Interview with Alexa Wackernagel, Leader Digital Business at Elektro-Material AG
BY NADINE PELZER & SABINE STAHL
Digital transformation is networking the entire globe to an ever greater extent. And it is the wholesale sector in particular that is currently facing a digitalisation process that will fundamentally change its business model. We asked Alexa Wackernagel, Head of Digital Business at Swiss wholesale enterprise Elektro-Material, a company that looks back on more than 100 years of experience, how it is dealing with this topic.
Ms Wackernagel, Elektro-Material is not only the largest electrical equipment trader in Switzerland today, it also operates one of the country’s largest B2B online shops. What is your secret formula?
The secret is a mix of several different success factors. EM is able to look back on many years of e-commerce expertise and can rightly describe itself as a pioneer having launched its first EM.Webshop back in 1998, when the internet was still very much in its infancy. Although we are operating in a very traditional sector, internet ordering has been very quickly and positively adopted by customers. Spread throughout Switzerland, EM has nine branches with in-house and field service sales departments, warehouses and shops with advisors and collection points as well as its own fleet of delivery vehicles that visit customers and construction sites three times a day. From a very early date, we enabled our customers to structure their purchasing processes across all channels. Customers order online, collect the goods from the shop at their local branch and can also get advice at the shops. They are also able to place orders using the EM.app and can have the articles delivered directly to the building site on the next delivery run. Needless to say, we also take orders over the phone and even by fax. For EM, omnichannel has been our daily business for many years now. A further aspect of our online success is undoubtedly the fact that our sales department is not competing with the e-commerce division – actually, quite the opposite: it participates in the share of digital sales placed by its customers. This means that the sales staff actively encourage their customers to use the EM.Webshop. In addition to this, each branch has an e-commerce specialist on hand to provide comprehensive support on issues relating to the EM. Webshop and EM.app.
The consistent success over the past few years has been accompanied by a simultaneous increase in our online shop requirements. What challenges are you facing here?
In the past, the product article number and the brief description sufficed for the procurement process. However, the requirements in terms of product information are considerably greater today. Pictures are an absolute must and additional, more detailed information is becoming increasingly important. Furthermore, we have an extremely heterogeneous customer structure and have to provide – for infrequent users and power purchasers alike – a purchasing experience that is tailored to them and includes all the appropriate functions. B2B demands, for instance, comprehensive administration possibilities within the web shop and we also have to cater to complex user and rights structures, above all in the case of major customers.
We offer applications that provide our customers with huge benefits; these include a label tool for warehouse labelling and a product configurator for plug-and-socket combinations.
In addition to smart phone apps, adaptive front ends that adapt to the output device are absolutely essential. For this reason, we subjected our EM.Webshop to a soft relaunch and switched to a responsive design two years ago. We are always on the cutting edge of digital technology, observing trends and developing ideas for future digital offerings. Currently, there is widespread reporting on conversational commerce in the media – in other words, ordering using voice assistants, chatbots and AI – and we are watching these developments with great interest.
Your assortment comprises more than 250,000 articles. How do you manage the sheer volume of product information? And what role does automation play here?
Managing this number of articles would be virtually impossible without automation. For this reason, we strive towards the highest level of automation and endeavour to reduce the manual processing of data as much as possible. A high-performance PIM system forms the basis for mass data processing and catalogue management and our highly-competent team with its proven product and data experts ensures efficient data and quality management. Our customers and staff can report errors and malfunctions directly in the EM.Webshop. These reports are automatically forwarded to our quality manager and processed. This function is popular and helps us increase data quality.
Constant changes to the market demand short reaction times and constant adjustments of the offerings. How do you deal with this?
Together with our development partner we work flexibly with the SCRUM framework, enabling us to quickly implement new features and short release cycles. This permits us to ascertain very quickly what works within the market and what doesn’t and to make the corresponding adjustments.
Today, customers have countless ways to purchase online. What benefits does EM offer compared to the international market leaders such as Amazon, for instance?
We operate in the B2B sector and in Switzerland. Amazon is not yet a major topic, but we are of course monitoring the development of Amazon Business and the likes as well as the procurement behaviour of our customers. What is our advantage? We know our customers, focus completely on them, satisfy their needs and fulfil their wishes as perfectly as we possibly can. Furthermore, we include both customers and our branches in the further development of our digital channels. Proximity to our clientèle and long-term customer relationships are very important to the entire EM operation. Our clients very much value our comprehensive service offerings, personal contact partners with high levels of product competence and our 95 percent article availability. These are things that Amazon has yet to achieve in Switzerland.
With branches in the various Swiss language regions, the online content has to be in several languages. How do you cope with this ‘multiculturalism’?
This multiculturalism is normal in Switzerland, which is why we can’t really use the word ‘coping’. Our clients expect the offerings to be in their respective native language – a service that we provide!
We are always endeavouring to cover all necessary languages. Insofar as possible, we procure our product information in numerous languages and if we cannot, we have the product content translated into the required languages. Furthermore, we are actively supported by our branches.
What are the next major steps that wholesalers will have to take within the context of digital change?
Here, my motto is: ‘Become agile, go digital and delight your customer!’
Digitalisation begins in our heads. Without a digital mindset, change will not be successful and enterprises that stick to their rigid linear structures and antiquated business models will have an increasingly tough time. Today, companies must be able to react very swiftly to new market requirements and fulfil the wishes of their customers. The ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’ mentality no longer works. With regards to change, I believe that the organisational structure is the most important issue. Hierarchies are a thing of the past. We need agile organisations with creative, autonomous teams that are allowed to assume responsibility and make decisions without having to fight their way through linear management structures. Then, companies should distance themselves from 200 percent solutions and establish a healthy error culture so as to promote and develop innovation.
Instead of digitalising inwards, companies should focus on their customers and ask themselves what impact digitalisation has on them and their future work, and develop appropriate digital business models in response to the answers to these questions. And most importantly: try things out!
Which partners do you collaborate with here?
Our exclusive partner in the development of digital commerce applications is e-sphere GmbH.
Alexa Wackernagel has been specialising in PIM and e-business since early 2000 and was a self-employed consultant for many years. In 2014, she switched to Elektro-Material AG – heading up the digital business division. She is responsible for digital commerce and product data management. Furthermore, she promotes digitalisation, advising the CEO with regards to the digital transformation of EM AG.
A brief portrait of e-sphere
e-sphere is a digital e-business solutions boutique with sites in Zurich and Wrocław. Focusing on SAP Hybris and Broadleaf software solutions, more than 35 experts work in the areas of product ownership, consultation, software development, quality management and intelligent and future-oriented solutions operation, above all in the B2B sector within the German-speaking region. Implementing digital products, regardless of whether multichannel solutions for print, or mobile or holistic digital platforms for dealing with company-wide processes, e-sphere focuses on solution simplicity and usability. Step by step and on a partnership-like basis, the individual components are brought together to create an overall picture in close collaboration with the customer. All e-sphere employees have broad, extensive knowledge in various disciplines, which is deployed in creating digital products and e-business solutions in a future-oriented manner. With this, they develop solutions that offer a high degree of flexibility and adaptability, despite an ever-changing world. Customer projects are additionally provided with positive support through the e-sphere organisational structure, which focuses on a well-defined culture of feedback and autonomy. All e-sphere customers are individually supported and are not simply a number.
e-sphere and Elektro-Material
Swiss electrical equipment wholesaler Elektro-Material AG relies on e-sphere’s know-how to host elektro-material.ch. The web shop is based on the SAP Hybris platform and comprises tailor-made in-house developments that access the Hybris basis for important applications such as configurations, for instance. Electricians can tap into a comprehensive assortment of more than 250,000 articles in Switzerland’s largest B2B web shop.
This article was published in The Produktkulturmagazin, issue Q3 2017. Picture credit © Ethan Oelman