July 29, 2014, 1:37 PM

How distributor Motion Industries manages its (shipping) weight problem

Accurately accounting for the weight of its 2 million industrial automation products is a major challenge when determining what to charge its customers for shipping.

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On its e-commerce site, industrial automation supplies distributor Motion Industries Inc. sells two million products that weigh anywhere from an ounce or two for a gasket, all the way up to several hundred pounds for some electrical motors.

And the company may be losing money in some instances, because as of now, it’s charging all customers on MotionIndustries.com the same flat-rate shipping fee, around $9 for standard shipping, says Dan Stewart, assistant vice president of the company's e-business. For some lightweight products, a $9 shipping fee may scare away a buyer, while in other cases the fee forces Motion Industries to absorb a higher actual cost.

The company charges the flat fee, he says, largely because of the difficulty in accurately assessing shipping costs across millions of products, for which manufacturers don’t always provide weight information.

That problem is exacerbated by shipping rates based on dimensional weight, which carriers like UPS and FedEx use to determine delivery costs when the object being shipped is long, odd or bulky, Stewart says. For example, a product Motion Industries sells on its site may weigh only two pounds, but because the item is six feet long and two inches wide, the shipping carrier may use a dimensional weight formula that charges a rate closer to what it would charge for shipping something that weighs 10 pounds. “That can have a pretty substantial impact on your shipping costs, especially for priority shipping methods,” he says. “When you have two million products, the challenges in determining a freight cost up front are very large.”

Motion Industries is working to find a new product information system that will help to manage such content as product weight, 3D drawings of products, technical specifications and other data. The company is also working to get a better handle on how much it should charge customers for delivery, Stewart says.

Motion Industries, which reported $4.5 billion in sales last year, is a unit of Genuine Parts Company. The distributor has been selling online to businesses for around 10 years, but only recently brought on Stewart to head up and grow its B2B e-commerce business—a place where the company sees great potential for increased sales, he says.

Prior to March of this year, Stewart was vice president of marketing for Allied Electronics, ranked No. 147 in the Internet Retailer 2014 Top 500, which ranks companies on their annual web sales.

In addition to seeking a better way to manage its vast product catalog, Stewart and his team are looking to improve its site search functionality, and other tactics that will improve conversion rate and turn first-time buyers into repeat customers. “If you can get them making that first and second transaction, in this type of distribution business, you can then get your sales team on board and drive them into becoming real loyal customers,” Stewart says.

Motion Industries’ e-commerce site is custom-built on an IBM WebSphere Commerce e-commerce platform.

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