November 18, 2013, 9:19 AM

Grainger unveils a new B2B e-commerce platform and iPad app

An Internet Retailer exclusive details the B2B retailer’s plans.

Lead Photo

A screenshot of Grainger's iPad app.

W.W. Grainger Inc. tomorrow will complete a migration, several months in the making, of the majority its customers to a new e-commerce platform, the B2B retailer of maintenance, repair and other products exclusively tells Internet Retailer. With updated navigation and order management tools, the platform, designed for Grainger’s corporate clients, allows up to 1,500 staffers to log into a single business account and place, approve or track orders via the web or with one of Grainger’s mobile commerce sites or apps, the merchant says.  Helping to foster the platform’s utility across devices, Grainger tomorrow also will unveil a new iPad app.

“We’re part of customers’ daily habits,” Geoff Robertson, vice president of e-commerce planning and strategy for Grainger, tells Internet Retailer. “We want to be indispensable.”

With a Grainger account, a business manager can set each employee’s spending limits, along with restrictions on who must approve an order before it is submitted to Grainger. Then, as orders are made and adjusted, Grainger updates the appropriate employees in the chain. For example, after a facility manager notices a shortage of safety gloves in a warehouse and requests new ones via the Grainger app on the iPad she carries with her throughout the facility, her supervisor will receive a push notification from the Grainger mobile app on his smartphone, or, if he’s logged into the e-commerce site, an alert at the top of the page, asking him to approve the order. As soon as he does, Grainger processes the order and updates the facility manager via her iPad app of the order’s status. Grainger also notifies the manager when the order is shipped.

Shoppers can also browse products in a new way using Grainger’s iPad app. The app displays four-by-four arrays of tiles with product images that a shopper can tap for more information. Using geo-location, it can tell a customer at which nearby Grainger stores the products he’s viewing are available. The app also displays estimated shipping time if a customer wants to order it via mobile. Or, he can search by ZIP code to arrange for a future pickup or shipment to another location. Shoppers can also create and edit lists of commonly ordered products—perhaps spare parts for a particular facility—and share them with other members of their organization using the app.

Customers that use Grainger’s mobile sites and apps approve orders 40% faster on average than those who don’t, Robertson says. Additionally, one in five Grainger orders placed on a mobile device are picked up in one of the retailer’s 360 U.S. branches, which is significantly higher than the number of web orders picked up in stores, he says.

Sign Up for B@Becnews for FREEThe retailer built the iPad app in-house after analytics revealed that many customers were trying to use its iPhone app or access the mobile site on their iPads, says Michael Cooney, senior product manager for mobile. Mobile apps have almost a 9% higher conversion rate than the m-commerce web site for Grainger, and shoppers come back to apps more often, he says. Overall, 14% of Grainger’s traffic now comes from mobile devices, a number that continues to grow. In response, the retailer is increasingly adopting a “mobile-first” approach to future web developments, he says.

Online retail is also growing for Grainger. Today, one-third of its sales come from the web, and the retailer predicts web orders will account for 40% or 50% of total sales within the next few years, says Paul Miller, vice president of global e-commerce. Last year Grainger booked $2.70 billion in web sales, up 23% from $2.19 billion in 2011, according to Internet Retailer estimates. On top of those sales, customers are increasingly starting their product searches on Google Inc.’s search engine and turning to social media for buying suggestions, both of which indirectly influence sales both online and offline, Miller adds.

Accordingly, Grainger has expanded the number of paid search keywords it manages from less than 10,000 in 2010 to more than 5 million today, he says. It’s also added more customer reviews and recommendations and updated shopping functionality, such as the Live Chat with Photofeature it added to its iPhone app last month. With the launch of the new platform, Grainger’s web site is also now fully available in Spanish. Customers can click a button at the top of any page on the site to toggle between languages.

The retailer’s significant e-commerce and m-commerce updates come after it opened in May an e-commerce headquarters in downtown Chicago. Grainger decided to add a city office rather than rely on its headquarters 30 miles north, in Lake Forest, IL, mainly to attract and have better access to the developers, Miller says. The Chicago office, which houses a single team of staffers who work on both web and mobile commerce, feels more like a software startup than the offices of an 86-year-old industrial supplier. The 300 employees charged with developing the retailer’s web-based technologies skew very young, dress casually, post humorous images on the walls and don’t work in a set space, instead moving around as their projects and teams change every few weeks.

Grainger is No. 15 in Internet Retailer’s 2013 Top 500 Guide and No. 92 in the 2014 Internet Retailer Mobile 500

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