Technology for dealers has evolved and today offers excellent opportunities to manage dealer operations. From the front end, where customers view products and enter orders, to the backend, where purchasing, invoicing and all operations are managed, the latest systems offer numerous competitive advantages.
How important is technology to dealer operations? Chip Jones, president at Minton Jones of Norcross, Georgia, says cash is key. “You have to invest in it and you have to have a good system.” The system must include online options that customers are already familiar with. “We have a lot of competition out there and updating technology is one of the most important investments we can make.”
IQ Total Source in Phoenix has just added eight core values and one of them revolves around technology. “We really pride ourselves on adapting new technologies,” says Levi Scott, operations manager. “If we know we’re limited by a specific technology or platform, we want to explore operations to make sure our processes don’t break down.”
What follows are profiles of dealers using technology and the benefits they derive.
BMI: ERP system manages multiple businesses
When Storey Kenworthy, Des
Moines, Iowa, went looking for an ERP system almost a decade ago, staff reviewed virtually every system available on the market. At that time it settled on the system from Business Management International (BMI) to manage its supplies, print/promo, facility and breakroom and transactional furniture businesses. While more than one system had advantages, the BMI software was based on Microsoft Dynamics NAV and could be easily updated, and contained the benefits and features Storey Kenworthy wanted.
Personnel from BMI were on site when the system went live originally to make sure that all the modules were working properly and to handle initial training. Learning materials were available online and support available over the phone.
Since the BMI system was originally installed, the need for support has evolved. Storey Kenworthy employees are more familiar with operations. “Nowadays the developer has a ticket system where we send an email and open the ticket and we can add the appropriate priority to the ticket,” says Ryan Sup, support services manager. He adds that with familiarity, the ticket list has gotten a lot shorter.
On the backend, BMI provides one integrated system to manage sales, purchasing, inventory and financial management. “The backend runs the business—what we buy from the wholesaler, what we stock, customer set-up, purchase orders and so much more,” says Sup.
The backend offers a wide range of reporting and analysis possibilities. “With the click of a button you could look at any item table or customer table and send it to Excel,” says Sup. Once the data is in Excel it can be manipulated in any of number of ways. An Excel add-on called Jet Reports can also be used to pull data out of the system and import it back in. “The BMI backend system makes it easy to import and export tables,” he adds.
Equally important for the dealership is BMI’s website and e-commerce capabilities. “Somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of our orders come through our website,” says Sup.
The appearance of the Storey Kenworthy webstore is controlled by the dealership and templates are employed to provide an attractive shopping environment. Although the wholesaler tends to set search parameters, there is some freedom to manipulate search results. “We are able to manipulate results so that some of our preferred vendors and stock items come up first,” says Sup.
Non-wholesale items can be quickly added to the offering by inputting part numbers, descriptions and costs. “If you want to have a picture and content for online, that takes a little longer to build manually,” says Sup. “But for larger imports there is a template where you fill in information from Excel to build the items in your backend and at the same time it builds the content on your customer-facing website.”
Working with BMI has made Storey Kenworthy more flexible. When there is a need or desire for a process that doesn’t yet exist, BMI is very willing to discuss its development, says Sup, who has met with them on adding the ability to let the customer know that delivery might be extended or that the item is on back order when an order is placed. He adds that sometimes requested changes such as this come with a price tag.
After taking care of customers, technology is probably the most important investment a dealership can make. “If you don’t stay on top of technology, you get left behind and will be out of business eventually,” says Sup. “Storey Kenworthy invests the time, money and resources in technology so we can stay up on the latest versions of technology to help run and grow our business.”
ECI: System manages contract furniture sales
When a dealer has multiple businesses, the best ERP system will run all of those businesses as part of one system. “Eakes Office Solutions is a contract furniture dealer, office products dealer and janitorial dealer,” says Paul McKinney, chief operating officer at the Grand Island, Nebraska-based dealership. “You can run all three of these businesses in the DDMS system.” The one ERP system provides consistency and stability and runs warehouse operations, purchasing, accounting and all other functions for all the different businesses, he says.
DDMS offers numerous features, but one that is especially useful at Eakes is automated wholesaler purchasing. The system will create purchase orders and transmit them to the wholesaler without human interaction based upon predetermined parameters.
They are sent to the wholesaler automatically and show up the following morning wrapped and labeled. Another very useful feature consolidates and then uploads updated price files.
An integrated front end that communicates with the backend is included with DDMS. McKinney contends that the look of the website and the features it offers are competitive with what is out there on Big Box sites. “There are a lot of features that are custom-tailored toward B2B customers,” says McKinney.
One that is used frequently is an approver system. Customers have the opportunity to have a department head or administrative person review all orders before they get placed with the dealership. This feature is used heavily with school systems, for example, where individual teachers place orders which must be approved before they are sent over.
A shared cart feature was recently introduced. A shopping cart can be started and other people in the same department or business can add items to that cart. Then an order can be placed at a predetermined time.
“These types of features make us competitive with a lot of larger e-commerce players even though you wouldn’t expect an independent dealer in the middle of Nebraska to be able to compete at this level,” says McKinney.
The front end also features integration with Eakes’ first-call wholesaler to utilize its content and search capabilities. “Because the wholesalers have invested heavily in this technology and ECI has partnered with them to provide it through its e-commerce platforms, the system is pretty seamless,” says McKinney. Search is controlled by S. P. Richards, which is the first-call wholesaler for Eakes. If additional products need to be included, such as items offered by Essendant, they can be added by Eakes.
When ECI made the decision a few years ago to stop supporting copier dealers with DDMS, Eakes moved its managed print business to ECI’s e-automate program. “E-automate was probably the premier solution for copier/managed print dealers, so the decision was pretty straightforward,” says McKinney. “To the best of my knowledge, since DDMS made that decision, there’s no one system any more that will support a managed print dealer who is also an office supply dealer.”
Learning the system was not too difficult, but setting up the business to maintain two backend ERPs—and have them roll up to one P&L statement and one balance sheet—was more difficult. Eakes worked with third-party programmers who had the skills to combine the details of these two systems. “Among other things, we had some work done to move invoices out of e-automate into DDMS so that all of our accounts receivable can be managed there,” says McKinney.
“One thing that DDMS is doing now is releasing DDMS Plus,” continues McKinney. The new offering replaces the old database structure with an updated SQL database. “This should allow ECI to create changes, updates and enhancements to the system much more quickly than in the past.”
Fortune Web Marketing: SEO success
Greeno Supply, West Springfield, Massachusetts, uses Logicblock software to power its webstore. The plan is to offer an online presentation that makes the dealership appear larger than it is. “Our strategy is to go out big and broad,” says Craig Cassanelli, president. The dealership sells office products, industrial packaging, safety, material handling, custom packaging and packaging machines. Two years ago, Greeno started to work with Fortune Web Marketing, at the recommendation of Logicblock, to help with search engine optimization and with strategies associated with building traffic, obtaining sales leads, working through software issues and email marketing.
SEO tends to be a collaboration between Greeno and Fortune Web. Cassanelli typically prepares one blog a month and then turns it over to Fortune to be optimized. “Blog content depends on what kind of lead I’m looking for based on the topic,” says Cassanelli. Fortune Web takes Cassanelli’s blog and optimizes it so Google will recognize it and be able to produce leads. “So far it has worked well and we’re starting to see some interesting leads.”
Cassanelli is quick to add that when it comes to this sort of lead development, dealers have to manage expectations. He says that SEO is effective but isn’t the windfall to produce business that some dealers might expect. “It is really about experimentation, what is going to work and why,” he says. “You learn from it and move on.”
What he has learned about making SEO even more productive is the need to get the best information from the customer who responds. Blogs include a form that has to be filled out. “We learned we have to do a better job on the type of information we are asking the customer to include,” says Cassanelli. The lead is great, but that’s just the first step in getting a sale.
Fortune Web also works with Greeno to purchase Google AdWords on a regional basis. The first step in this effort is to determine which supply items to push and then decide whether they should be sold on a local, regional or national basis. “After giving Fortune that information we had to come up with a budget,” says Cassanelli. “Cost-per-click advertising is expensive so you have to test it and look at whether there’s actually a payback.
“Our goal is to increase sales on a regional basis through getting leads, and converting leads from our blogging and from our cost-per-click program,” Cassanelli continues. A number of products have been promoted with Google AdWords; the most successful ones have been ice melt and boxes.
Besides expanding the leads that Greeno gets, Fortune is able to use Google Analytics to see which items generate the most interest online. The research might show the top five items online and then Greeno can take action such as manipulating the price or publishing a blog on an item to get more interest and leads. “The information that Fortune gathers through Google Analytics is helpful in determining how to form a strategy for supply items,” adds Cassanelli.
Most recently Fortune has developed a way for Greeno to determine whether a prospective customer is in its distribution area. The site recognizes that if the customer’s zip code is outside the distribution area, then shipping charges have to be added. “Most people think that happens automatically, but some actions have to be done in the background in the software settings before that actually happens,” says Cassanelli.
He says that Fortune helped make this possible by working with the developer of the Logicblock software. When Cassanelli talks to Logicblock about issues, he frequently ends up speaking with a programmer who generally only speaks programming language. “Fortune is able to be the translator between me and the software people to help me understand how to better use the software for our company and our customers.”
GOPD: Finding technology in your own backyard
When Minton Jones Co., Norcross, Georgia, went looking for a technology provider about 15 years ago, it settled for one in its own backyard. “I was friends with the owners and they were working on a project with me,” says Chip Jones, president and CEO. That company was GOPD and Minton Jones became one of the first customers to use the GOPD shopping cart.
“We chose GOPD because of its many years of industry experience,” says Jones. “Owners Donna Snyder and Jack Duncan offer a hands-on understanding of the dealer experience. They understand the independent dealer business and challenges that dealers face. A team of office product industry veterans is available to answers questions, identify unique solutions and offer industry best practices.”
The shopping cart that GOPD offers might be the best feature of the system, as far as Minton Jones is concerned. “That’s what we use the most. We use it to help pricing structure and we use it for bids,” says Jones. The cart allows for easy customization. For example, instead of the cart being identified as Minton Jones, it gets labeled with the name of the customer.
The website is fully customizable so that when that customer logs in to place an order, the appearance doesn’t suggest Minton Jones. Instead, it appears that they’re still on their own corporate site. “We can put in items that the customer wants their people to see,” says Jones. It is also possible to restrict what employees see, so offers and promotions might not be visible.
Going along with this approach, which offers customers greater involvement in their own purchasing, two levels of approval are available. Both an approver and a super-approver can be set up. “A lot of customers want to look at what their people are buying and this makes it easy for them to approve orders,” says Jones.
When the opportunity recently arose to win business from the State of Georgia, Jones naturally turned to GOPD for assistance. Jones recognized that to compete, he would have to offer full coverage of the state. He quickly put together a group with three other dealers that could cover the entire state with one footprint.
The group, MY Georgia Office Products (MYGAOP), put in a bid and won the second position. Staples won the first position and Office Depot was completely shut out. “We needed a shopping cart and a system that could collect all the orders as well as handle pricing and bookkeeping,” says Jones. “So we went to GOPD and it came up with a system for us to use.”
The system was set up the same as it would for just one dealer, but four dealers are actually on the system. “GOPD could do everything and provide all the reporting for the state,” says Jones. “It had the functionality that we needed.”
Investing in technology is one of the most important steps a dealer can take, suggests Jones. “You have to have a good system, and the system has to be able to perform the actions that consumers expect when they buy online.”
Logicblock: Dealership gets a boost with online sales
McCord Business Supply in Logansport, Indiana, started out with just a few office products offered by McCord Inc, which is primarily a home center and lumberyard. It started to sell toilet paper, paper towels, cleaning supplies and gradually more office supplies.
After the local Staples closed some seven years ago, the effort became more serious. “When we learned they were leaving, we brought more office supplies into our store,” says Mike McCord, president. “We also hired a copy print shop manager from Staples.”
It was close to five years ago that McCord first encountered Logicblock at an event in Las Vegas hosted by Essendant. Close to 15 different vendors were there representing e-commerce software, but only two systems checked off all the boxes that Essendant had recommended. “We saw the Logicblock product, and that it was a good fit for what we were doing,” says McCord. “So then we brought e-commerce onto our package of offerings for our customers.”
Training on the Logicblock system is self-directed. An online portal provides numerous training videos that give a general orientation to system operations. When questions arise, an answer is as close as the telephone. “They show you how you could easily adapt your database to help people search,” says McCord.
McCord finds Logicblock provides a number of features that make the system especially effective, starting with the ability of customers to develop a list of favorites. “It’s a very efficient way for customers to maintain their supplies,” says McCord. ”It’s very customer friendly and saves us needing extra employees.”
Search engine capabilities on Logicblock are another feature that McCord finds particularly useful. The search engine is all-encompassing and makes it easy for customers to find what they’re looking for. “If they type in ‘Charmin toilet paper’ and five different types are available, they get exactly what they want. That’s a homerun,” adds McCord.
As a smaller dealer, McCord finds the fact that Logicblock partners with MarketXpert to provide price comparisons another online benefit. When a customer places an order, they can see comparable pricing for competitors, set by the dealership. “They don’t have to leave our site to do this,” says McCord. “They can see prices from five different sellers and see that ours is better.”
McCord believes the Logicblock system has saved the dealership an incalculable amount of time and improved sales efforts. The system allows special pricing to be applied to every customer and at the same time highlights sales trends.
For instance, it can show that churches typically buy toilet paper, hand soap and floor cleaner. If, suddenly, one buys pens and Scotch tape but no toilet paper or paper towels, it opens the door for salespeople to concentrate on pushing janitorial supplies to that one church and office supplies to the other churches. “It’s a whole new world for outside salespeople,” says McCord.
“Logicblock allowed us to increase our volume in office supplies and Jan/San,” he continues. The wholesaler delivers office products every day—not twice a week like hardware—so customers invariably receive orders the next day. And the dealership is a lot more efficient in processing orders, which has led to improved profit margins. Even better, all of these gains were possible without the need to hire a computer programmer.
“We have had computers for years, but this gives us e-commerce capabilities. That is so different from the bricks and mortar side of our business,” says McCord. “We have the best of all worlds and Logicblock really made it happen, because there is nothing in the hardware industry this advanced.”
OPSoftware: Price intelligence fuels growth
Up until a few years ago, the business at Supplies Now, Greenacres, Florida, was exclusively government sales. More than a decade ago, the dealership first got involved with OPSoftware for market intelligence and used its cross-reference database. “This gave us the ability to load in spreadsheets of competitive bids for state and local governments,” says owner John Cheatham. He would input a spreadsheet and the system would output cross-reference numbers for Supplies Now to use.
That business evolved to largely federal government sales and then in early 2017 Supplies Now started a B2B business to serve small and medium-sized businesses in Southeast Florida. Cheatham started up again with OPSoftware a little before starting the B2B business.
“It was gathering pricing intelligence for the federal government and it was able to provide me with a competitive pricing analysis,” says Cheatham. That data is used internally and helps to set Supplies Now prices that are listed on the GSA website.
When it comes to federal government sales, the software is used primarily internally. Supplies Now looks at comparative prices and then sets its own prices to be competitive. When federal customers review an item on the GSA site, every contractor that offers that item is shown with its pricing. Supplies Now reviews the prices to determine how it will price its federal offering.
The software is easy to use, says Cheatham, but he relates the experience of many small independent dealers when he says that he wears many hats and often refers to specialist staff at OPSoftware to help set up operations or run reports.
For B2B sales the Market Xpert software is used to set prices at five percent better than the competition. The only exception would be if the designated competitor were selling an item at or below cost; then items are priced for a ten percent gross profit. Pricing can be set at any predetermined level against any Big Box competitor or online seller.
When customers visit the Supplies Now website, hosted by Logicblock, and search for an item, they are shown the dealership’s price and the price for the same item from the competition. “There’s no need to visit the competition’s website to see what they charge; we’re going to show it to you live on our site,” says Cheatham.
In those instances where the competitive price is lower, customers only see the Supplies Now price. “We don’t point out where we might be more expensive, but we certainly point it out on the majority of items where we are less expensive than they are,” says Cheatham.
The Market Xpert software includes a robust cross-reference routine that’s used internally on a regular basis. When a product is out of stock or shows a low inventory position, the routine will bring up a comparable item that could be sold. If branded paper towels were out of stock, for instance, the system would bring up a house brand that the salesperson would then suggest.
Software to provide competitive information and manage dealers’ operations is readily available and the barrier to entry is much lower than it was a decade ago. “With Market Xpert and Logicblock you can get started pretty quick for a small out-of-pocket fee,” says Cheatham.
Prima: Improved back end control
Yuletide Office Solutions, Memphis, Tennessee, had been searching for a new technology provider for more than five years. “We looked at the different systems and whether they would work for our needs,” says Chris Miller, president. “We were looking for an all-in-one system that could do everything.”
That didn’t quite come to pass, but the system that Yuletide ended up with turned out to be a vast improvement over what had been used for many decades. At the EPIC show in 2018, Yuletide ran into a British company, Prima, which was just starting out in the U.S. market. “We began talking with them, did some demos and began the migration process, which took some time,” says Robert Phillips, director of marketing. “We ended up going live with them in August of last year.
“We were looking for a backend that would work better and more tightly with our Logicblock storefront,” continues Phillips. Prima was open to integration projects that the previous backend provider wouldn’t allow. Discussion became more serious and Yuletide gained confidence in Prima’s ability to offer an improved technology solution. “Everything aligned to make it a good decision for us,” says Phillips.
Yuletide realized that the transition was not going to be easy. “When you’re coming off a system that you’ve been using for 30-plus years, you anticipate a challenge,” says Phillips. A training team was available throughout the day, either by phone or through an online portal, to help with the transition. There are also numerous tutorials built into the Prima system that can be accessed with the touch of button.
One of the best features is Prima’s ability to simplify order tracking, says Phillips. Employees can quickly track all documents associated with an order through the links area. “You can quickly look up sales orders, POs, invoices, dispatch notes, delivery notes and more,” says Phillips. “It’s very good at harnessing data and making it easily accessible as opposed to having to open multiple screens.” A customizable dashboard makes it easy for an employee to modify the view; salespeople regularly use a back-order report where all sales documents are readily available.
The technology partnership Yuletide has established resulted in strong bonds between the dealership and its software providers. “It has been a nice partnership between the three of us,” says Phillips. Prima is always on hand to answer issues that Yuletide might struggle with and has helped reduce reliance on third-party software. “Invoices and statements go through Prima, whereas we had to have a separate platform with our previous system that was often unreliable,”
Logicblock is completely customizable, SEO friendly and responsively designed so it readily displays on mobile devices. “It has been a great tool for us,” says Phillips. Orders placed on Logicblock go into an FTP folder and get pulled into Prima almost immediately.
The reduction of third-party software isn’t always possible and sometimes that software opens additional desirable possibilities. “We recently adopted a live chat function because people often don’t want to pick up the phone,” says Phillips. “The software integrates nicely with our technology; it’s a tool we’ve enjoyed and we plan to continue using it.”
The switch to a new technology provider was a challenge, according to Miller. So many changes were unanticipated and training was required to get employees comfortable with operations and how the new system worked. “But it has made us more efficient, and it will continue to make us more efficient down the road as we continue to improve,” adds Miller.
Thalerus: System came highly recommended
IQ Total Source, Phoenix, has been using Thalerus since it started up in 2009. “When the dealership opened, it got feedback from other independents and everybody we talked to recommended Thalerus,” says Levi Scott, operations manager. “We use everything outside of the accounting portion, where we still use Quick Books.”
The biggest learning curve to get started with Thalerus VIBENet, says Scott, is to understand how a typical supply chain works in the office products industry. “Once you understand that, Thalerus is pretty intuitive,” he says. Next, the biggest challenge is to understand how each of the modules works and how they interact.
A robust help center that is fully indexed and searchable is embedded in the software that provides self-service assistance to navigate the main modules. “If you have questions on a module, you click on the help icon and there are documents and walkthroughs that explain how each of them work,” says Scott.
If questions remain unanswered, additional help is just a phone call away. “Whenever there is a new module, they walk us through it,” he adds. A ticketing system is designed to answer questions that the help center doesn’t address. “Thalerus is very receptive to feedback and suggestions for updates,” he adds. “Their flexibility and willingness to add new features to accommodate our customers has been incredible.”
One IQ customer operates a franchised janitorial service, which cleans locations for businesses. Those businesses purchase the cleaning supplies, but the janitorial service wanted the purchase set up so those customers couldn’t see pricing. “Thalerus created a toggle switch that turned off that pricing for each individual user,” says Scott. “That was crucial for us to win the business.”
“The biggest game changer for IQ has been the inventory module,” says Scott. When he first came on board at IQ almost five years ago, inventory was being managed with a Google application. Thalerus embeds inventory directly into the IQ supply chain and manages inventory counts, keeps track of inventory locations in the warehouse, prints pick tickets and handles transfers.
“The amount of features they rolled out for managing inventory has been huge,” says Scott. Not only has this resulted in less shrinkage, but the module also manages expiration dates on the growing number of perishable items in inventory.
On the front end, Thalerus provides an easy-to-use and responsive web store for IQ customers. One of the best features is the design portal. “Somebody without any coding experience would be able to design a website through the portal,” says Scott. A variety of templates are available and a website can be created just by dragging and dropping elements onto the template. “It is extremely simple for a dealer to create a site,” adds Scott.
The best part of the system might be on the backend, where unseen operations guarantee a first-class experience for customers. “They have a list of commonly ordered items, which is fully searchable and takes them all at the way from a search to order confirmation,” says Scott.
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 email@example.com.