B2B, straight up

From rocks glasses to frying pans, Wasserstrom.com takes on the threat of AmazonSupply with aggressive merchandising and more exact site search and navigation tools.

Paul Demery

THE PROBLEM: A family-owned business for well over a century, The Wasserstrom Co. knows a lot about providing personal service and the products needed by restaurateurs, chefs and restaurant and hotel chains. Those clients buy from its catalog of more than 100,000 items, ranging from cleaning supplies to whiskey glasses, and from electronic soup kettles to three-door freezers with 75 cubic feet of storage space.

While Wasserstrom is well-known in its industry, its competition these days is more formidable than ever. From AmazonSupply.com to an increasing number of distributors, it faces pressure from competitors that offer a broad product selection, cheap prices and fast fulfillment. AmazonSupply, the business-to-business arm of Amazon.com Inc., says it offers nearly 2 million products and ships from more than 50 warehouses in North America. While many of those products have nothing to do with kitchen supplies, the retailer's massive scale enables Amazon, the top-ranked merchant in the 2014 Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide, to compete aggressively on price and services like shipping.

"Amazon has set the expectations in e-commerce for 15 years, and we're starting to see that with B2B customers," says Dale Edman, Wasserstrom's vice president for e-commerce and online marketing. "Business customers have always expected a short lead time for receiving products—now their expectations are broader."

While Wasserstrom's customers have always expected to quickly find and receive commonly purchased items, the competitive pressure from Amazon and others leads them to expect that level of service on a wider range of products. "Now that includes even more obscure products that companies may buy only once in a while," Edman says.

Rather than compete primarily on price, Wasserstrom has relied on the personal service its sales reps have provided for more than a century to keep up sales. It continues that tradition of service in the Internet age by displaying a toll-free customer service number on every page of Wasserstrom.com. "Our vast product assortment puts us in direct competition with the likes of AmazonSupply.com, but our heritage and dedication to our customers is what differentiates us," Edman says.

However, Wasserstrom realized a couple of years ago that its reputation was no longer enough, and it needed a more effective e-commerce site. To start, customers had to be able to quickly find what they needed. But with its traditional selling strategy based more on personal service than on a policy of attracting customers with displays of merchandise, it was entering new territory. "We don't have merchants on staff," Edman says. "We have salespeople, and product procurement people and sourcing people. But no one was thinking of products as merchandisers would."

The company realized it needed to take its online merchandising—and its overall service—to new levels to maintain its position in the market without resorting to cut-rate prices.

Even for a restaurant products supplier around since 1902, that was a tall order.

THE SOLUTION: Wasserstrom set out to craft an e-commerce site that helps customers find what they're looking for. In turn, it figured this would make its e-commerce site more appealing to both occasional small-business customers and to the frequent buyers from large restaurant and hotel chains. That meant compiling information on the products—including attributes like size, shape and volume capacity—to help it fine-tune its marketing campaigns and how it arranges content on product and category pages.

The first step was to find tools that would make it easier for customers to use Wasserstrom.com, which is built on IBM Corp.'s WebSphere Commerce technology platform. Wasserstrom last year replaced the WebSphere site search application with Google Inc.'s Google Search Appliance so that the web site would more quickly and accurately show each customer the products it has specified and the pricing it has negotiated. Edman adds that Google's own system of using search algorithms has proven to work better at pulling the specific information for each customer from among millions of combinations of product SKUs and pricing.

Wasserstrom further refines the Google search technology with software from GroupBy Inc., a Toronto-based company with its U.S. headquarters in New York. GroupBy provides an administrative interface for the Google Search Appliance that lets Edman customize search results with such techniques as adding synonyms to search terms and "biasing rules" that weight results toward certain classifications of products or brands as required by B2B customers. "Google Search Appliance provides a better experience for B2B," Edman says. "When [fast-food restaurant] Wendy's searches our site for products, I need the site to bring back the things that only Wendy's can see." The crucial thing for a customer like Wendy's, he adds, is the speed in getting search results. Google Search Appliance and GroupBy speed up results by cutting through the specific SKUs a buyer needs.

Wasserstrom also wanted to understand the specific product attributes customers use when they're searching online. Late last year it deployed technology and services from Compare Metrics that generates lists of specific product attributes that customers were typing into search boxes or mentioning on online social networks. One example: customers wanted to know how much liquid a whiskey "rocks" glass could hold.

"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." Manufacturers, he adds, often leave out of product descriptions the terms customers frequently use to search for and describe what they want.

By learning what's most important to buyers, Wasserstrom can ensure that shoppers see such attributes in product descriptions on product and category pages, and in the brief product listings that appear in the site search window. To generate such content, Wasserstrom 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 and across the broader web, including social media networks and blogs. Wasserstrom also uses Adaptive Navigation to build new product category and Buy pages, starting with its "Beer & Mixing Glasses" category.

"Now that we know that volume is an important attribute to rocks glass customers, we'll take that data to bid differently on paid search terms," Edman says. "And now that we know more about why they bought a particular glass, we'll move that attribute to the product category page" to increase the click-through and conversion rates.

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 terms that show up in Compare Metrics reports. Those terms include "beer mugs," "pilsners," "shots," "bar service" and "dining room."

Shoppers can also click into the "Help Me Choose" section, where they can enter new glass attributes such as "volume capacity," "bottom diameter" and "top diameter." The Adaptive Navigation application produces reports on such entries of new attributes, and on which attributes shoppers interact with most often, to help Wasserstrom determine which attributes to include in product descriptions.

THE RESULTS: After it identified popular product attributes, such as glass volume or height, Wasserstrom added attribute sliders to its category pages, letting shoppers easily choose the height or the volume of the glass they want. 31% of shoppers who visit a category page with one of those sliders interacts with it, and among those who use the sliders and click to a product page, their conversion rate is typically 150% higher—and the average order value 31% higher—than shoppers who don't use the tools, Edman says.

Shoppers that click into the "Shop Our Beer & Mixing Glasses" section designed with Adaptive Navigation and product-attribute sliders convert to buyers about 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.

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 also helped Wasserstrom to more than triple the number of product attributes it lists in product descriptions, Edman says. In addition to helping increase Wasserstrom.com's conversion rate, Edman says he also expects the additional attributes will improve the performance of online marketing efforts including e-mail and paid search by attracting shoppers with a broader list of relevant terms. Although it's too early to show the impact that attribute terms are having on marketing campaigns, Wasserstrom is getting a strong boost in its e-commerce site's conversion rates, Edman says.

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 and the services of its staff, Compare Metrics CEO 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 at around $60,000 to $70,000 per year, he adds.

Following its early success in identifying product attributes, Wasserstrom is now investigating which attributes are most important to customers looking for a particular brand, starting with the popular Libbey Glass line of glassware, including martini glasses and decanters. Another project will be to learn what's most important to buyers of refrigerators, which have far too many parts and features to play up in catchy product descriptions. "Is it the number of doors, the type of lighting, or the Energy Star rating?" Edman says.

Wasserstrom's goal is to find that out before the competition, and improve conversion rates—while leaving AmazonSupply and other competitors out in the cold.