The average electrical contractor spends perhaps three-quarters of his or her material dollars with distributors. What are these “old reliable” vendors doing on e-commerce? That’s the subject of this column, covering Grainger, Rexel and Sonepar. It is also the subject of the next two, covering GE Supply, Graybar, SupplyFORCE, Vanguard and WESCO.

Grainger

This company leads all distributors in e-commerce.

“We’re not just building it for technology’s sake—we’re doing it to save our customers time and money,” said Carl Turza, Grainger’s vice president of electronic business. “This tool is essentially a branch that’s always open.”

Turza said contractors often use Grainger’s online ordering system for late-night orders. If you forget to order something needed the next morning, you can place an online order with your local Grainger branch. One of your crews then shows up at the branch shortly after it opens. Twenty percent of Grainger’s online orders are placed after hours.

Another popular Grainger.com use is to create “personal lists” of regular orders. If there’s a “standard order”—for a given type of job, certain customer or to stock a truck—a contractor can save it online and re-use it.

Grainger also plans to “slim down” its site, Turza said, adding time- and money-saving features. For example: The company now has available exploded diagrams of some items it sells—for those who want to order repair parts instead of buying new items. “Let’s say you have a Sawzall,” he said. “If you see the little icon on the screen, we have repair parts available. Click on the item to see an exploded view of repair parts that are available.”

Rexel

“We’ve got some customers who really enjoy using our Web Center when the rest of the world is asleep,” said Carol Stickney, e-commerce manager for Rexel, Inc. “These contractors often spend a part of their evening getting their ‘ducks in a row’ for the next day. They tell us that using the Web Center after hours helps them be more productive during the day.”

These night owls use Rexel’s Web Center to check on price and availability of specific products at their local Rexel branch, enter and print orders for material to be picked up the next day and track orders already placed, either through the Web Center or with a sales representative.

“During the daylight hours, contractors can also check information online, and then use the phone or fax to place an order,” said Stickney. “We think this illustrates how e-commerce is just one more channel for doing business with Rexel. Although customer relationships will always be the key ingredient, the Web Center gives our customers options for doing what best suits their needs.”

Rexel has had two major Web Center update releases in the past five months, based on customer feedback, and has added a request for quote (RFQ) e-mail option and a “Frequently Ordered Products” feature, allowing users to create a customized list of frequently purchased items.

“Rexel’s Web Center will be further upgraded as the company integrates its computer systems,” Stickney said. “We’re continuing to invest resources. By fall, we’ll have added all sorts of bells and whistles; more functionality, including online registration; and a faster and more comprehensive search engine.”

Sonepar

“We’re just now becoming one company,” said Richard Worthy, U.S. chief for this France-based distributor. “We’re in the early stages of that, and I don’t see us becoming ‘centralized.’ Frankly, decentralized companies make more profit.”

How does a big distributor stay decentralized and yet integrate a national Web site? “We’ll have one information technology system, but different faces to the customer,” Worthy said. In other words, Viking Electric in Minnesota/Wisconsin and Cooper Electric Supply in New Jersey will maintain their unique identities, despite being united under the Sonepar banner.

As of early 2002, individual Sonepar companies have e-commerce offerings. Worthy notes that rolling out a single national system, with those different local faces, is about two to three years away.

“As we see it, distribution is about three things: People who have relationships, process—things like logistics and information technology, because that is how we move information around. You can’t replace any of that with e-commerce.

“Our view is that e-commerce is a non-intrusive way to coordinate those three elements. Ideally, it will allow us to maximize all of our working assets—to take friction out of the process, and to bring speed to it.” EC

SALIMANDO (jsali@cris.com) is a Vienna, Va.-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR.