March 11, 2014, 1:39 PM

Restaurant supplier Wasserstrom goes beyond price to compete against Amazon

Instead of trying to win over customers with cut-rate prices, Wasserstrom says it’s converting more online visitors to buyers with new software that learns which product attributes to emphasize. For buyers of whisky rock glasses, it’s often details on glass capacity that completes the sale.

Lead Photo

Dale Edman

A family-owned restaurant supply company founded in 1902, The Wasserstrom Company has a long history of getting to know its customers and providing them what they need to run their kitchens and bars and set their tables. With the competition it faces today from other suppliers ranging from small distributors to discounter AmazonSupply.com, however, it’s taken things up a notch in how it engages business shoppers online.

“Our vast product assortment puts us in direct competition with the likes of AmazonSuply.com, but our heritage and dedication to our customers is what differentiates us,” says Dale Edman, vice president, e-commerce and online marketing. AmazonSupply, the business-to-business site of retail e-commerce sales leader Amazon.com Inc., sells more than 500,000 products ranging from restaurant and cleaning supplies to power tools and laboratory equipment. Amazon is No. 1 in the Internet Retailer Top 500, which ranks merchants by their annual web sales.

Wasserstrom carries about 100,000 products, less than 20% of AmazonSupply but still enough to make shopping a challenge for customers seeking a product of a particular style or dimensions. But instead of shouting out to customers with discount prices to stay competitive, Wasserstrom is learning what shoppers find most important in terms of product attributes. In turn, the company is improving its conversion rates with a broader base of online customers, including individual consumers as well as new clients among small businesses and organizations including small, independent restaurants, firehouses and college sororities, Edman says.

With a new software application designed to help business shoppers find what they need, Wasserstrom is converting more online visitors to buyers as it figures what’s best to serve up on its e-commerce site. For rock glasses, those short, sturdy glasses for drinking whisky or Scotch on the rocks, for example, it boosted sales after learning that customers wanted to shop by the volume the glasses hold—which for most buyers has been more important than price, he adds.

“Volume was an attribute we hadn’t thought of,” Edman says. “It was like, ‘Duh!” but we had never even talked about it among ourselves or with manufacturers.”

By learning what’s most important to buyers, Wasserstrom now ensures that shoppers see such attributes in product descriptions on product and category pages as well as in the brief product listings that appear in the site search window. To generate such content, Wasserstrom has deployed the Adaptive Navigation application from Compare Metrics, which uses software and a team of content curators to monitor and compile information on how shoppers search and navigate for products and related information. That includes searches on Wasserstrom.com as well as throughout the public web, including social media networks and blogs. Wasserstrom is also using Adaptive Navigation to build new product category and buy pages, starting with its Beer & Mixing Glasses category.

Clicking the “Shop Our Beer & Mixing Glasses” category image on the home page, for example, takes a shopper to a special category page where they can navigate by such attributes as “Beer Mugs,” “Pilsners,” and “Shots,” as well as by such operations as “Bar Service” or “Dining Room.”

Shoppers can also click into a “Help Me Choose” section, where they can enter new glass attributes such as “Volume Capacity,” “Botttom Diameter” and “Top Diameter.” The Adaptive Navigation application produces reports on such entries of new attributes, as well as on which attributes shoppers are interacting with most often, to help the retailer determine which attributes to include in product descriptions.

Shoppers that click into the “Shop Our Beer & Mixing Glasses” section designed with Adaptive Navigation convert to buyers more than three times more often than shoppers who use the regular home page category navigation bar, which takes them to category pages without the Adaptive Navigation features, Edman says.

Compare Metrics has helped Wasserstrom to more than triple its number of product attributes that it lists in product descriptions, Edman says. In addition to helping to increase his site’s conversion rate, he also expects the additional attributes to improve the performance of online marketing efforts including e-mail and paid search by attracting shoppers with a broader list of relevant terms.

Before working with Compare Metrics, “we didn’t know what was important to shoppers,” Edman says. “There was no way to get customer feedback other than to see that for some products pallets sell better than cases.”

Compare Metrics provides its technology in a software-as-a-service model, through which its clients pay a fee to access its web-hosted software as well as get the service of its staff curators, Compare Metrics Garrett Eastham says.  Fees are based on the number of products and categories a client is optimizing with Compare Metrics, with costs for most companies starting within a range of $60,000 to $70,000 per year, he adds.

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