IDEA’s merry band of e-commerce crusaders traveled to Canada for the 2007 IDEA Electro Biz Forum held Sept. 18-20 at the Sheraton Vancouver Wall Centre Hotel, Vancouver, British Columbia.
While the 150-plus meeting attendees came from a mix of large and small electrical distributors, manufacturers and technology companies, they share some common dreams and frustrations. As the electrical industry’s earliest e-business implementers, they believe IDEA’s arsenal of e-business tools will help members radically improve net profits by eliminating data errors and streamlining their business processes.
But they are an impatient lot. Although the electrical market is light years ahead of most other vertical market segments in the wholesale-distribution world, some meeting attendees are frustrated that manufacturers aren’t further along in improving online product searches by populating the Industry Data Warehouse (IDW) with more enriched data and developing a standardized product classification system. The meeting also had a bittersweet air because it was the last IDEA conference that Mike Rioux would attend as the group’s president, since the National Association of Electrical Distributors (NAED), St. Louis, announced his departure last month (see EM — Sept. 14, p. 1) and its search for his successor. Rioux led IDEA through some tough financial times during the early years of his tenure, and the group is now solidly in the black. Many IDEA supporters were shocked at the news of his departure and say he will be sorely missed.
Despite these challenges, IDEA members had much to celebrate at the ninth annual Electro E-Biz Forum. IDEA’s membership now includes 362 electrical distributors, 128 electrical manufacturers and nine independent manufacturers’ reps, and these companies have access to 2 million stock-keeping units (SKUs) in the IDW. Rioux also unveiled IDEA’s new Web site and corporate rebranding at the meeting. IDEA’s completely redesigned Web site at www.idea-esolutions.com offers a calculator that helps users compare the cost of IDEA’s EDI capabilities to other VANs, as well as live-chat capabilities and new navigational tools that make information on IDEA and its services much easier to find.
While IDEA has grown substantially over the past few years, its supporters are always recruiting new distributors, manufacturers and reps. Because utilizing IDEA data streams isn’t yet a do-or-die decision for manufacturers, distributors and reps, companies can get by without making this investment in their IT infrastructure. Art Cook, president, Buckles-Smith, San Jose, Calif., said electrical distributors can drift along and won’t go bankrupt without using IDEA’s e-business tools, but that not doing so will minimize their future expansion opportunities. “It’s not like we are going to go out of business without good data,” he said. “It’s about losing share.”
A consistent theme at the meeting was the need for manufacturers to load their product records in the IDW with “enriched” or “attributed” data that allows users to search for products by a variety of parameters and include images, line drawings and other basic graphics.
Rioux said the need for enriched data was, “the biggest challenge that the channel has today.” The need for this enriched data becomes quickly apparent when one compares the shopping experiences that customers enjoy with the robust online stores at www.grainger.com, www.llbean.com and www.landsend.com, said David Starr, director of eBusiness, McNaughton-McKay Electric Co. These sites are considered the gold standard in online shopping, and he said if IDEA’s efforts are to reach their fullest potential, members will eventually have to offer similar shopping experiences. Because each product item on these retail sites has enriched data, customers can search using a wide variety of parameters.
One of the reasons enriched data has been so elusive to date in the electrical market is the slow adoption of standardized product category descriptions. IDEA supports UNSPSC (United Nations Standard Products and Services Code) codes, and since the beginning of this year has offered a resource with these codes for IDW users on its Web site.
McNaughton-McKay Electric’s Starr said the standardized product classification system would prevent distributors’ salespeople from categorizing data on their own. “We don’t want our customer service people categorizing data on the fly,” he said. “It turns into a nightmare.” In contrast, he said the search capabilities that enriched data provides would give salespeople additional sales tools. “It would be nice to empower a customer service rep with all that search capability.”
Darren Crandell, corporate operations manager, Wabash Electric Supply, Wabash, Ind., said bad data hurts his company’s operations. “We would rather get all of our data from the IDW,” he said. “The fewer items our inside salespeople build on the fly, the better our life is.”
Activant Solutions’ Steve Bieszczat, vice president of information systems and marketing, and Karl Preuss, national sales manager, gave presentations at the meeting on the use of synchronized product data in the auto parts distribution and retail markets, and offered insight into how it could help the electrical market. Bieszczat said the auto parts industry is “completely linked” and that a standardized product classification system enables distributors and manufacturers to track the replacement parts sold for every model year of every car. This allows them to track the life cycle and failure rates of all products and ensures that distributors know which replacement parts to have in stock.
In other news at the IDEA Electro E-Biz Forum, Rioux announced the winners of the First Annual Richard Buzun Award for Leadership and Innovation: Sylvania, Danvers, Mass., and Viking Electric Supply, St. Paul, Minn. Buzun, who passed away recently, was the second chairman of IDEA and former president and CEO of Siemens Energy & Automation Inc., Alpharetta, Ga. The 2008 IDEA Electro E-Biz Forum will be held at the Gaylord National Resort Hotel near Washington, D.C., Sept 14-16, 2008.