Making The Case For E-Commerce

Does a traditional brick-and-mortar distributor need an e-commerce website?

The short answer is a resounding “Yes.” Four years ago, nexAir (Memphis, TN) started internal discussions and assessments to determine if our company should provide e-commerce opportunities for our customers on our existing website, where they could place and view orders online. At the time, nexAir offered the traditional options for ordering and delivery through our stores across the Southeast, but the company felt it was time to adapt to technological advances.

After gaining insight from both staff and customers, nexAir determined that e-commerce would in fact provide helpful benefits for both nexAir and our customers. Many think of “e-commerce” as ordering product over the Internet. E-commerce, however, goes beyond online ordering. Our approach was to give customers another tool to help with their entire order cycle while making our overall business model more efficient.

Major Initiatives
The first area of focus was Accounts Receivable. We recognized that customers who called were experiencing longer than necessary hold times, when many times they were simply attempting to obtain a copy of an invoice or proof of delivery. With e-commerce, customers can access invoices and open orders instantly, even if the order was placed directly in one of our retail stores or over the phone. Our account managers were made aware of the benefits customers would see if they registered for e-commerce, and the program took off from there. Since e-commerce is available around the clock, the customer is not constrained to our business hours to get the information they need.

Welding & Gases Today Survey
To offer e-commerce or not to offer e-commerce? That is the question. Read the results of the Welding & Gases Today survey in the follow-up article, “The Results Are In: E-Commerce.”

The next e-commerce initiative nexAir focused on was increasing route efficiencies for our cylinder delivery trucks. Before nexAir implemented the e-commerce plan, our trucks primarily ran a “milk run” route. Trucks were loaded with cylinders based on customers’ previous order history, with no confirmation of what they would need, if anything.

Today, customers that are registered for e-commerce receive an email order reminder the day before the truck will be in their area with a link to nexAir’s e-commerce site. Once on the website, customers have access to their order history, as well as a customized order list to make ordering as easy as possible. Customers select the items they need, enter the quantity, and the order is processed. This system ensures our drivers know exactly what the customer will need for their delivery, and that nexAir is not handling cylinders more than necessary.

As a result, we can ensure that every cylinder loaded onto trucks has a particular destination and purpose and that each delivery stop results in a sale based on a customer’s request. Prior to our e-commerce communication, one truck might make 20 stops but only secure 10 sales. Because of this change, nexAir has seen an increase in efficiency in various areas of production within our company and has received positive feedback from our customers about the new process.

Taking the Plunge
The decision to move forward with e-commerce emerged from “Ci,” nexAir’s continuous improvement program. Ci is our company’s platform for examining all aspects of our business and determining how best to reduce errors, increase efficiencies, drive productivity and provide transparency of all nexAir activities through our customers’ eyes.

Customers receive an email order reminder the day before the truck will be in their area, with a link to nexAir’s e-commerce site. Customers have access to their order history, as well as a customized order list to make ordering as easy as possible.

One of the most surprising results from adding the e-commerce initiative was our customers’ response. We did not require customers to use it, but rather announced e-commerce as a new option when nexAir rolled out our redesigned website in 2008. Our customers immediately jumped on the opportunity to utilize the e-commerce feature while showing little resistance.

Not all of our customers have converted to the e-commerce system, and we continue to serve those customers with the same degree of attention as we always have in the past. However, it is reassuring to know that many of our customers were delighted to take advantage of this offering, especially since so many of their other brick-and-mortar vendors made the switch to this type of system as well.

As we continue to monitor our e-commerce offerings, nexAir is committed to constantly updating and analyzing delivery and communication methods with our customers to ensure the most efficient standards are offered and available. As technology steadily changes and updates, nexAir will adjust accordingly to take advantage of opportunities to serve our customers better.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association
Meet the Author
Patrick Galphin is eCommerce manager at nexAir, located in Memphis, TN, and on the web at