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We’re all guilty of kicking the proverbial can down the road at times, but when it comes to technology, that would be a grave mistake in today’s increasingly online world. However, as Heike Dieckmann discovers, solutions are out there…
BMI: Facilitating growth
Eaton Office Supply is a 106-year-old company that sells and services office products, office furniture, office machines, breakroom supplies, and jan/san and safety supplie to the Greater Western New York region.
In 2006, Eaton received a 90-day notice that its then software provider, Denver-based Syngistix, would be exiting the business and no longer support the software Eaton was using. As president Bruce Eaton recalls, a replacement had to be found quickly. “We identified all the options available, interviewed software support companies and visited independent dealers that were used as references. We ultimately selected BMI and the Microsoft Navision software platform for our back and front-end solutions. Eaton employs an IT manager and support personnel to do most of the frontline hardware and software support, but relies on BMI for technical support and software development.”
BMI provided about 90 percent of the applications that the dealer needed at the time. Eaton admits that the product and the conversion/training project was expensive, but the Microsoft name were the thousands of distributors around the world using variations of the software helped in the company’s decision-making process.
“BMI presented a very thorough conversion and implementation plan, and even relocated one of its developers to the Western New York area to help,” he adds. “We were confident the provider could get us through the conversion with a very tight timeframe and little disruption to ourselves and our customers. And we weren’t wrong. The BMI team was exceptional. Their training of ‘super users’ who could then train ‘key users’ and finally other users in their departments worked well for us. The forming of a steering committee to review budgets, scheduling, time commitments and resources was another success. We identified a 272-item implementation task list with assignments and a timetable. The entire process began at the end of July and we went live in December.”
Over the past 15 years, the BMI support and Eaton IT teams have worked with the Navision software on a variety of technology solutions, implementing upgrades for both the back and front end. Says Eaton: “It is a constant challenge to be current with the latest and greatest solutions for both the company and our customers. There is never enough money to invest, but we seemed to have fared well in comparison with some other independent dealers.
“Our service reputation has been good and is a reflection of how our technology meets the needs of our customers. From an economic point of view, we have seen ups and downs over the past 15 years; but through gaining market share, product category diversification and acquisitions, we have been able to grow our business. And the software platform we have been on has not let us down and has facilitated that growth.”
Dealer Commander: Ability to adapt
Control is what Granite Office Supplies lacked with its previous technology partner. Therefore, about six years ago, the Salt Lake City dealer switched to Dealer Commander, which was originally developed under the AOSWare umbrella.
Dealing with Sonny Arora, the creator of this fully integrated business operating solution, inspired confidence in Granite manager Lee Mercer. “Over 93 percent of our orders come through our website, so getting our support absolutely right was vital to us,” he says. “We changed because we needed more control over our website and search results, which Dealer Commander gives us. The purchasing, inventory management and overall flexibility keep us using this product.
“Sonny has extensive experience being the former owner of a dealership. That foundation is key in helping him understand what we need. He has a tremendous work ethic, and he and his team get stuff done. We continually develop our site to better fit how we operate and, with Sonny in the mix, I feel confident we will get where we want to be.”
No system is without its problems and, given that most of the programming in Dealer Commander is done in India, non-essential issues typically get addressed within 24 to 48 hours. Mercer is quick to point out, however, that serious problems are dealt with immediately.
As a result of the system switch, Granite experienced immediate improvements in its purchasing process and inventory management. “We still have a lot of improving to do to better manage our website and inventory, but the beauty is that with Sonny. we know these improvements can and will be made. We are currently implementing a feature which manages multiple SKUs so that our inventory levels are accurate without having to manually manage multiple items.”
Inventory has definitely been an issue in this past COVID-19 dominated year. “We saw an incredible spike in demand from all over the country,” recalls Mercer. “Of course, we couldn’t fulfill that demand because we couldn’t get face masks, hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes or other items in that category until recently.
“On the plus side, we learned that our website is definitely capable of handling serious online traffic and could be used to compete in the ferocious online sales world. We don’t currently have the capacity or focus to maximize the opportunities that clearly exist, but it’s not really the software that is holding us back. Let’s just say we’ve got a lot to learn still, but we’ll get there in the end.”
ECI: Catering for the digital consumer
DBI’s switch to ECI as a technology solutions provider was not a reality it had to deal with, but one it instigated itself. DBI is an independent dealer from Lansing, Michigan, that dates back to 1984 and provides consultative expertise, products and services. From pencils and paper to space planning and modular walls, DBI takes pride in its ability to put all the various pieces together.
To maintain its excellent reputation, it had become critical for the company to have an e-commerce site that catered to all of its business segments and services. “We converted to ECI in 2017 after 21 years with our previous provider,” explains Steve Klaver, DBI’s co-owner, vice president and chief operating officer. “We made the switch to ECI because we felt like our previous provider was stagnant in its system growth and adaptability.
“Once we had made that decision, we made sure to take our time in cleaning and importing data. To aid in the transition, a DBI team was created to bridge the gap between us and ECI, and our team spent about a year cleaning and transferring data. All the time and resources spent on properly laying the foundations of our new system were certainly worth it in the long run.
“Overall, web orders and web traffic have increased by at least 10 percent since making the switch. The initial change brought up a number of customer frustrations that were easily managed with guidance on how to use the new system. Two things that came up as real positives judging by customer feedback were how quickly our site loads and the account customizations we offer. Overall, the new system has allowed us to cater to a new generation of digital consumers.”
On a regular and ongoing note, Klaver also refers to ECI’s provision of best practice advice, system updates, training and events. The daily ECI Premier Supplier Support, meanwhile, is greatly appreciated when the dealer encounters hiccups of any nature in the system.
Fortune Web Marketing: Marketing focus
During COVID-19, the B2B world has gravitated to online shopping more than ever before. As such, having a solid foot in the door and an excellent understanding of the technology behind it has been vital.
“We have been in the office supplies business since about 2006,” says Kevin Hoffman of ItemGrabber and ItemGrabber Green, two entities that ultimately evolved from partnering with IBM in 1997, selling UNIX hardware, software and high-end storage, such as disk units and tape libraries.
“When we started, I wasn’t satisfied with the e-commerce applications that were available at the time,” he explains. “So I developed my own, which we use to run our brands.
“Over the years, the application we developed became of interest to other independents and we adapted the product into an e-commerce plugin for WordPress called VendorFuel. This is now available to download by anyone using WordPress for content management and site development. We integrate with SAP, Oracle and Ariba, among others, and we are punchout ready for both inward punchout to the customer’s site or external punchout to a partner’s site. We follow cxml.org standards for punchout and offer professional services for custom integrations with new partners.”
While deeply familiar with the software specifics, Hoffman and his team—headquartered in Rocklin, California—were ultimately looking for a partner to help them with all aspects of their web marketing. “I saw Jennifer Stine from Fortune Web Marketing give a presentation at an Essendant conference. I was very interested in what she had to say and went to talk to her. The relationship developed from there and Fortune Web has been my go-to for all marketing for the past couple of years. We have learned a lot about web marketing and best practices, which led us to create better tools for VendorFuel.”
In terms of key benefits as a result of the collaboration, Hoffman refers to considerably more new customer sign-ups to VendorFuel, ItemGrabber and ItemGrabber Green. “Our dealer customers are very happy with the new SEO tools and the way they help them with their e-commerce sites,” adds Hoffman. “In addition, companies that use our sites to purchase are very pleased with their experience, which is certainly in part due to Fortune.”
He concludes: “We have had some time to focus on the exact marketing strategy we wanted to deploy during and post pandemic. Fortune hasn’t missed anything—Jennifer and the team have a clear strategy and they are like a well-oiled machine in its deployment. All I can say is that we are moving in a very positive direction as a result of this partnership.”
GOPD: Ahead of its time
Rocky Mountain Business Products is about as family oriented as they come. Its involvement in technology is unusually advanced for an independent dealer, owing to an early business relationship in the 1970s between company founder Joe Tittman and a software developer, which resulted in an interest in automated order processing and accounting.
Under the leadership of current president, Joe’s son Jay Tittman, Rocky Mountain’s tech expertise expanded further about a decade ago when it partnered with GOPD.
“We saw what was coming down the line and felt it was imperative to have our OP catalogue available in an online ordering environment,” explains Jay Tittman. “The choices at the time were fairly limited and some, quite frankly, were completely out of our league financially. We ended up picking GOPD due to its simplicity. It was a standalone online catalogue as opposed to an integrated accounting system, and we selected the program based on its features and benefits. We’re still with GOPD now and definitely feel we made the right choice.”
The software used has evolved considerably from those early days. The online catalogue now offers integration from the wholesalers’ inventories and processing capabilities into its own accounting system. It also comprises mobile-friendly technology and excellent integration into marketing programs such as S.P. Richards’ Campaign Advantage. The shopping cart system OP-24/7 has also seen considerable enhancements.
Rocky Mountain’s experience with the technology means the ongoing support needed from GOPD is sporadic nowadays, but nevertheless hugely important. “We can go weeks without calling for assistance to working very closely with GOPD, like we did in our recent cart redesign,” says Tittman. “It’s always a smooth and easy process. The team there is prompt and really capable in terms of solving any problems that arise. One of the things I like about the system we have is that after some initial training, a dealer like us can handle most of the day-to-day management without a lot of interaction with GOPD.”
Customization is another vital criterion for the dealership. “We have the ability to adapt our website for each of our different types of customers,” explains Tittman. “We do a lot in the hospitality sector, but another big market for us is the cannabis industry here in Colorado since it became legal. Obviously, these two customer segments order very different things on a regular basis.
“GOPD offers the same functionality and many of the same features as Amazon, Staples, Office Depot etc—and that is what customers are familiar with and want. They like the simplicity of using the site. Our website has driven Rocky Mountain’s growth and is the primary means of processing orders now. The feedback we get is incredible.”
Prima Software: Customer satisfaction
Family-owned JD Distributors from Tennessee has experienced a truly meteoric rise in its technology know-how and expertise, at an incredibly challenging time.
The dealership is firmly rooted in jan/san, which accounts for around 80 percent of its revenue. The start of COVID-19, therefore, brought about the largest volume of business in the company’s history.
However, until March 2020, the company was using an aging computer system and was dealing with its third attempt at a website. Online orders were negligible and the customer experience woeful.
Sales manager Jimmy Slaughter provides some context. “The old system was outdated and not connected to our website—every web order had to be keyed in manually on our old AS400 system,” he explains. “Once we had accepted it was time to upgrade, we found it very challenging to find an affordable replacement that would provide a meaningful improvement to our efficiency and customer experience.
“We had learned about Prima Software at an Office Partners show and were excited about how partnering with this company could meet all our needs. Even though we selected the worst possible time to go live with a new computer system and website, the team at Prima did an excellent job of guiding us through the transition.”
JD’s site remains a work in progress. The dealer hasn’t officially launched its new website yet—a delay that was caused by the pandemic which, required urgent attention in other areas. But with Prima’s input, the site has gone live and feedback from customers suggests that it is already a vast improvement. “Prima has been a great help to us in terms of getting all our items added to the website,” adds Slaughter. “It also conducted live remote training events with our staff and agreed to send team members to our two locations to train our entire staff.”
The JD team—under the leadership of Bill, Jimmy and David Flood—is confident that the system is easy enough to use for both its own staff and, importantly, its customers. “Our previous attempts at a website consistently drew negative feedback from customers, but we are encouraged by what we’re hearing now,” concludes Slaughter. “Customers enjoy that our search bar leads them exactly to the items they are looking for and that they are able to see item availability before ordering. We will soon be taking advantage of Prima’s paperless delivery option too, whereby customers can sign for their deliveries on a tablet rather than our delivery drivers requesting manually signed printed packing slips.”
Thalerus: Customized technology
When Denver-based EON Office was created at the beginning of the new millennium, it started—like most dealers at the time—with what it now refers to as a primitive online ordering website. It soon needed much more than that as demand grew for a sophisticated system for end-user pricing, supply chain and inventory management, reporting, and many other functions. “We needed customized technology solutions to streamline our business,” explains EON CEO Elena Sirpolaidis.
“We visited Thalerus in Chicago and were very impressed with Lillian Yeh and her team,” she continues. “Their technology was at the forefront of our needs and of market trends. Importantly, it could be custom-tailored to our unique requirements, so we converted in early 2004.
“We have since upgraded to new versions of both the back-end VIBENet system and web store, always with a high degree of customization. Thalerus continually makes changes and updates to the system, and we constantly need custom solutions for back-end needs and for our clients. The process is always efficient and transparent.”
EON’s offering spans many categories, including traditional office products, jan/san, breakroom, PPE, safety, technology, printing and promotional products. The dealership also comprises Environments Denver, a full-service provider of furniture and design solutions for all types of workplace. Thalerus’s VIBENet solutions have helped to streamline processes in a number of areas, including real-time delivery confirmations through V-Track; tax calculation through Avalara integration; punchout catalog integrations for clients; and numerous custom processes for EON’s unique requirements for quarterly updates, deviated janitorial contracts, physical inventory, supply chain sourcing and back-order processes—to name but a few key operational features.
Sirpolaidis elaborates: “Customers have been happy with our online ordering site, especially its user-friendliness. Thalerus worked with us to achieve the visual look we wanted as well as the overall user experience. Clients have also been pleased with the custom reports we provide, order approval processes, budgeting tools, billing flexibility and the process of software integrations when needed.”
With technology now more important than ever, despite having collaborated for about 17 years, the work never stops and there’s an ongoing need for support. This is not just to address the many and varied issues that arise on a day-to-day basis; it’s also the result of game changers such as Amazon and other online retailers which have redefined—and continue to do so—how office supplies and their many adjacencies are purchased.
SSI/Apjax: Automation is king
Cubie is a company that is always looking for new ways to compete in the market and technology has become a real enabler for this San Antonio, Texas-based dealer.
“We were with our previous software provider for many years,” says CEO Dee Hernandez. “But increasingly, we watched the mega stores come up with fresh, new websites. In the end, we decided to switch to SSI in 2016.
“Anytime you convert your whole operating system, there will be a learning curve, especially when you have seasoned employees; but all we do is send SSI’s support team an email and they quickly work to solve the issue or walk us through any questions we may have. SSI’s graphical software has many back-end features and reports that help us with efficiency every day.”
In addition to Cubie’s involvement with SSI, it also works with Apjax, a platform that automates dealers’ digital marketing and logistics. Apjax was created by Hernandez’s sons Justin and Aaron as a standalone company. “We offer custom landing websites with our own in-house website builder, which gives dealers unlimited potential and customization—and doesn’t constrain them to a WordPress framework,” explains Aaron Hernandez:
“We offer SEO alongside this framework which gives us source code control and yields the best results,” he continues. “We can add through-channel marketing—similar to Sproutloud/Adobe with S.P. Richards—to their websites automatically through a manufacturer/wholesaler/buying group’s A+ content. The campaign dates, slide images, products, emails and texts can all be changed to fit the dealer’s needs.”
Working with both SSI and Apjax has certainly been a complementary fit that has given Cubie a competitive edge. “Before partnering with these two companies, our company was never visible on Google,” says Dee Hernandez. “Now customers can find us. When new prospects search for certain products online, Cubie appears because of the SEO that’s been implemented and this has brought in new customer accounts.
“In addition, Apjax has set up our web store for digital marketing with new content published daily. This is fantastic because it keeps our webstore fresh. Apjax also recently added a rebate and coupon page which will encourage our customers to stay longer and return back to see what’s new on a regular basis.”
As simple as this may sound, Aaron Hernandez emphasizes the importance of starting with the basics. “We make dealers look at their foundation first and then build from the ground up,” he says. “Things like a mobile-friendly and secure website, with good user experience and interface, local SEO markup and basic marketing come first. Next would be tracking analytics and adapting content for the highest conversion rates; and then finally advanced marketing and personalization. It’s also important to remember that automation is king and should be a focus for every dealer.”