Whether searching for information or contacting their distributors to order product, jobbers across the country have been taking advantage of Web technology for years. But many are now starting to offer the same service to their customers, and it’s revolutionizing the way sales are made.
Supplementing the traditional methods of ordering (over the counter or over the phone), Web-based electronic ordering systems allow jobbers to give their customers instant, 24-hour access to their inventories.
Drawing on the major electronic catalogues offered in Canada, an electronic ordering system allows customers to browse through a virtual store and place their orders online. The order is processed much the same as if it had come in over the phone, and is ready for pickup at the indicated time.
“It enables our jobbers to be more productive and enables shopowners to be more efficient with their time,” says Marc Alary, vice-president marketing and product development at Bestbuy Distributors. “And what are the most important factors to them? Labour and time,” he adds. “Labour and time is where you make your money. This lets you be quick and efficient.”
Bestbuy offers its members customized e-ordering programs that can be easily installed and immediately incorporated into a company’s existing ordering methods. Demos of the program are offered to members free of charge, and Alary says it is steadily gaining in popularity. Currently, approximately 30% of Bestbuy shareholders have an online store.
“There’s been a bit of hesitation, but once they know how it can help their business, many want it,” he says.
Doug Squires is the general manager of Colonial Auto Parts, a Bestbuy member headquartered in St. John’s, Nfld., and one of the big proponents of electronic ordering systems. The company installed the program three years ago and has never regretted it. Squires says that his firm has brought about 100 of its customers online.
“It takes some of the burden off counter staff,” he says. “And for some people, it’s a preference. They’d rather not interact with a real person.”
But he says the real benefit to his customers is the convenience. “It gives them the ability to order or research after hours, even when we are closed,” Squires says. “The orders are sitting and waiting for them when they arrive in the morning.”
The program also allows customers to search by brand preference or value-line products, and prioritizes the search based on those criteria. Price comparisons are offered instantly, taking away the need to call around for quotes.
“It’ll show them both brand and no-name products, so they can always order the part, even if it’s not available in their preference,” he says.
Another major benefit is that customers are able to view the part before ordering it, because the program has pictures of each product. “They can look online at the picture and compare it to the product they have in their hand,”
Squires says. “There’s little room for human error.”
Lorne Borland, general manager and owner of Western
Bearing and Auto Parts, an Auto Sense member in Portage la Prairie, Man., says he was introduced to the electronic ordering system at a trade show more than seven years ago. His company was the first local jobber to implement a Web-based ordering system; since then, he says, the competition has gone online too.
Borland recalls the early days with a big laugh–going to shops in person to demonstrate how to use the system. “That was back when we only had dial-up,” he recalls.
What drew him to the system was the idea that it could take some of the pressure off the phone and reduce the workload of the counter staff. But it was a challenge initially to convince customers to go online, instead of picking up the phone to call in orders as they had for years. So, to encourage customers to try the online system, Western offered a 2% discount on orders placed electronically.
Nowadays, he says, “The younger mechanics really enjoy it and they know how to use it and use it safely. Some of the older guys? Forget it. Very few of our older customers want anything to do with it. A lot of them don’t even have computers.”
Despite the growing pains and the obvious hurdles that must be overcome especially if your customer base is set in its traditional ways, Borland believes the system is the way of the future. Those customers who try it become converts.
“It speeds up the process and saves them time. And time is money, right?”
However, online ordering isn’t for everyone. For some jobbers located in small communities, the idea of using an electronic ordering system just doesn’t make sense.
Kristen Busch has been helping her family run Busch’s Auto Supplies Ltd. for more than 17 years. Located in Fort Frances, Ont., a town of just over 8,000, the shop deals directly with only a handful of local shop owners, all of whom are just a block or so from its door. Although she herself uses the Web to order products from distributors, Busch has decided against installing the system for her store’s customers, because it just doesn’t make sense in her location.
“By the time we’d look up their order on the computer, they’d be standing at the counter waiting for it,” she says with a laugh.
Also, Busch says her customers enjoy the live interaction with staff, and many wouldn’t be comfortable using a computer to replace it.
And the reservations don’t just apply to rural areas. Lorne Johnston, manager of Auto Value member British Auto Supply in Toronto, says the company implemented the system years ago, but managed to get only a handful of its customers online.
“We didn’t have much success with it,” he says.
When British Auto Supply was relocated and rebuilt after a major fire destroyed the company’s location three years ago, Johnston says the electronic system was never replaced. “We didn’t see the need for it,” he says.
But even though the company’s first experience with electronic ordering proved unsatisfactory, it is likely to find its way back at some point, given the popularity of online ordering. “I don’t think we can stop it,” he says.
Bestbuy’s Alary says jobbers also have to consider another benefit when deciding whether to install the program. Besides increasing efficiency for both sides, the system is also another marketing vehicle for jobbers.
“It allows you to showcase certain products, to bring those products to the customer in a new way,” he says “It’s really a great system.”
New Open Source Utility Converts Interchange Data
The Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA) has released a free, open-source, software utility that converts part number interchange data into the Product Information Exchange Standard (PIES) format.
The PIES Interchange Transformation Utility accepts interchange data in a flat file (spreadsheet) format and converts it to the latest version of (PIES) XML.
AAIA developed the transformation utility software to help manufacturers supply retailers and program groups with interchange data in the standard format. The major automotive chains have agreed to accept data in the industry-standard PIES version 6.1 XML format.
Competitive interchange information is an important tool for increasing sales at the retail and wholesale point of service, according to AAIA. The transformation utility can help speed and simplify the process of distributing interchange data to partners in the aftermarket chain.
“It’s an unusual step for the association to commission the development of software in support of one of our standards,” says Scott Luckett, AAIA vice-president, technology standards and solutions. “But we wanted to accelerate the adoption of PIES and remove obstacles to the distribution of valuable product data.”
AAIA chose to distribute the utility at no cost and in an open-source manner so that software developers throughout the industry could springboard off of this tool to de velop more robust PIES mapping and conversion tools. No further upgrades or functionality are planned by AAIA for the utility, but the source code is freely available under the GNU Open-Source license agreement.