June 16, 2014, 1:39 PM

Starting on your mobile journey to make purchasing easier for customers

When developing a B2B mobile commerce strategy, it’s best to first understand what your customers need from mobile and how they’re likely to use it, says Michael Cooney, director of e-commerce strategy for business products distributor W.W. Grainger Inc.

Rumor has it that colleges put up buildings on campus with no sidewalks.  After they see where students form trails through the grass, they then build the sidewalks. That’s pretty much how W.W. Grainger Inc. got into mobile commerce.

About three years ago, Grainger, a supplier of maintenance, repair and operating products, or MRO, started its mobile journey. Were customers calling and asking us if we had an app? No. Did we think we needed to build a mobile app to make purchasing industrial supplies seem more sexy? Not quite. 

We started our mobile journey because we noticed our analytics on Grainger.com were telling us something. More and more customers were purchasing on our non-optimized website using smartphones and tablets. They were doing so at an increasing rate, even though it meant they had to pinch and zoom on their mobile devices for a sub-par purchasing experience. There were no sidewalks, so the trails were starting to appear.

We conducted customer research to better understand their requirements before building a mobile site or apps. Customers told us they wanted to search our entire product catalog (today it is more than 1 million products), check real-time product availability in our branches, see their custom pricing, and place and approve orders for ship or pickup at one of our nearly 400 branches nationwide.

We started with a mobile site (think of it as pouring gravel trails instead of concrete), followed by apps for iPhone, Android, and then iPad. Over time we added features such as the ability to manage product lists, scan bar codes, submit product reviews and even send photos to our tech support team for identification in real time.  

Features and functionality were prioritized and added based upon voice of customer feedback (“Where’s the bar code scanner?”) and the emerging use patterns we observed (Customers sending us product reviews via e-mail).

Creating a path leads to many learnings along the way. If you have not yet started your company’s mobile journey or believe there should be more to what you have already developed, then ask yourself some key questions. Are you focused too much on whether you think your customers need a mobile site or app? Are you comparing your company against your competitors to see if they jump into the mobile waters first? Are you nervous about building a mobile path to purchase only to find out your customers will not purchase on mobile? Remember, it is how your customers find value in using your mobile site or app that is first and foremost, not the mobile site or app itself. Your goal is to enable your customers to shop more easily and quickly, based on their needs. 

Find out if your customers are already viewing or purchasing from your desktop site using a mobile browser. Spend time walking in the shoes of your customers and observe their mobile habits. Are they already using geolocation on their iPhone to find the nearest coffee shop? If so, why wouldn’t they want to use their phone to find your closest location or to purchase the product they need to save them a trip back to their computer?

Whether you build the sidewalks or not, your customers will still create their own path.  It’s up to you to decide if you go on that mobile journey together.

Michael Cooney became Grainger’s director of e-commerce strategy in December 2013, and is responsible for the planning and performance of the company's online, mobile and integrated capabilities. Prior to that, Michael was a senior strategy product manager and oversaw Grainger’s strategy for its customer mobile product offering.

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