CMO Close-Up with Paul Miller, VP-e-commerce, W.W. Grainger

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Paul Miller joined MRO distributor W.W. Grainger in 2010 to head the company's already massive e-commerce business. Currently, that business accounts for about $1.5 billion, or more than 25%, of W.W. Grainger's overall revenue, and the company hopes it will account for more than half of its revenue in the next three to five years.

“Our revenue in the online business is growing at more than 2.5 times what [Grainger's] base business is growing at,” said Miller, a former e-commerce executive for consumer retailers Sears Holdings Corp. and Williams-Sonoma.

In the following Q&A, Miller discusses some of the methods W.W. Grainger is using to grow its e-commerce business.

CMO Close-Up: How is your consumer e-commerce background an advantage at Grainger?

Paul Miller: I'll start at the top with the Grainger brand itself. I think about it as being one that really stands for trust. [Customers] talk about “how I was in a bind and Grainger helped me to solve my problem.” They typically say it in more colorful language than that. “Grainger saved my ass” frequently comes up. These same customers and prospects come into a website like ours, or for that matter, into our branches or call us. What is the experience that we want them to have? Where do you start building those types of experience? When Grainger decided to really get serious about e-commerce—and it sounds funny to say that, because when I came in the business was already about $1.5 billion [and] a top 20 Internet retailer—I think they realized it's about understanding the customer's intent. How are they finding information? How are they building their brand preference set? How do you deliver an experience that blows them away? And the truth is you can't look at b-to-b and think that's really where that's been emanating from. It really does come more from the consumer side—where best practices derive. That is why I was brought in: to really help figure out the path of what our customers and prospects are looking to do and build around that.

CMO Close-Up: What technology does Grainger use for its e-commerce system?

Miller: We have an absolute best-in-class approach. We selected Hybris as our online platform. Hybris is a company that is still relatively young, but has been an absolute phenomenon and a star in this industry—starting with a fair bit of strength in Europe and now taking North America. We wanted to build something scalable, flexible, something that could handle a business our size, and allow us to have a lot of the controls from the business side to make changes and to be able to respond to our customer needs. Hybris has been a great choice for us. It's also a great choice as our business becomes more global (25% of business will be international by next year).

At the same time, we think best-in-class search has been delivered by Endeca. We have Endeca fueling our onsite search to make sure our customers find that right product, which really is the toughest challenge in a business like this, where you have 900,000 products that somebody could touch from Grainger, and before long it will be well north of a million products. That's a pretty daunting task.

CMO Close-Up: How important are the click-to-call and click-to-chat buttons on Grainger's website?

Miller: We've got customers that know if they need a solution, they pick up the phone and call us, we're there. We have great customer service agents. How do we make it so they can be there for these [online] customers at the point of need? The beautiful part about the Web is that you can sort of listen as people are shopping, and if I see that somebody is having trouble creating or checking out, there are indications of that happening. You can then proactively fire off a chat or call invitation, just like that helpful salesperson [that] walks up to you in the store and says, “Hey is there anything I can help you with?” Those things [the click-to-call and click-to-chat buttons] are proving to be very useful.

CMO Close-Up: How important is mobile for your e-commerce strategy?

Miller: Our customers are not chained to their desks all the time. They're on the shop floor or they're out there in the field, and they have the same needs out there as they do in the office. We're going live now with a Grainger mobile solution, which allows our customers to have a fully integrated experience. They can start a shopping experience in their office, or if they're out in the field and talking with their associate, they can pull out their mobile phone and show them, is that what you're looking for? All the features that work on the website, you have to think about how you bring that into a handheld device in an efficient way. We haven't just taken the website and put it on the mobile Web. We've crafted it in a way that fits how our customers work, and we have the mobile form factor.

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