Technology can be the great equalizer, setting dealers up to be competitive against all comers. Our annual dealer technology survey looks at how independents are using business automation, digital marketing and social media and other technology resources to help level the playing field.
By Michael Chazin
BMI: Webstore development leads to full system conversion
There was a time, not all that long ago, when dealers regularly developed their own ordering and warehouse systems and even their own webstore. “We were doing our own web development and it was like we were reinventing the wheel every time,” says John Leighton, president of Office Basics in Philadelphia. He recognized that the pace of change was steadily increasing and he could no longer achieve the best results independently.
In 2013, Leighton went looking for an e-commerce solution that would readily integrate with his homegrown backend system. He chose the web engine from BMI which connected with his existing warehouse and ordering systems. As a result, between 2013 and 2015 Office Basics ran three systems—one for financial management, another for warehouse and order management, and a third e-commerce system.
The website that BMI developed for Office Basics hit just the right combination of visual appeal and purchasing controls, says Leighton. “BMI understood the requirements of a true B2B sales and procurement process,” he contends.
The website mirrored many of the controls that Office Basics had already established from pricing and item availability to restricted categories and approvals.
What a customer sees when they visit the website is determined by their login. A one-office business could see the latest round of banners and promotions; whereas a corporate customer might not want its employees to see such offers. After those corporate customers log in those promos wouldn’t be available. “With just the click of a mouse the site strips away all that stuff and takes on a corporate feel,” says Leighton.
In 2015 Office Basics replaced its entire ERP system with software from BMI. The strength of the BMI product can be seen in its financial controls and inventory management system. Leighton is especially impressed with the capabilities of the inventory management module.
“Basically it manages all of our order flow, inventory and purchasing processes,” says Leighton.
The new ERP system makes inventory management super-efficient, he adds, and promotes the application of electronic data interchange (EDI) with a growing roster of customers.
“It used to be only large institutions that could incorporate this activity because it made sense with massive purchasing,” Leighton says. Those ordering solutions have started to move downstream and he now has mid-sized customers spending roughly $50,000 a year who have also started to use EDI.
He says it is not a large part of his business but it is growing. “Seventy percent of our business is online and probably upwards of 15 percent flows through procurement in this way,” he says. Relatively speaking it is a small number of customers but they are all large, with bigger spends.
The transition to the BMI system was not entirely trouble-free. Office Basics had literally built its previous system from scratch; as a result employees running the system were intimately familiar with all of its workings. “It was quite a change for our people and we had to change some of our business processes to work the system,” he says.
That was when BMI really proved its worth. “They are experienced in our industry and understand it beyond basic functionality,” says Leighton. With that knowledge they were better able to assist Office Basics personnel in learning new system requirements.
ECi Acsellerate: Cutting edge technology is the price of admission
Investments in technology are critical for independents according to Jeff Lurcook, president of Office Value, Meridian, Idaho. “If you intend to compete with the big boxes and the Amazons of this world, your technology and your online experience have to be cutting edge or you’re going to get left behind,” he says.
“So many dealers who have been in business for a long time think that all they have to do is set up a webstore and orders will come pouring in,” says Lurcook. “They can’t figure out why their online sales aren’t growing.” At Office Value, technology is a priority that includes just about everything from search engine optimization and social media to internal technology resources such as DDMS and Acsellerate.
Lurcook has used Acsellerate for more than a decade and views it as an important component of his dealership’s success. It is one of the first programs he logs into each day and it stays open all day long. Additionally his sales staff, operations manager and buyer have access to the program. “It basically is our source of data,” he says.
The data that Acsellerate makes available sets Office Value apart from its competitors, contends Lurcook. “Nothing we sell on the product side is unique and nobody wants to play the price game,” he says. Instead, prospects are approached with the dual proposition of service and technology. The software enables a range of analytical reports which provide critical data.
Acsellerate software provides a seemingly unlimited array of analytics, including detailed usage reports, summary usage reports, usage reports by ship-to or department, invoice registers, sales by contract and much more. “We bring a lot of value to our customers when we provide them with data they’re trying to capture by collecting invoices and plotting spreadsheets,” he says. Lurcook tells them they don’t have to do that; he can produce reports for them in a matter of minutes.
Many Office Value customers maintain satellite locations and for budgeting purposes they require usage reports by ship-to location or department. One Office Value customer has close to 600 locations nationwide; before doing business with Office Value one person at headquarters tracked all those purchases.
Lurcook told this customer it didn’t need to do that and asked how they wanted the report to look. “It was a detailed usage report by ship-to location,” he says. Now the customer gets almost 600 reports quarterly. “They don’t need anyone in-house dealing with that data because it literally takes me two or three minutes and the report is ready for them.”
Lurcook maintains that with the right amount of help the software isn’t too difficult to master. “We get weekly emails with current classes, their video library is extensive and if you need to call and talk to a live body the support is great,” he says. He has become proficient with the software by working with it almost daily and says he almost never gets stumped.
Technology is something that every independent can get behind. “More millennials are decision makers today,” he says. “If your company isn’t techno-savvy and cutting edge, they don’t give you a second look.”
ECi DDMS Plus: Automation improves efficiency
Automation that’s available to independent dealers today provides them the ability to become more efficient and more profitable. “We’ve always invested heavily in technology and I think it has paid off for us,” says Mark Porter, president of Porter’s Office Products, Rexburg, Idaho. He says that automation has eliminated manual processes, automated routines and offered new capabilities to customers.
Porter’s started its automation journey with Britannia but switched to DDMS about twenty years ago, when it looked to attain greater purchasing functionality. Since then, the system has evolved in almost every area but for Porter’s the purchasing capabilities are the most appreciated. “Our biggest time saver is that we set up automatic purchasing,” says Porter.
Day to day purchasing activities are completely automated. “The standard 95 percent of items flow through S. P. Richards without any issue and we don’t even have to look at those,” says Porter. At the end of the day purchasing people review any exceptions.
The software also automates the distribution and delivery of products. “Packages are scanned as they go onto our trucks so we have an accurate count of how many packages are on the truck for each customer,” explains Porter. Then each package is scanned as it comes off the truck to make certain that the correct number of packages goes to each customer. “It has greatly increased our accuracy and efficiency,” says Porter.
The website experience that DDMS has created for Porter’s customers is state-of-the-art and offers an enhanced online shopping experience, he says. The website uses S.P.’s search engine but Porter’s has some control of item rankings. In some categories, but not every category, Porter’s can set which item goes in the number one position.
One of the best website features is the control that can be given to procurement agents, especially for larger companies. Users can be set up where they can place orders, but the order will not go through until it is approved by someone higher in the organization. “If they have several users this gives the procurement department more control,” says Porter. Additionally, if a single person places orders for numerous shipping locations or departments, items can be keyed to specific locations, so that when the order gets delivered, all items go to the correct place.
“We use ECi’s web design service and that keeps our shopping site updated and fresh,” says Porter. He has put that technology to work for his dealership and has activated many of the available features to make the site as user-friendly as possible. An independent study of e-commerce efforts by office supply distributors by Apruve, Inc. last year listed Porter’s website among the ten most effective.
Over time more routines have become automated. “EDI has always been available for purchasing from the wholesalers,” says Porter, “but it wasn’t available for the buying groups until more recently.” As a member of TriMega’s technology committee, Porter worked on that implementation. Now orders for stocking product for Porter’s get transmitted digitally to TriMega, a confirmation is received and payment gets transmitted back electronically.
“The benefit that I see is that we are able to scale up our business without adding additional labor costs,” says Porter. “That was another reason why we moved to DDMS.”
Evolution: Evolved webstore is easy to customize
Advance Office & Janitorial Supply in Las Vegas, selected Evolution software years ago when it moved to separate its webstore from its backend. When a new platform was introduced last fall, Advance Office was one of the first dealers to sign up for the new version, EvolutionX.
The gaming industry is a strong customer group at Advance, including gaming machine suppliers and the IT companies that service them. All these companies had strict security requirements; even transactional emails had to be secured in a certain way. “They needed to know that the data and passwords were fully encrypted,” says owner Lisa Crowson. She worked directly throughout this process with the programmer based in Ireland to implement the security requirements. “That he was available and took the time to listen to our needs was a big deal for us,” she says.
One of the strongest features of the new website developed through EvolutionX is that every aspect of its appearance can be easily customized.
This has enabled Advance Office to improve its merchandising and branding. “We have a logo lady and we’re able to brand her throughout the site in multiple places,” says Crowson. In one place she is dressed smartly as a modern office worker, in another as a Vegas showgirl; she was a witch for Halloween and a Santa for Christmas.
Customer landing pages also can be customized. “A lot of websites can do customer-specific landing pages but ours even determine which products customers can see,” says Crowson. “We can easily add branded items that the customer sees but no one else does.” Landing pages include the customer’s logo so when they see that logo they know they are on the proper, secure ordering site. “They love that; it’s like having their own avatar,” she says.
“It’s fresh and it’s timely,” says Crowson. It is not just a static site that customers visit to place an order but the site evolves. “Right now there is a springtime banner up as Spring arrives early in Vegas.” At a minimum themes are changed every month. “We even have specials that rotate every week,” she adds. “That’s a way to get customers to come back.”
The system also provides labels for every customer which enables Advance Office to categorize them by size and by industry. These tags can then be used to categorize customers for product promotions based on their size, industry and past buying habits.
The transition to the updated version of the software could not have gone smoother, reports Crowson. “They have tutorials on their site that you can get right into and, within two or three minutes, you can learn how to do something,” she says.
Technology is the one element that could be the salvation of many independents, suggests Crowson, as the only way to keep up with customers’ demands is through automation. “Every day we are expected to do more and we have to do it faster and better than we ever did before,” she says.
Fortune Web Marketing: Digital media reaches consumers in myriad ways
Virginia-based Guernsey, Inc. has worked with Fortune Web Marketing for quite some time, but that work has intensified in the last five years. “I started focusing on the digital consumer,” says Savannah Guernsey, vice president, marketing and merchandising. The marketplace has evolved and today the customer has become “the consumer.” One of the best ways to reach this new consumer is with digital media and that’s where Fortune Web Marketing comes in.
Much of the success possible through the use of digital media arises from its ability, in myriad forms, to link back to an online presence and shopping site. The dealership had acquired a pure furniture sales and design company and needed a new website to showcase that capability. The corporate site was also in need of a facelift.
Beginning almost three years ago Guernsey worked with Fortune Web Marketing to develop new websites for the dealership. A new transactional site for office supplies and related products launched in 2017. The site for Interiors by Guernsey launched in 2016 after nearly a year in development. The look and feel of the interiors site provided a solid marketplace differentiation for Guernsey. Guernsey credits the work of Fortune’s West Coast design team for pulling off a truly superior effort.
Three websites are now on line: a corporate site for Guernsey, Inc; a transactional site to sell office supplies and associated products; and the website for Interiors by Guernsey, which has a completely different look and feel.
The old way of getting new customers was to knock on doors and ask if the business needed office supplies. “It was a hit or miss strategy,” she says. You might hit a customer just after they have an argument with a supplier and slip right in, but more likely the client wasn’t ready to buy yet and may not be for months.
Guernsey works with Fortune on search engine optimization (SEO) to find prospects online and feed them Guernsey messages. “The big difference is you’re there when you are needed,” says Guernsey. “You are getting found, rather than going and finding, and I consider that to be a much more effective system.”
The latest round of SEO efforts have started to pay dividends. There has been a chat function on the e-commerce site for some time, but it was recently added to the corporate site. “That is where we really do all of our lead generation,” she said. Prospects come to the corporate site through SEO efforts. “We engage with them there,” said Guernsey. “SEO is a matter of being where your customers are when they need you.”
Pay-per-click advertising is a relatively new effort for Guernsey. “We have just started to run a couple of campaigns with Google and need more time to evaluate,” said Guernsey. “The idea is to put our money where we see our customers.” The campaign is driven by a somewhat unique strategy that Guernsey developed in consort with Fortune Web Marketing.
Guernsey consults regularly with Fortune personnel to review the SEO work, go over blog schedules and review Google analytics. Analytics show where online visitors come from and when and where they leave the site. “Our work with Fortune has been really productive and should continue going forward,” she added.
GOPD: Robust online sales are critical for dealer success
When Steve Pawloski recognized a dozen years ago that his business needed to expand to online sales, he went looking for a software solution to make it possible. That was when Pawloski, owner and president of Arkansas Office Products, Jacksonville, Arkansas, first encountered the system he has been with ever since. “We had to get a web presence and we picked GOPD,” he says.
From the start, Pawloski felt like he had made the right choice. “They got us set up and walked us through it,” he says. AOP did not go live until GOPD felt the dealership was ready. “They held our hand all the way through,” he says, “and they haven’t let go yet.” When needed, he says, help is just a phone call away.
What hooked Pawloski was the ability of the system to treat customers individually. Customers could receive different pricing, variable promotions and perhaps even a coupon, based on their log-in. What one customer sees when she makes a purchase might not be the same offer or image the next visitor sees, even when looking at the same product.
The webstore that GOPD created for Arkansas Office Products compares strongly to the sites put up by big box competitors. Pawloski says that many of those sites have a “cookie-cutter” sameness, especially on product pages, which is where his web offering stands out. “It is a little more colorful than most websites,” he says.
Search has been added and expanded in the past several years. “We now have much better search capabilities instead of what the wholesaler offered,” says Pawloski. This capability is vital to the success of any dealer webstore. “Search needs to bring up the exact products the customer is looking for,” he adds. What remains is the order of the products that come up, and that is under dealer control.
“Say you wanted your house brand of toner to come up first, you can do that,” says Pawloski. “Of course if you are an HP dealer, then the HP toner will be first.”
The ease of making changes for non-computer experts is one of the standout features of the GOPD offering, says Pawloski. “If you see that something isn’t working, you can just flip it around,” he adds. Updating the website—by adding images or banners, replacing items, or moving copy and images around—can be easily accomplished without computer expertise.
“They make it real simple,” says Pawloski. “It took me two or three days of constantly making changes. Then once you get the hang of it, you can go in and make changes real quick.” This makes it easy to freshen up the website and give it new look.
“We are not asking every person in the world to visit our website, but we are asking our customers,” says Pawloski. “If you don’t invest in technology, you are going to get left behind.”
Logicblock: Technical background not needed
In many ways a dealer’s website has replaced wholesaler catalogs. “We used to give catalogs to customers,” says Ahmad Kahf, co-owner of Day to Day Essentials in Fairfield, New Jersey. The amount of money invested in catalogs was a necessary expense that wasn’t always readily recouped. Now, salespeople go in and show the website on their phone or the customer’s computer, where the desired product can be viewed in color. “Searching for an item instead of thumbing through a catalog is actually a smoother process,” says Kahf.
After searching for a software program that could handle both website maintenance and backend operations two years ago, Day to Day Essentials settled on a system from Logicblock. The system offered the customization that was desired and at the same time, was fully compatible with the features that first-call wholesaler Essendant makes available for dealers’ online activities. “Features of the system make you look professional and still maintain an independent appearance,” says Kahf.
Logicblock maintains the website but changes can easily be made by Day to Day Essentials personnel. If there is a need to add a banner or make adjustments on the front end, all that’s needed is the press of a couple of buttons, which places the website in design mode and changes can be readily made. Customers can create their own favorites and an unlimited approval hierarchy with any size customer.
One feature that Kahf finds especially helpful is competitive pricing with smart display. He sets a margin for all sales that his website generates; when costs go up from suppliers the margin adjusts automatically. The pre-set margin is used to make price comparisons to major national competitors.
When a customer selects a product and chooses price comparison they get to see prices from competitors such as Amazon Business, Staples, Office Depot or Grainger. Customers see only those prices that are higher than Day to Day Essentials. When no one else sells the same item, the margin can increase. When multiples of the same item are purchased, volume pricing might kick in.
When the new website was introduced two years ago customers were offered an incentive to start ordering online. “We offered them a percentage off their first online order,” says Kahf. That incentive attracted a number of customers.
“Having moved our customers from ordering via fax or phone to ordering directly on our website saves us time to focus on other aspects of our business as well as increase our sales,” adds Kahf. “While on our website the customer will see other products that they didn’t realize we offered. That has increased cart purchases,”
The Logicblock backend manages product and category information updates, integrates ordering and purchasing, makes possible detailed reporting and integrates accounting functions. “The backend allows me to use all of these functions without having any technical background,” said Kahf. “I guess you could say that is pretty amazing.”
S.I.T.S. Business Management Software: Greater control promotes improved online capabilities
With more than 90 percent of orders coming in online, the internet has taken on the role of a primary salesperson for Granite Office in Salt Lake City. Since June, 2017, the dealership has been receiving those orders via the SITSerp platform from S.I.T.S. Business Management Software.
“The system appeared extremely capable and could be easily customized,” says Lee Mercer, co-owner with Garth Hood. Ease of customization was important but it didn’t hurt either that it also proved a cost effective solution.
The Granite website features a custom design that Mercer describes as visually pleasing and fully functional.
While he wanted something that would stand up against big box competition and include many of the same features, he recognized that his primary customers are local. “Our biggest focus still is local, business-to-business service,” he added. To best serve those customers he wanted the best search functionality he could offer.
The search capability from SITS is an improvement on what was previously available, yet the configuration and optimization of search remains an ongoing challenge, says Mercer.
With some effort search terms can be modified to take advantage of the latest metrics developed by Granite Office. “If there’s a term that people search for frequently, I can usually pick which SKU I want to show up first,” says Mercer. “I can meet customers’ needs and sell what I want.”
The inventory module that is provided improved upon what the dealership had been using. The previous system had looked at availability and pricing from wholesalers in the system and came up with the most cost effective way to make purchases. From its early days in operation the owners of Granite Office had gained a reputation for being sharp operators who always found the best deal.
With the new system the purchasing routine is more efficient than ever, in large part because manual inputs were eliminated in favor of increased automation. After the first full year of operation, Mercer reviewed results and says he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “I had to review our accounting but the numbers didn’t lie,” he says. “We saved about $200K in cost of goods in the first year.”
Technology is indispensable for office products dealers, especially ones who view the internet as a primary sales tool. “I don’t know how you could do it without technology,” says Mercer. There are so many efficiencies that are possible. “The savings that we realized was because we took as much as we could out of a person’s hands.”
SSI: Gaining more website control
After a good experience with an ERP system, Andrew Ives, vice president at Office City Express, Delaware, Ohio, believed it was time to seek out a new provider. The monthly fees kept increasing, and there were multiple issues with inventory. That was six years ago when the decision was made to change systems and go with software from SSI.
An additional issue was to have complete control of what goes on the website. Ives had an experience with product showing up on the website that was not for sale at Office City Express and didn’t belong there. At that time SSI offered a seemingly more attractive solution. “I know I made the right decision because my customers liked the new website more,” said Ives. What’s more he says he now has complete control over every item on the website.
The SSI software runs the entire operation at Office City Express. “It does everything from accounting—accounts receivable and payable—to purchasing. Everything happens through SSI,” says Ives. But it was the everyday website experience that truly won the day. And the conversion was relatively painless, as the developer was familiar with the old system and knew how to bring Office City Express onboard as quickly and easily as possible.
The conversion couldn’t have gone better as Ives remembers. “They put you in touch with one person and that person handled the entire conversion for you,” recalls Ives. He worked closely with this person who helped with the conversion and conducted all the training. “I made sure that everyone was trained over the couple of months before we went live,” he said.
To make the switchover run smoothly Ives opted to have his contact person on site for the change. “Whenever I talk to anyone who is looking to switch to SSI, I always tell them to spend the money and have someone on site when you go live.” That helps with the conversion because no matter what system a dealer selects there are always issues at conversion, he adds.
SSI has converted to a web-based system, which has streamlined many operations but especially purchasing. “They have a tool called Automated Quick Buy where you see all of your data and all your orders in a web-based tool,” says Ives.
The purchasing routine is completely automatic and Automated Quick Buy reviews all orders and pulls out any that fall under the wholesaler’s minimum and would incur a charge. These are accumulated into one purchase order to avoid additional charges. “It’s not a huge daily charge but it adds up,” he says.
Ives recognizes that investing in technology is essential for his dealership. He is always on the lookout for some digital way to differentiate the dealership from big box and online competitors. SSI shares data with a company called Automark which offers an online ordering application that identifies abandoned shopping carts and attempts to have the customer complete their order.
SSI suggested this application to Ives. In instances such as this he says the software company acts more like a partner than a vendor. “They look for ways to make sure we are successful,” he adds.
Thalerus: Custom solutions are always available
Benjamin Office Supply & Services, Rockville, Maryland, selected the Thalerus Group to run its office supply company years ago and continues to find it to be the ideal choice. “It covers all the intricacies of running a company from financial to sales to operations to supply chain,” says Daniel Benjamin, vice president. “It consolidates and centralizes the way our company is run.”
The Thalerus system oversees and automates operations in four main areas: sales, financial, operations and fulfillment. All four modules work together. “The most important part is to make sure that products get to our customers,” says Benjamin. “That is the priority.”
Some might say that everything starts with sales and it is the sales module that leads the way with the variety of reports that can be generated. Everything from overall sales volume and gross profit to comparisons to last month and last year. At the same time it offers quick looks at where sales are increasing and where they might be declining. “I think of it as a CRM system because it houses all of our client information and provides product usage data and contract usage data for each client,” says Benjamin.
The fulfillment module tracks supply chain needs and sources while it navigates seamlessly between offerings from the two national wholesalers. Decisions on which wholesaler gets an order are based on price and availability along with additional parameters set by the dealership. “Thalerus helped us write the program that automates this process,” Benjamin adds.
The four modules readily share data and the system performs accounting functions such as accounts receivables. “All the data is integrated so there is no need for a separate accounting system,” says Sandy Benjamin, president.
Thalerus also runs and supports the Benjamin Office Supply e-commerce website. The way the site has been developed, every visitor is treated to a custom format including pricing, shopping lists and favorites lists. The format was developed over the years with input from Thalerus users; changes suggested by users have been added to the system and now all dealers benefit from these enhancements.
The resulting website is clean, clear and easy to navigate. “The customization makes the customer feel that it is their account,” says Daniel Benjamin. Iconography that was developed for the site readily identified the different product categories that are available. It also enhances the dealership’s ability to easily showcase specific products and the latest offers.
Of special importance are the advantages gained through Thalerus as a cloud-based system. “Other systems we’ve had required us to go out and buy hardware and maintain it,” says Sandy. Even with all the data in the cloud he never felt he was giving up control. Thalerus has been totally responsive and has not missed a beat with its hosting, he says.
Daniel maintains that having the Thalerus system running his business gives him confidence in the marketplace. “I feel like we really have a leg up because they have been ahead of the competition, not only in e-commerce capabilities but also in terms of the reports I can use,” he says. “It just feels like I am a step ahead.”
Michael Chazin is a freelance writer specializing in business topics, who has written about the office supply business for more than 15 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.