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Maytag man hits Web

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Your local Maytag salesman may soon have as much time on his hands as the company’s famously forlorn repairman if the appliance giant’s new Internet selling initiative takes off.

But the retail shops won’t be totally cut out of the transaction, thanks to an innovative technical solution that starts a consumer’s purchase on the Maytag Corp. Web site but passes the transaction off to participating retailers to close the deal.

Dealing with sales channel issues is one of the biggest b-to-b headaches. For Maytag, the challenge is even greater because it is dealing with massive durables like dishwashers and refrigerators.

While Maytag and its competitors such as Amana and Whirlpool Corp. have been active in creating marketing-rich Web sites and selling small-appliance accessories online, this will be the first attempt by a manufacturer to sell major appliances directly online. E-tailers have also been slow to pitch appliances online as well, though Sears, Roebuck and Co. and Lowe’s Home Centers Inc. have launched Web selling efforts.

What’s unique about the Maytag effort is that the company isn’t trying to disintermediate its existing sales channel partners, but rather bring them into the online equation, said Colin Bain, Maytag’s manager of Internet business development.

"We’ve talked to all of our channel partners about this, and they’ve all embraced it wholeheartedly," Bain said. "They like the idea of getting a qualified lead sent over to them and all they have to handle is the last three feet of the sale. There’s no marketing or sell-side expense to them at all."

Appliance shopping

Visit an appliance manufacturer Web site today and you can find product data, compare models and access a dealer locator—but you have to make a trip to your local appliance store to seal the deal. With Maytag’s new solution, customers can place an appliance in their online shopping cart at Maytag.com and then have the cart "wrapped up" and delivered online to an e-tailer who will close the sale and deal with things such as delivery and installation, Bain said.

Behind the scenes of this transaction is a commerce server from BroadVision Inc. that provides the Maytag.com shopping cart technology, and a distributed commerce system from Comergent Technologies Inc. than handles the order hand-over.

Providing "product information alone is not enough to influence consumers’ buying behaviors," said Comergent CEO Jean Kovacs, a big advocate of including sales channels in Web selling efforts.

Conflict with retailers over how to sell via the Internet is what drove Maytag to this channel-friendly

solution, Bain said.

The manufacturer first investigated direct-to-consumer sales back in 1999 and even had the Web applications built and ready to go. But its top retailers objected strenuously. "It caught our attention," Bain said. "We asked ourselves, ‘Are we a retailer?’ And the answer was, 'Absolutely not.' But we wanted to capitalize on our expertise."

Maytag turned to Comergent, which had found success building channel-friendly e-commerce solutions for Cisco Systems Inc. and others. The new system will go live at the end of January with two initial partners—BrandSource.com and Maytag Home Appliance Centers. Later, larger retailers, including Sears, are expected to join the mix.

In addition to the benefit of opening up a new sales channel—Maytag aims to sell 9% of its appliances online by 2004—the system gives the manufacturer better control over some of its b-to-b marketing programs and better access to market data that often takes months to flow back up the channel from retailers.

"What this whole proposition affords us is the opportunity to understand better how people interact with the selling process online," Bain said. Maytag, for instance, doesn’t get any online behavioral data back from e-tailers such as Sears.com that are selling its appliances online today.

In a related marketing and advertising note, the famous Maytag repairman, played by actor Gordon Jump, this month has gotten a new, company-described "young hunk" of an assistant, who uses his free time at work to keep up to date on Maytag’s new digital and Internet-enabled products.

The Maytag man is the longest-running campaign on TV featuring a real-life character. This is yet another way technology is changing old-line industries.

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