Transcat

May 01, 1999 9:30 PM  By

Some catalogers worry that their Websites will cannibalize their mainstay business. Business-to-business mailer Transcat is hoping that its site will cannibalize its catalog.

The Rochester, NY-based distributor of industrial testing, calibration, and measurement equipment relaunched its Website in February, for the first time offering online ordering and real-time inventory status. The cataloger, a division of $78 million manufacturer/distributor Transmation, anticipates that the fifth-generation site will allow Transcat to increase orders while reducing the size of its print catalog. Given its highly technical merchandise (items such as modular automated pressure calibrators and oscilloscopes), including the necessary product specifications in the print catalog has been a challenge. But the virtually unlimited space of the Internet eliminates that problem in the online catalog.

And by offering online ordering, Transcat hopes to stabilize its call center costs. “It would be good if we could grow our sales 30% without adding staff to the call center,” says Bob Dunn, vice president of electronic marketing. “We have ambitious plans for growth.”

The company’s ambition is evident in the redesign of its Website, which grew from showing (but not selling) 130 SKUs to selling 10,000 SKUs-the entire product line-with pricing in several currencies. Transcat has brought hosting inhouse, to support the real-time processing, and has tied the site to all of its back-end inventory, order fulfillment, and billing systems.

The new site cost about $250,000 to design, develop, and implement, Dunn says, representing a significant leap in spending from the previous versions. Transcat’s initial site, a tiny storefront within the now-defunct IndustryNet business-to-business site, cost only $8,000 for one year, including hosting services. The storefront, which went live in September 1996, featured basic company information and several static product pages. In three subsequent updates, the company added more product information; the ability to request catalogs, repairs, and service via e-mail; Y2K-compliance information and links; and a moderated bulletin board. The second- and third-generation sites cost about $9,000 each, excluding the host service costs. And the fourth site, which really laid the groundwork for this newly launched version, cost $15,000.

Transcat waited nearly three years, however, to offer full e-commerce and its entire product line, because “we wanted to do it one time and do it right,” Dunn says. “We didn’t want to have something that created an e-mail order that we then had to enter into the system. We wanted to take the order directly into our system and have it priced correctly, generate a ticket, and show up at the warehouse. And we didn’t want to batch the information back and forth.”

To achieve these goals, the site needed to be fully dynamic, with each page generated “on demand” from a relational database. For instance, to place an order, new users must register, and existing customers must log in with their account number. The account number identifies where the customer is based so that the dynamically generated pages can price his order in his local currency. The dynamic capability also enables product managers to update Web pages on the fly.

Working with Providence, RI-based software company Daily.commerce (formerly Daily & Wolcott), which specializes in AS/400 and Windows NT systems for distributors, Transcat installed an AS/400 that was partitioned into two virtual NT servers. One server supports the product and pricing database; the other supports the e-commerce applications, the Website front-end, and a development environment called Web@Work, which supports online orders.

Transcat then upgraded its back-end system, Application Plus, which handles all fulfillment processing, costs payable and receivable, customer accounts, inventory, and distribution, to a version compatible with the e-commerce software, and Daily.commerce wrote an interface between the systems.

In the meantime, Rochester-based Dockside Internet Services, a design and development firm, was assigned the task of converting Transcat’s product database to Microsoft SQL Server from the less robust Microsoft Access. Together Transcat and Dockside defined the database to include the elements Transcat wanted on its dynamically generated Web pages, such as product specs, pricing, and availability. Then they populated the database by copying and pasting the information from the Quark files of its current catalogs. Another local company, Cognitive Marketing, assisted with graphic design, navigation, and promotional content.

Transcat department managers supply the content for non-merchandise sections of the site: The human resources manager maintains the jobs page, for instance, while a sales manager maintains a list of sales reps by location.

“We wanted to make the maintenance of all volatile content totally in the hands of the front-line people who have access to that information, because we don’t have an HTML programmer on staff here,” Dunn explains. “Our people are eager to make the changes themselves rather than have their requests stacked up in a pile to be taken care of by an outside HTML contractor.” With the Web@Work custom browser, product managers only have to fill out a form to update content; they don’t have to learn HTML.

Dave Zoerb, a product manager in charge of the electrical, electronic, and measurement and control product groups, says he changes online content-updating prices, adding material, and making corrections-about three times a week. “It’s just a matter of filling in the blanks,” he says. “You plug in thecontent, and you’re good to go.”

Dunn admits that the site will not likely pay for itself for some time. But Eric McInroy, president/CEO of Transmation, sees the investments as vital for the long term: “The Internet will be the way of the future, and the investment will be ongoing.”