August 5, 2014, 3:01 PM

Grainger sees a bigger future for mobile apps

Today about 41% of all mobile sales for Grainger take place via a mobile app. But within a few years, apps could account for 70% of all mobile commerce sales as Grainger sees its apps as a key method to streamline purchasing of office and industrial supplies.

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At W.W. Grainger Inc., a Chicago-based business-to-business distributor of office and industrial supplies, mobile apps are big business. And that business is about to grow. Today, Grainger’s mobile app accounts for about 40%—$23.4 million—of the company’s 2014 Internet Retailer-estimated mobile commerce sales of $58.5 million.

But within two or three years, Grainger’s mobile app, first deployed in 2012, could account for between 60% to 70% of all mobile sales. Grainger sells products ranging from paper notebooks to power tools and refrigeration equipment that companies use for their own maintenance, repair and operations—a category often referred to as MRO.

Grainger is pushing more business toward mobile in general, and its app in particular, because it saves time for its clients’ personnel who often place orders to replenish products while they’re on a job site away from desktop computers, says Geoffrey Robertson, vice president of product, innovation and business integration.

With the help of the mobile app, a mechanic or maintenance worker in the field can quickly find the exact MRO product he needs, such as the right type of replacement light bulb. Many products in the app are pre-authorized for purchase, and, if necessary, the app enables personnel in the field to send more specific purchasing information to a manager with purchasing authority, before completing the transaction. Using Grainger’s order management system, customers can set up their own approval workflow that identifies who can approve an order request, and at what dollar amount. This can speed up the purchasing and authorization by process by as much as 40%, Robertson says.

“Our Grainger consulting group performed studies with our customers and found that the average procurement process is comprised of five people, six handoffs, 42 steps and three approvals,” Robertson says. “Our mobile capabilities, coupled with our order management workflow system, dramatically reduce this complexity and increase the speed of the approval process with 30% to 40% faster approval rates.”

At Grainger, No. 13 in 2014 Internet Retailer Top 500, which ranks companies by their annual web sales, the company continues to refine its app as a way to help personnel in the field and purchasing managers in the in the office make their overall work flow more efficient, Robertson says. In late 2013 Grainger rolled out a new app for iPads. Grainger’s mobile app comes in versions for the iPhone and smartphones running the Android operating system. Its tablet app, however, is not designed for Android devices and works only on the iPad. The company also has a web site optimized for viewing on mobile phones.

The app, in both smartphone and tablet versions, displays four-by-four arrays of tiles with product images that a shopper can tap for more information. Using geo-location, the app can appoint the customer to the nearest Grainger store with the product in stock. 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.

Last fall Grainger also updated its iPhone apps with a live chat application designed to let a customer upload a photo of a product he needs to order, which helps the customer service rep locate the exact item and provide a web link to the product page on Grainger.com, where the customer can check availability and place an order.

The live chat feature appears in the menu section of the app once a customer signs in to her Grainger account. The live chat display and the customer service representative identify the user by first name once the user is signed in; Grainger says it is important to personalize the live chat process. Users can touch the icon to begin a live chat with a customer service representative, as well as attach one or more product photos taken with their iPhone. The app enables the customer to access her chat history, eliminating the need for the customer to take notes during the live chat.

“With apps we just keep working to speed up the purchasing and authorization process,” Robertson says. Since 2012 about 500,000 MRO professionals have downloaded some version of a Grainger app, the company says.

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