Content matters

As we have said in previous columns, you can buy million-dollar webstore software, but if you link it to the data in your main computer system, you will probably offer a mediocre to poor experience to your users. The information in your ERP was just not created with “selling product” in mind. At the other end of the spectrum, some companies include every piece of available information on their store so it becomes a cluttered mess. This concept that more is better is a lot like using salt on food. The right amount makes the meal and too much ruins it.

The objective of your trade-focused website and webstore is simple: Get your target customers to use your site and store as their primary web destination and buy product from you. You want them to have a bookmark or link to your store so it is dead-easy to use your store to select and order items they need. Even better, your site is their “Startup page.” That’s first page they see when they open the browser. While this never guarantees that you get the sale, as we said in a previous column, it definitely improves the odds.

Here are some suggestions, based on our experiences in the field, to endusre your content is relevent.

Contractors are simply interested in getting their job done — Over the years, one of the most significant complaints we have heard from trade users is that the marketing content (electronic and otherwise) does not help and sometimes stymies their main objective: procuring materials for a job. One contractor remarked, “I just can’t understand why manufacturers and wholesalers don’t get it. All contractors use a small number of specifications to select products for a job. Finding those specs in marketing materials is often difficult. For the most part we all use the same specs. It’s like wholesalers are trying to make it difficult for us to find those critical specs in a sea of other ‘crap*’ (*actual word was not crap) that we don’t care about. I just won’t use products that are hard to select even when they might be a better choice.”

Remember “easy” wins many battles on the marketing front — We are seeing a worldwide shift toward convenience that seems to trump price, brand and many times even immediate availability. The internet buying revolution has created a culture that seems more willing to receive the product tomorrow or the next day when the acquisition process is easy. This works in the favor of large national companies with limited or no local stocks. Their huge distribution centers located near a UPS or FedEx hub allow next day or second day delivery to the customer. One wholesaler told us he is selling boilers through his webstore and shipping them to other states with the buyer paying for the shipping rather than going to the trouble of seeking out a local supplier.

Leverage your team’s experience working with contractors as you design your store — When you provide content that is designed specifically to sell to the trade, you increase the odds that you will get the sale. Your team knows the questions that need to be answered in order to close the sale. Make sure your store responds fully and completely to those questions. Sadly, we have seen some misguided resistance by sales people in our industry thinking that the website/webstore will displace them. (Frankly, this is dinosaur thinking by small-brained creatures.) Customers can easily seek out the best website and if yours isn’t the best, they will use someone else’s. When your team fails to collaborate to create the best, they, in effect, drive your loyal customers to a competitor’s site.

Your team doesn’t suddenly know everything about web commerce — Even if your team spent the night at a Holiday Inn, they don’t know everything – As we said above make sure you include your teams understanding of customers. Don’t allow them to mislead you into thinking that they have suddenly become web marketing experts. We have seen some truly stupid suggestions offered up regarding the design of wholesaler stores. Sadly, when they are presented to customers, they often fall flat.

Your website and store is just another tool in their toolkit, not a likely to be a life changing experience — If using your webstore makes their job more efficient, they will continue to use it. If it makes their job more difficult, they will drop it in a heartbeat.

Selecting the right content

So what content do you need for your trade-focused webstore?The following is our list for your consideration:

Selling description and specs — We think the minimum kit involves a clear description plus the simple specs that trade customers need to make a buying decision. Both should be in readable upper and lower case text. Neither should have uncommon abbreviations that make them less readable and searchable. The upper case descriptions in your main computer seldom provide even this minimum requirement. Ideally the descriptions and text are formatted text which allows key information to be emboldened, italicized or in different sized fonts.

Modern webstores require clean, readable, modern-looking presentation.

•    Images — While not in our absolute minimum required list, modern webstores have professional looking color images of products.  While many trade customers know the product and don’t need a picture, a picture does help them to quickly find and order items from a list of search results. When they search on “elbow” they can quickly click on a copper elbow versus the B-vent elbow that the search returns.  We think modern webstores have images with their backgrounds removed.  When photographs are taken the resulting image typically has a background that ranges from distracting to effectively making the image a “where’s Waldo” search for the product.  Removing backgrounds from images is a laborious manual task which many manufacturers do not complete, leaving it to each wholesaler to perform if a great webstore is their objective.  

•    Normalized colors, finishes and specifications — Make sure your content is consistent or normalized across all vendors.  Our industry has marketing folks who make big money creating exciting names for colors and finsihes that are basically off-white, white, black, chrome, polished brass, etc.  Trade customers may not know or want to remember all the creative names for all of the different brands, for off-white; they just want to see the selection of off-white toilets for all brands. Having to know that off-white, dim-white, dull-white, somewhat-white and less-than-white are all basically the marketing-enhanced names for the same color is just plain annoying. Great webstores allow the user to search or filter using a generic color like “off-white” which then returns all the items that, despite the marketing efforts, are plain old off-white.

Further, as Rich remembers stories about his grandfather R. R. Schmitt, a master pipe-fitter, R.R. could see little value in fixtures that weren’t white and faucets that weren’t chrome.  Today’s plumbers have progressed some but many are still unimpressed by the myriad of trademarked brand names that, in the end, just make their job of working with a consumer even more complicated and painful.

This normalization process takes time and industry knowledge, but the resulting webstore is infinitely more usable when the content and terminology is consistent across all the brands on your store.

•    Logical organization — There are lots of opinions regarding the organization of content as it is presented to customers.  We can see the value of several approaches so we think the ultimate decision should be left to the user.  An example, there are two popular ways to show items resulting from a search: 

  1. Grouped by category and then size order within the category.  So a search for “elbow” would yield a category of “Copper, 90 degree, CxC elbows” that are shown in size order.  1/4", 3/8", 1/2", etc. followed by the next category of “Copper, 45 degree, CxC elbows” in size order, etc.
  2. Ranked by popularity.  So the same search result might show 1/2" copper, 90 degree, CxC followed by 2" PVC, DWV, followed by 1/2" PEX 90 degree, etc.  This has the added complexity that the ranking changes over time.  If live ranking data is used, the order of the items may change from day to day for the exact same search as an item’s ranking changes over time.

Each approach has value depending upon the needs of the user.  When you lock the user into a single approach, you may not meet that user’s needs.  
Creating good content for a trade-focused webstore is not rocket surgery but it does require hard work and clear understanding of what helps your customer use your store to buy more product from you.  If you want information or help creating content, let us know by emailing

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