March 6, 2013, 3:15 PM

Grainger’s mobile site and apps help workers in the field and back office

In February mobile traffic to Grainger hit 10% of total web traffic, the merchant reports.

Lead Photo

The chain retailer's mobile app.

Mobile traffic to W.W. Grainger Inc. in February hit 10% of total web traffic, the hardware, building maintenance and office supplies chain retailer reports. What’s more, Grainger research reveals that 50% of its customers spend most of their time working away from a desk on a job site or shop floor, making them prime candidates for mobile commerce.

The retailer launched its mobile commerce web site in November 2011, its iPhone app in May 2012 and its Android app in June 2012. It declines to reveal mobile sales, but it is No. 76 in the Internet Retailer Mobile 400 with Internet Retailer-estimated 2012 m-commerce sales of $16.7 million.

Grainger built everything in its mobile channel in-house with some app development help from m-commerce site builder and mobile app developer Solstice Mobile.

“Grainger developed everything from inception of concept to building out 36-month road maps, we designed in-house, staffed up our own development team to do both mobile work and a lot of the back-end API integration work,” says Geoff Robertson, vice president of e-commerce strategy and planning. “When it came to Solstice, we brought them in for some architectural expertise that helped kick-start development so we could accelerate speed to market.”

Grainger research and customer feedback show a high demand for mobile commerce, Robertson says.

“We’re seeing the demand from our customers, and mobile helps fulfill Grainger’s value proposition of a fast, easy and personal way to buy products,” Robertson says. “As our customers keep looking to use the mobile device to complete their work, we continue to staff up the team to continually fulfill the uses customers are requesting.”

Grainger has noticed through analytics and customer research that customers use the m-commerce site differently from how they use the smartphone apps. Mobile site users are searching for products; the site has a conversion rate lower than the desktop site and mobile apps, but higher traffic than the apps, Grainger reports. The apps are used by repeat customers, loyal consumers who are willing to give Grainger a piece of their mobile screen real estate; consequently, the conversion rate for apps is up to eight times higher than for the m-commerce site but a bit lower than the rate for the desktop site, Grainger says.

There are two primary uses for the mobile apps—one by workers in the field and another by staff in the back office, Robertson explains.

“Customers in the field, the guys on the roof, the guy fixing HVAC units, they frequently have need to order products,” he says. “They would pick up the phone and call back to the office and say, ‘I need this hammer or light bulb’ and spend a lot of time describing the exact product they are looking for, and the person on the other end is looking through the catalog. So the field technician is now e-mailing a product from the mobile store to the back office or placing an order and putting it into workflow.”

That’s where the second use comes in. Mobile commerce ties the person in the field together with the back-office workflow required to get an order approved in many businesses or government agencies.

“When this tech wants a light bulb and places an order, it can go into our order management system, where the person in the office can approve or reject that order,” Robertson says. “So what we’re finding is not only are those techs working out in the field away from their desks, but the person who approves orders is away from his desk. We see many examples of businesses where they thought the workflow process was too long, and they found they could cut two to four hours out of the order process with mobile commerce because that approving person was just away from their computer.”

So the staff member responsible for approving purchases can do so through the app from wherever they may be at the time. Once approved and purchased, the order goes back to the field worker, who uses the app’s GPS to find the nearest Grainger location and pick that product up in-store. The mobile app indicates which branches are closest to them and gives them directions.

It’s this kind of use of mobile that has caused Grainger to begin some research into the offline impact of m-commerce. The mobile commerce site conversion rate may be low, for example, but is the site serving as a research tool for customers who later make purchases in stores? The answer is yes, Grainger says, but it hasn’t completed its research yet to determine just how much of an impact mobile is having on store sales.

Grainger would not disclose what it cost to build the app, but mobile experts say apps of Grainger’s caliber can cost between $50,000 and $250,000.

When it comes to how it works, the Grainger app has a couple features that make the app stand out. The first is a three-step tour of the app. This launches the first time an app user opens the app.

“That feature is trying to make the mobile experience as easy as possible and let customers know their mobile experience is integrated with the Grainger.com experience,” says Michael Cooney, senior product manager for mobile. “It’s the same user ID and password as on the full site, the same shipping and payment information from the desktop site is waiting for them in mobile. The tour familiarizes customers with the app so they can dive right into the experience prepared to get the job done.”

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