August 13, 2013, 12:44 PM

How MSA is building out its B2B e-commerce strategy

Industrial safety products maker MSA has brought a global view to its e-commerce.

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MSA has been around since 1914, when it launched as a manufacturer of innovative industrial safety products like the “Edison Flameless Electric Miners’ Cap Lamp” produced with the help of inventor Thomas Edison. But it wasn’t until this past May that it started to dive into e-commerce, launching its first business-to-business transactional web site on a platform from e-commerce technology provider hybris AG.

As MSA approaches its 100th anniversary, it’s starting out with a new strategy of offering user-friendly e-commerce to its globally dispersed base of customers. “We want to make it easier to do business with us,” says Susie Sapsara, global e-business manager for MSA, also known as Mine Safety Appliances Co.

The endeavor is massive, she adds, as MSA has replaced its global network of 40 web sites—built on a mix of legacy in-house and commercial technology platforms accommodating 20 languages—with a single technology platform from hybris. MSA also operates with back-end business operating software like accounting and inventory management from hybris parent SAP AG.

Sign Up for B@Becnews for FREEBefore launching the hybris e-commerce platform, however, MSA first deployed the technology vendor’s Product Content Management, or PCM, system to ensure that its data on products ranging from hard hats and safety goggles to gas-detection monitors and thermal imaging cameras was accurate and up to date on customer-facing e-commerce pages. With many of products described in multiple ways in its back-end software applications, which were not designed for view by customers, MSA can now update those descriptions in a user-friendly hybris PCM software interface without having to enter data multiple times directly into the back-end software, Sapsara says. So now a customer can view a listing for “Sightgard Goggles,” for example, with a list of clear attributes like “splash and impact resistant” without having to look up the definition of abbreviations not commonly used by customers.

With its product data cleaned up, MSA introduced in May e-commerce transaction functionality on its U.S. web site, which integrates with SAP software to update inventory availability as products are sold through the site. As a B2B-only site, customers can log on to see their own account pricing along with product descriptions, then click to place their order through one of MSA’s wholesale channel partners linked to, who then complete the transaction on the MSA site.

MSA has been testing the U.S. e-commerce site with a pilot group of wholesale partners since May. In initial surveys of customers, it has received positive feedback from both end-customers and wholesalers, Sapsara says. “They appreciate being able to do more self-service,” she says.

MSA expects to roll out the e-commerce transaction functionality to as many as four sites within a year, then decide with its wholesale partners if it will extend it to all 40 sites in its global network.

In the meantime, MSA says it will benefit from having a central product database within the hybris platform for managing content on all 40 sites, Sapsara says. “Our global products portfolio is presented differently around the world, mostly because of different national standards,” she says. “Some products we sell in the U.S. but not in China, for example, while some we sell in France but not the U.S. So our product catalogs are different for many regions of the world, but now we can maintain the product data all in one place.”

The cost to deploy hybris as licensed software starts at a one-time fee of about $200,000; the Internet-based on-demand versions starts within a range of $10,000 to $20,000 per month, according to Cliff Conneighton, senior vice president of marketing at hybris.

Hybris has also been enhancing its PCM system, which it describes as a master data management application that can combine product and transactional data to show clients what their customers are buying and provide information to support targeted merchandising campaigns, Conneighton says. The system is supported by SAP’s Hana business intelligence technology, which provides analytical data from multiple databases and software applications to show, for example, how products offered and priced in particular configurations or within particular bundles of products drive sales and profit margins.

In June, SAP launched its Customer Activity Repository system, or CAR, which is designed to work on top of the Hana analytics engine and compile information on customer transactions across in-store point-of-sale systems as well as online transactions, including mobile and social media, to support cross-channel marketing and merchandising, says Matthias Goehler, vice president of product management for SAP.

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