”
The proof of both websites’ success is in the numbers – Stadsing’s site accounts for an average of 50 per cent of the company’s monthly turnover. Futures Supplies’ online shop represents over 60 per cent of the total business revenue.
“We train our customers in using the website and actively encourage them to use it,” Stadsing emphasises. “We no longer want our sales people to simply take orders – their time is better spent in offering advice on using the right products and carrying out product training for example.” So the fact Stadsing is so proactive in promoting its website to customers allows its sales staff to add greater value to relationships through other activities.
Most orders coming to the Stadsing site are made by existing customers, rather than new ones who have come to the company through finding the site. However the website has enabled the business to sell products which it may not have sold through conventional channels. “Salespeople can only promote a limited selection of solutions at any one time while the website shows our total offering,” says Stadsing. “And our catalogue only comes out once a year, whereby we can update our website continuously as we add new products to the range. We have also found people are much more likely to try something new if they can simply buy it with one click.”
Futures Supplies has found that it’s the added extras the online shop offers – access to delivery notes, invoices and statements, etc – that have encouraged new customers to use its services. Kemp explains: “A focus on tight financial controls, especially in tough economic times, is fundamental to contract cleaners – one of our key market sectors. Because of that we also developed a web based budget control system backed up by full individual site-by-site reporting. This a really simple idea that helps us to deliver cost controls and savings to our customers.”
So what additional opportunities does a comprehensive and dynamic website bring to a distributor’s business? “The website is a window for the outside world to look into our business, enabling us to reach many more potential customers than we possibly could otherwise,” believes Kemp. “It allows us to really engage, even more closely, with our customers and deliver not just products but up-to-date information.
“The website has enabled us to build long term partnerships with like-minded customers, to collaborate and help grow their businesses through the delivery of their very own ‘partner’ website ‘janitorial shop’. This is a simple and effective way to help cleaning/facilities and similar companies to grow their company.” There are three simple steps.
Step 1: The creation of an ‘on-line shop’ which is seen as an extension of Futures Supplies’ ‘partners/customers’ website is produced in line with their branding and website design. Futures Supplies then simply provides a link on the partners’ website to the new online shop, where an agreed selection of products can be easily purchased by their customers.
Step 2: The online shop is automatically updated with product information and pictures by Futures Supplies.
Step 3: Once provided with a user name and password, partners’ customers can then place online orders, which are fed directly into the Futures Supplies’ system, and Futures Supplies take care of the processing and delivery.
In offering advice to other distributor companies that may be in the early stages of developing their own online business, both Kemp and Stadsing agree there is no room for compromise. “You must do it 100 per cent, 80 per cent is simply not good enough,” says Stadsing. “At the very first click your site must be easy to use for the customer – he has to like it straight away or you will lose him immediately.”
“An online shop is a big, big investment in both time and money; not just at the development stage but also in ensuring the site continues to meet customer expectations day after day, week after week,” Kemp emphasises.
“Our website sales order processing runs at a secure hosted data centre linked directly through to our main office server, via its own dedicated broadband line enabling the smooth uninterrupted transfer of our customer orders directly into our sales order processing main system, 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Without such a robust back office set-up, a website that fails could cost you customers not encourage them – don’t even think about it unless you have the right infrastructure in place!
“And when it comes to the functionality of your site, you must have a ‘developer’ not just a ‘designer’. It is important the look and feel of the site is in keeping with your branding, but it’s more important the site functions consistently and delivers a reliable customer experience that makes them want to come back again and again.”
Stadsing also advises that it’s worth spending time on the technical detail. “An important consideration is optimising words and choosing the correct terms for all your products, so they will be found by the search engines. This is actually a difficult and lengthy process. And there must be a photo alongside every single product description.”
Ordering via a website ultimately makes life easier for customers so it
works to everyone’s benefit. However, once you have set up your shop, don’t think your work is finished. “Your online shop is never complete, it must continually evolve and change to incorporate new features and new products,” Stadsing says. “For example, our next step is an app, whereby customers can simply scan the QR code of the product on their smart phone and compile their shopping list via that method.
“With all our developments our priority must be to make it easier for the customer to buy from us.”
Kemp agrees: “As an essential part of our business, the website platform needs continual nurturing along with inward investment to keep it fresh, innovative and user friendly. The development of a website must be planned not just for the present but also for the future to develop and support the growth of the business.”