December 4, 2013, 3:26 PM

How Grainger tackles the B2B challenges of selling online

Grainger emphasizes search engine marketing, targeted e-mails, and mining online data.

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Many retailers invest heavily in finding just the right customer to market to. They define their audience and go after them with targeted ads, e-mail offers or other content wherever they might be—on social networks, mobile devices, blogs or search engines.

This is not necessarily the case, however, for W.W. Grainger Inc., as the largest retailer of maintenance, repair and operations supply on the web thinks of customer acquisition differently. “We don’t really go after customers online,” vice president of e-commerce Paul Miller told attendees today at the B2B Multichannel conference in Phoenix. “If we’re doing our job right, they should be finding us.”

That’s why Grainger regularly bids on around six million keywords on Google to advertise its one million products. “If they can’t find us or can’t get to our site, all the rest of the equation falls off,” Miller says. “We make sure to ask where the customer is when they start their journey and try to be relevant in that search. You can’t underestimate the importance of those first parts of the journey.”

In the last couple of years, an increasing percentage of Grainger’s business is coming from the web. Grainger, No. 15 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide, is now getting more than one-third of its sales from its online channel, Miller told attendees. Last year, the merchant brought in $2.7 billion in e-commerce revenue, or 30% of its $9.0 billion in total sales.

In addition to a heavy focus on search engine marketing, another key cog in Grainger’s business strategy is to use the plethora of data available from online customer interactions to help offline salespeople sell more effectively.

For example, Grainger shares its shopping cart abandonment data with members of its sales team.  If John Doe of Caterpillar Inc. visits Grainger.com, logs in and fills his cart with products, but then does not complete the purchase, whichever salesperson at Grainger oversees the Caterpillar account or the geographic region in which John Doe resides, will get access to this information.

This arms the salesperson with the knowledge of what John Doe is interested in buying—valuable information when trying to close a sale, Miller says.

Sign Up for B@Becnews for FREEIt’s also one way of avoiding alienating a large sales force by selling directly to business consumers online. “You have to understanding your salespeople’s motivation and give them things that help them to be more successful,” Miller said. “This benefits everyone.”

Grainger is also making shifts in its e-mail marketing strategy. “We’ve actually recently reduced the number of contacts we make via e-mail, but we’ve added targeting,” Miller said. “We have some customers that visit our site 50 times a month and some that visit once a year. The one that’s visiting 50 times a month will be getting a lot more content from me now, and vice versa.”  

These efforts are paying off, Miller said, though he didn’t elaborate. “For us, we’re less interested in a regular cadence of communication with a customer. We know who’s visiting our site, what they’ve looked at and what they’ve bought before. So for us, it’s about those hyper-targeted, hyper-relevant communications.”

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