Hardware, meet e-commerce
E-COMMERCE: THE SERIES
This article is the second in a series of three reports on e-commerce in the hardware channel.
Not new to website commerce, Jared Littmann and his wife Marlene Niefeld, owners of K&B True Value Hardware in Annapolis, Md., have changed internet platforms a couple times in the past ten years.
“This is the first e-commerce solution we’ve had that shows the products we carry in our store, regardless of which supplier, plus products that are available from our primary supplier, True Value. From the customers’ perspective, they can click on a button to narrow their search to items that are only in our store.” Littmann said.
“We are getting repeat sales from customers, and the staff is able to manage orders with ease. The regularity of sales is increasing with both pickup and delivery orders placed,” the owner said.
This year their business became a test store for a new platform through a partnership with True Value. The main challenge, Littmann said, was working through development issues that they knowingly encountered by being a test store, rather than waiting for a finished product.
Representing another hardware business with a decade of website commerce experience is Meg Taylor, communications director at Taylor’s Do it Center in Virginia Beach, Va.
While the business has been engaged in e-commerce for more than 10 years, they began to significantly ramp up their efforts about five years ago, she said, through their partnership with Do it Best Corp., offering ship-to-store and ship-to-address.
“We’ve had the benefit of working alongside the Do it Best team in this effort and leveraging their resources has helped us grow to where we are today,” said Taylor.
“Do it Best launched same day in-store pickup in 2020 and we were able to roll it out to all of our 20 locations this past year. We started by offering it at two locations only in 2020 to isolate any potential challenges, and then in summer 2021 we expanded company wide,” said Taylor.
Prior to offering same day pickup at all stores, their online orders were about 70% ship-to-store orders. “Now in-store pickup is about 50% of our orders and growing each month.”
Customer response to e-commerce, even going back 10 years, can be a new experience for an owner. Taylor said, “we were initially surprised when customers would come into the store talking about items they had seen online but were not items we had in stock.”
She said: “That’s much more commonplace today and thankfully we have a platform that enables us to provide seamless experiences in-store and online.”
Being in touch with online customers can be eye-opening, but it’s also a learning experience in many areas, including maintaining store inventory.
Mushel has also found big ticket items popular, “along with some hard-to-find items that you may not be able to buy elsewhere from a brick-and-mortar location,” said the owner.
“Keeping a clean inventory is always a challenge. It is even harder to do now with the state of our industry, with supply and product shortages. There are times that someone makes an online purchase, and we discover that we are out of the item,” Mushel said.
The tech-based consumer
At Do it Best dealer Farm & Home Hardware in Ohio, owner Scott Jerousek said they had an online presence for many years, but nothing that engaged with their customers or effectively told their story. Covid, as well, made things difficult to perform simple curbside pickup transactions.
The owner felt like his business was spinning its wheels and needed to rebuild its e-commerce program.
“I wanted to have all of the 67,000+ SKUs available from our Do it Best co-op warehouse available to our customers. We also needed to focus on adding our Pilar brands and categories that we source outside of the co-op model,” said Jerousek.
They needed a true inventory count for all the products they are marketing online. Plus, a precise inventory feed of their in-store products that directly interacts with their operating system.
“We decided to partner with JH Specialty (MOCE) to utilize their experience and the accumulative experience of Do it Best to build our new site. We worked closely with Do it Best, JH Specialty and Epicor to develop the feeds needed to effectively market our store online. As with any BETA situation there were hiccups, but we did the work and have developed a strong process to help Do it Best dealers onboard moving forward,” said Jerousek.
Today his business is shifting focus to meeting the needs of Gen X, Xennials, Millennials and Gen Z. He has developed a marketing strategy that shifted spending from print and repositioned funds into digital marketing and customer rewards programs.
The surprising part, Jerousek said, is how well their mature customer base has evolved into a tech-based consumer. His team now encounters in-store customers who reference pre-shopping activity or specifically show associates their phones asking where “this” product is in the store.
Just like anything, e-commerce, and even digital marketing for that matter provide challenges to overcome and noticeable wins as the process is refined. “The great part of digital is in the analytics, being able to track success down to finite clicks is more powerful than the intuition of the past,” said Jerousek.
The owner also said “we need to change the discussion. It should no longer be, ‘what is it going to cost?’ but ‘what are the risks if I do not leverage technology to meet my customers where they want to do business?’”
“Our e-commerce business has continued to grow exponentially as we have continued to push faster order confirmation times, reduced wait times for curbside service and improved inventory accuracy to drive more successful order fulfillment.”
At one New York brand it’s about discovering the online platform, and the similarities of in-store customer shopping habits.
“Our e-commerce customers are both new customers that ‘found us’ based on our offering of products online; and existing customers that enjoy the additional option of shopping from home when it pleases them,” said Mike Costello, CEO of Costello’s Ace Hardware, headquartered in Deer Park, N.Y.
His business is seeing two behaviors driving product demand online, and neither are unique for traditional brick-and-mortar retailers.
First, e-commerce demand is highly seasonal and particularly weather sensitive. “Just like our walk-in customers, our online customers want patio furniture and lawn care products in the spring, gift and decorating items during the holidays, and snow throwers and generators when a storm is barreling down on us,” said Costello.
“Second, e-commerce demand for popular brands is strong. Again, the brands that consumers walk in and ask questions about are the same they are clicking on.”
E-commerce has its own set of operational challenges, Costello said. Most center around training staff on new processes to pick and deliver orders, and the importance of prioritizing.
“With any new process, it takes time to develop the excellence that we expect from ourselves; however, customers are responding positively, and placing repeat orders.”
Additionally said Costello, e-commerce has greatly increased the number of home deliveries they make, which means delivery vehicles, along with the messaging of the services we provide, are more visible in the community.
“Our online sales have grown by five times since 2019. Two years ago, e-commerce made up barely 1% of our total sales; it’s more than 3.5% of the total in 2021 and growing.”
E-commerce gives your hardware business more touchpoints with customers. Many owners also invested in re-launches to update their online offerings. The results: Revenue growth and wider brand exposure.
Coming Soon: In part 3 of our series on e-commerce, hardware leaders across the U.S. will share tips and ideas about going omnichannel.