Government vendor tries a cloud-based solution for its search needs

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Quite a few retailers would love to trade places with ibSupply.com. The Milwaukee-based company is an approved vendor to the federal government, one of a handful that provide office products, uniforms, tools and countless other items for sale to everything from the Department of Defense to the Bureau of Prisons.

One would think having a somewhat captive customer base would make selling a snap, but providing to government agencies isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. For one thing, customers shopping because it’s their job are different from those looking for new shoes or a bicycle.

“They’re often the people given lists from other departments and employees about what they need, and it’s their job to place the order,” says Harley Thomas, senior director of corporate and digital marketing at ibSupply.

Despite the impression by some of government agencies working less efficiently than private organizations, Thomas says that’s far from the truth.

“Our customers don’t want to waste any time, which is why improved search was so critical for our growth. If you can’t deliver results quickly, they’re going to move on to another site just like anyone else.”

Government consumers

Serving the “order placer” is the key priority for ibSupply, and to do that they focus on what’s happening in the general online retail world.

“Our customers shop regularly online for themselves and they’re accustomed to moving seamlessly from searching to finding to checkout,” Thomas says. “If we don’t provide that experience as well, they’ll be frustrated with us at best, and at worst they’re going to another site.”

Part of knowing the customer is being aware of the buying process for government consumers.

“They’re logging in to a government ‘shopping mall’ that’s designed for federal purchasers that has approved vendors like ourselves,” he says. “We carry such a wide range of products because that means the purchaser will receive just one statement that they need to reconcile and file, which saves time for them.”

Another twist that’s specific to government consumers: For most online retailers an abandoned shopping cart is a cause for concern — at ibSupply, it’s a sign a sale is coming.

“Often the person doing the ordering isn’t the one with the department’s credit card,” Thomas says. “They’ll set up the shopping cart and send it to their supervisor, who actually enters the card number. So we know we don’t have fickle buyers, they’re just following an office procedure.”

ibSupply has 14 stores in various military installations around the United States, but the bulk of its business is through online orders. The company is owned by the nonprofit Industries for the Blind; half its workforce of 230 have impaired vision.

Prioritizing search terms

Managing ibSupply’s catalog of more than 300,000 items has been a full-time task for the company’s small IT department, and one of the areas they were focused on early in 2016 was the search experience.

“We were very lucky to work with an individual who was well versed in the Apache Solr search platform,” Thomas says. “That was a great start for us, but then he was hired away by Amazon.”

With a constantly variable catalog, the search parameters needed help.

“If I’m looking for ‘red file folders,’ at least I should see file folders come up,” he says. “What I don’t want in the results are red pens. Search is a tricky thing to do because you’ve got to know which words are more important. I would periodically search the catalog and I knew if I wasn’t getting the right results, neither were our customers.”

After evaluating whether to hire a search expert in-house or contract with an external firm, Thomas decided to look around and ended up talking to Silicon Valley-based Unbxd.

“We sat down with their development team and mapped out our search problems,” he says. “We showed them where we wanted to be and listened to how they proposed we get there.”

“If you can’t deliver results quickly, [customers] are going to move on to another site just like anyone else.”
— Harley Thomas, ibSupply.com

Including auto-suggest

Complicating ibSupply’s efforts were its requirements on how to list various vendors. In order for the company to maintain its platinum status with HP, for instance, new toner and cartridges needed to be listed before those that were remanufactured. This meant that an effective search system took all these rules into account and fed them into the results page.

Another issue was that many of ibSupply’s customers shop not with the product name or description but a part number. The company wanted to make sure that the search engine would be able to handle numbers, as well as provide an intuitive ability to find commonly searched numbers in case the customer left off a digit or two.

“This made the ibSupply.com project quite a challenge,” says Sujoy Golan, director of marketing for Unbxd.

“Auto-suggest normally works with text and that’s what it’s always been engineered to do. To use numbers is confusing to most search systems, so we had to prepare for that. In the end, though, we were able to make it work pretty well for the people who shopped just with part numbers.”

Automatic updates

The goal was to have the new search system in place well before the end of September, known around the ibSupply offices as “the holidays.”

“It’s the end of the fiscal year so all the federal departments are busy filling up their supply orders,” Thomas says. “We knew we had to be up and going full speed by August.”

The Unbxed team worked closely with ibSupply staff through the spring to improve the search system. The words or numbers the customer types is passed through the cloud to the Unbxed servers, which performs the search and transits it back to the customer’s screen.

Catalog updates on the company’s end are automatically entered into the Unbxed system.

“The advantage is you’re never leaving the ibSupply.com site,” Golan says. “It’s seamless from the customer experience point of view.”

Implementation of the program was about five weeks. “Since our staff is so small, we couldn’t afford to have a system that took a lot of set up and maintenance on our part,” Thomas says.

“It was worth having their people here learning about our search needs and doing the heavy lifting while our people could work on other things.”

Customer response since the search’s full implementation in the summer of 2016 has been minimal — Thomas says no one is complaining that they’re getting better search results faster.

He has seen a 35 percent increase in revenue per search session, however. “We’re not sure yet if that means our search needed a lot of help before, or if the new system has made it even better.”

In the future Unbxd hopes to be at the forefront of developing personalized search. “Right now when you search you’re given suggested extra items based on data of what typical customers buy,” Golan says. “But to make it more personal using data from search histories will be even more powerful.”

John Morell is a Los Angeles-based writer who has covered retail and business topics for a number of publications around the world.

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