A Special Series from North American Wholesale Lumber Association
By Mark Brennan, U.S. Lumber Group
Ecommerce is a booming trend in the business-to-business sector. According to Forrester, U.S. revenue from B2B (business-to-business) ecommerce is currently clocking in at $780 billion—more than double the business-to-consumer sector.
So how can the wholesale lumber industry ensure a piece of the action? By paying close attention to the customer experience, for starters. The B2C (business-to-consumer) shopping experience paved the way for what’s expected from B2B ecommerce, so any lumber wholesaler entering the market or already there should take a page from the playbook of the Amazons of the world and follow suit.
We are still working on our ecommerce platform to make the experience for the customer as easy as possible. Here are some of the things we’re learning as we tackle the ecommerce challenge:
1. Content Management Is King
Having great product descriptions and photos that are enticing to buyers is only part of the equation. Presenting it the right way is critical to engaging your customer targets—and if it’s not structured and organized the right way, your product content won’t present well to customers. Buyers need to know that the product they’re looking at is the right one. They rely on you to provide all the product information they need.
Rich product information—complete with images, item codes enhanced descriptions and sizes, etc.—will all help make potential customers confident to buy online. The more attributes you have, the easier it is to categorize and organize products on your site.
The result is easy site navigation for your buyers.
Most lumber wholesalers are dealing with 3,000 SKUs that fluctuate constantly as new product lines come in and others are retired. Data in this industry is fluid, and you have to be able to stay on top so your customers perceive your business as orderly and efficient.
2. Find Your Value-Add
When it comes to transacting business online, the lumber industry is still fairly young. As such, potential customers are unlikely to make a change in their purchasing behavior if they don’t perceive a value in it for them.
In some cases, the decision to (or to not) buy online is a generational thing, and in other cases it’s an ease-of-use issue. It’s important to make it as easy as possible to allow customers who want to buy online to do so.
It’s incumbent on you (in conjunction with your IT and marketing departments, if you have them to lean on) to add value to the transaction. For example, maybe you decide to allow online customers access to more detailed product information, such as brochures or videos, that will better equip them to deliver value to their customers. Or you could provide product recommendations to repeat online customers based on their history. By doing so, you’re giving them information that could help them make their budgeting and purchasing decisions as easy as possible.
Online selling takes the human interaction out of selling, but that doesn’t mean buyers no longer want that type of special treatment. Buyers still seek out sellers who go the extra mile to make them feel important and special. Although it’s trickier to provide this type of personalization and attention when online, it’s still possible through technology.
3. Get the Word Out—And Be Flexible
Once you have an ecommerce platform in place, it can still be a challenge to get your customers or potential customers to use it.
One of the ways to get the word out to customers is through email marketing, in the form of communications about products, perhaps combined with sales incentives. Here again, personalization is critical: You should consider the kind of email messages and incentives that will most resonate with your buyers’ interests, needs and budgets. Maybe there’s a personalized discount you can apply based on knowledge of a given customer’s product purchasing history. Tactics like this will all help the customer feel special, which in turn can help close the sale.
Finally, a note about flexibility: We want to do business with customers in any way they want to do business with us. What does that mean when it comes to ecommerce? It means that if our customers want to call us, fax us, email us or send over a personal shopper, we’ll do business with them because we want to have an outlet for however our customers want to do business with us.
It’s all about being able to provide our customers with accurate, engaging information and giving them as many outlets as possible to easily access it.
Like other B2B entities, wholesale lumber operations have a huge opportunity to grow business with ecommerce—assuming you do things the right way. Selling online is challenging, but practices like this can go a long way in helping make ecommerce a vital part of your sales effort.
If you’d like to explore ecommerce platform options, or talk to peers who have started an ecommerce program, join me at NAWLA’s 2016 Traders Market. More than 1,500 forest product industry buyers and sellers will converge at this year’s Traders Market, October 26-28 at The Mirage in Las Vegas. To learn more or register, visit www.nawla.org.
– Mark Brennan is program manager for U.S. Lumber Group, Atlanta, Ga., and a member of North American Wholesale Lumber Association’s marketing committee.