Digital presence can be somewhat of a buzzword in the PHCP-PVF industry as it continues to adapt and evolve in an accelerating digital age. Each company may have a different definition of what digital transformation means to them. For Fargo, North Dakota-based PHCP distributor Dakota Supply Group, it’s simply about delivering the best online solutions to its customers.

Todd Sisson, digital commerce manager at Dakota Supply Group (DSG) says the company first began its digital journey in 2009 with a very simple order placement tool that was directly tied to the company’s ERP.

“In 2016, we decided to start the process of evaluating the platform options, technology solutions and finding the right people to partner with in order to deliver the best online experience for our customers,” he explains.

After a few years of research and improvements to its current website, DSG launched a new website in September of 2019. “The new website came with a wave of activity and interest, and a few thuds,” Sisson says. “Since 2019, we’ve been making continuous improvements, and the digital flywheel for DSG is turning in the right direction. Our team members and customers are finding multiple ways to leverage into their workday, making it easier for our associates and customers to do business with us.”

DSG Supply 1

DSG Supply 2

Investment and challenges

Investing in website design, functionality and eCommerce is no small feat. Like many distribution peers, the expenses that come with a robust web store, enriched content and a great UI were roadblocks in DSG’s digital path for many years.

“DSG has never questioned the value of connecting through digital touchpoints with our customers,” Sisson says. “The struggle was getting to the point where we could deliver something of value to our customers with a reasonable investment level.”

Sisson says the greatest challenge with this new website and eCommerce launch was finding the right platform and team to facilitate the project.

“We feel very fortunate to have selected Optimizely for our web store solution and Xngage for strategy support and implementation,” he says. “The next big challenge has been enhanced and attributed product data, and AD has the best data program in the market. AD’s data strategy has been incredibly helpful and has afforded us the ability to focus our energy on our digital strategy.”

The Affiliated Distributors (AD) buying group first launched eCommerce services to its plumbing, PVF and HVAC members in 2017. Bryana Kennedy, director of account management, eCommerce solutions at AD explains the program is anchored in member-driven categorized, enhanced, normalized and maintained content.

“We now have over 6 million enhanced SKUs across over 5,000 manufacturers available to our members. Members have access to their own AD Member Product Information Management (PIM) tool to build their own catalog with flexible exports,” Kennedy adds. “Our curated and vetted service provider partnerships help members navigate the unknown and saves them resource time.”

AD’s eCommerce team hosts an annual AD eCommerce summit, facilitates the AD Digital Community, offers educational webinars and trainings, and performs quarterly check-in strategic calls. According to Kennedy, the main goal is to support members in their digital journey with a strong presence on the team’s digital expertise. “At AD eCommerce Solutions’ core, our mission is to progress members along their digital path. The AD eCommerce team is viewed as an extension of a member’s own team to help them succeed and win online.”

Just as Sisson pointed out, AD knows it’s often difficult for distributors to know where to begin.

“Before you can navigate where to go, you need to know where you are today,” Kennedy says. “It starts with a solid strategy and prioritizing your customer needs and outcomes. It’s a crawl, walk and run approach, and AD is here to support our members throughout their digital maturity.”

AD’s eCommerce teamAD’s eCommerce team at its 2021 eCommerce Summit in National Harbor, Maryland.


An ongoing approach

As technology constantly evolves around us, there is no real “end point” for a distributor’s digital journey; they must continue to evolve to meet customer demands.

Now that DSG has made it well past the getting started hurdle, Sisson says AD and a small team of specialists work to keep the website and eCommerce platform up-to-date. “We have a relatively small team that develops the UI roadmap and maintains basic issues and technical requests,” he says. “For all the heavy lifting, we feel it is better to rely on our partnerships with Optimizely and Xngage to code any of the larger implementation objectives. AD provides us with our enhanced SKU catalog that is continually maintained and updated.”

Although the PHCP marketplace is still described as a “people business,” Sisson believes it’s important for distributors to prioritize investment in eCommerce and digital solutions.

“I think we are at a point where the customer expects to have the ability to place orders digitally,” he says. “Those that aren’t willing to invest in digital solutions are going to find themselves with a competitive disadvantage in the marketplace.”

Kennedy agrees, saying no matter where a company is at in its digital journey, they should be working to advance. “Your business needs to be where your customers are and will be — know where they want to be. We have members in different stages of digital maturity, from innovating to just starting their journey,” she explains. “If you aren’t thinking about digital for your customers, then my advice is to get started today. Starting with defining your strategy, content, technology, organization alignment and how to measure your success.”

Distributors are navigating a change in customer expectation, due to supply chain issues, the pandemic and the next generation of business leaders emerging. Sisson points out that there are constant conversations circulating about continuous improvement and innovation on the digital front.

“We’re well aware of the need to make things quicker and easier for customers,” he says. “DSG is heavily focused on logistical improvements for our eCommerce platform and website. Offering up logistic elements such as a life-long order history can really make a difference for our customers.”

It’s likely the tide has not completely changed to all or even most customers within the supply chain choosing to engage digitally, so Sisson says the goal for DSG is to have 50% of its customers become digitally engaged with the company’s offerings.

He summarizes the goal of DSG’s digital journey saying, “Our number one goal with our digital strategy is to make it faster, simpler and easier for our customers to work with DSG.”

“Before you can navigate where to go, you need to know where you are today. It starts with a solid strategy and prioritizing your customer needs and outcomes. It’s a crawl, walk and run approach, and AD is here to support our members throughout their digital maturity.”   – Bryana Kennedy


It’s all about partnerships

As DSG continues to evolve its own digital presence, Sisson offers up some advice to fellow distributors. “Spend the time to find the right partners,” he says. “The out of the box features and functionality of almost all of the platforms are more than enough to deliver a great experience for your customers. Find a team that you can share objectives and strategies with and then let them do their job. Once you have the platform and the team, then get on the AD data stream.”

Kennedy agrees, noting that digital transformation is about streamlining processes, technology adoption and having the right partners to work through it all, because digital transformation changes every process — from having the right partners and strategy to execution.

“COVID-19 forced many to rethink how technologies can help meet internal sales, marketing, business IT and customer needs,” she says. “Distributors should be evaluating solutions to drive efficiencies and prioritize based on their customers. In 2022, AD’s strong community identified four priorities: Enabling digital transitions, investing in data and more automation, expanding partners’ services, and delivering strong community experiences.”

So, taking the plunge to start or advance your digital transformation may not be eliminating the people aspect of business, as it requires the strong relationships and partnerships the PHCP-PVF supply chain are used to.

Kennedy says she loves hearing the success stories from members who have worked with AD to take the next steps digitally.

“The most rewarding part of my job is to hear the success stories and the difference we are making in our member distributor community,” she says. “We’ve heard from so many members that they could not have been able to do this journey without AD and its member and supplier communities. The success stories generated from our members has been inspirational and amazing.”