Sell your wares

technology

Sell technology services to your customers to increase loyalty and profits, says Jason Finch.

Julie Dunn, the vice president of the Scottish Wholesale Association, recently asked me who I thought was doing a really great job on the web with e-commerce – which wholesalers should we look up to as shining examples of innovation in that area? There was an embarrassing silence. I felt bad.

A lot of wholesalers are now experimenting with the web and online technology. I appreciate it’s difficult because, as a very traditional sector, it’s not one where modern technology is thriving. Its electronic data is rarely consistent or very good and that makes the transition to a real-time digital future rather tricky.

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75% of people are willing to shop online and pick up in-store. Click & collect use is expected to more than double in the next three years

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My technology upbringing was with retail sectors suddenly faced with new competition from all angles – companies having to rapidly fit online sales and service into their traditionally shop-oriented world or where their ‘middleman’ business was abruptly redundant.

In the past decade, the global innovations in online consumer marketing, targeting and personalisation, and the speed of change in the retail supply chain, have been impressive. The bar has been set quite high.

High margin technology services: Add value to your customers’ businesses

Julie Dunn’s Glasgow-based Dunns Food and Drinks creates wine menus for its customers. As wholesalers, you already offer value-added services as a key way to grow both your own and your customers’ businessses. The same can be done with technology services.

In a sector with famously tight margins, few want to be the first to experiment with diversification into new business models around technology. However, technology services can be very high margin, with much better returns than your traditional core operations.

Amazon offers a plethora of technology services. It uses profits from selling products to fund investment in new services such as cloud data storage that it sells to companies like mine. It then uses those profits to fund expensive projects like the Kindle and the new smartphone that it launched last month.

All the while, many people think Amazon just shifts products.

Your technology journey can start outside your own company: you can enhance your customers’ businesses by giving them technology services that will be useful to their own growth. Help your customers with online marketing, provide a web-based platform for their stock management or enable them to use the web to sell more products to their customers.

Give  retailers some help on e-commerce: Enable them to do what they can’t do by themselves

Recent forecasting from Planet Retail suggests that the use of click & collect services in retail will more than double in the next three years, with three-quarters of people deciding to shop online and pick up in-store. Major grocery retailers are also investing in this area.

Individual small retailers don’t have the money to invest in amazing online solutions, yet every convenience store that wants to offer click & collect could be offering the service today with a little help from outside.

Cornershop Online is an e-commerce website launched in the past few months by a retailer. It has been developed not for a single shop, but as a platform to help all convenience stores capitalise on the growth of online shopping and compete with the multiples. This service could have been set up by a wholesaler to help its customers and increase loyalty by having shops use the platform for their own online sales.

Someone told me two-thirds of convenience stores have no technology in the shop so couldn’t receive and process orders. They didn’t think about the web-enabled smartphones in the managers’ pockets.

Don’t forget foodservice customers: Online ordering can boost their sales – and yours

In the foodservice sector you’ll find new technology companies on the scene, too. It’s not only convenience retailers that could benefit from their wholesalers selling them technology services.

Someone who works in the online world, rather than having any connection to foodservice, created Dining Solutions. Another web platform, it enables restaurants and sandwich shops to have online ordering for delivery or takeaway. It doesn’t need any special technology beyond a smartphone with email or a low-cost tablet computer to receive the orders.

JJ Food Service also spotted this opportunity: its CIO, Rif Kiamil, set up FOODit.com last year. Other foodservice wholesalers could start similar bolt-on technology services.

However, now you don’t even need to make your own web platform. More and more innovative technology firms are entering the market because of the high margins. If you’re not keen on making your own, partner with them because you will be generating loyalty towards your business if you’re offering your customers technology services that help them to increase their sales.

Collect email addresses from customers: And get them to do the same with their customers

You must receive emails from retailers from which you’ve bought products online. If you’ve ever bought a single item from Amazon or even looked at a few things on its website, you will be plagued by emails recommending other products. In a social media age in which businesses are being told to go on Facebook and Twitter, the best bet is still to master good old-fashioned email marketing. Email is very much alive and well.

My first recommendation to any business not already collecting email addresses of its customers is to start. Note there are data protection laws surrounding this if they’re going to be used for marketing purposes.

Help your customers build up their own databases of customers – you could even provide an online contacts system so they could manage everything from their smartphone. They could be sending targeted offers to their customers to bring more shoppers back, assisted by an email management service that they buy from you.

When you think about introducing technology into your business, don’t think only about how it may help you directly. There are many new technology services that you could sell to your customers that would help their businesses and generate more profit and loyalty for your own.

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Jason Finch is the co-founder of Port80. The UK's first business combining internet software development and direct-selling retail consultancy, Port80 now focuses on wholesale and is working closely with Palmer and Harvey and other wholesalers that want to benefit from real-time data and online technology.

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