For 30 years, Northern Safety & Industrial, Utica, NY, has sold primarily safety products – such as gloves, glasses, hard hats and respirators. But over the past 18 months, the distributor has significantly grown its offering in general industrial MRO, including tools, abrasives, adhesives and more. NetPlus Alliance has played a key role in that strategy.
At this year’s Annual Meeting, NetPlus named Northern Safety & Industrial the group’s Distributor of the Year for 2018. The Distributor of the Year must have the best score among criteria measured: new suppliers added, total NetPlus purchases growth, and same-store purchases growth. Much of that growth within NetPlus was the result of Northern’s focus on product category expansion.
Nick Curley, Merchandising Team Leader, spoke with NetPlus about the distributor’s success.
NetPlus: Tell us about Northern Safety & Industrial, your evolution, and how NetPlus is supporting that.
Nick Curley: With the size of the safety market being what it is, and the size of the industry market being what it is, it only made sense to make the transition from the industrial side of things and start diving into MRO. When we were purchased by Wurth about four years ago now, that was an additional driving factor to get into the industrial market. NetPlus gave us the ability to meet with some different suppliers we may not have had that direct track to. They really gave us the opportunity to expand into some of the categories that we needed to be able to compete in this additional vertical that we’re looking to go after.
NetPlus: How quickly have you expanded in industrial products?
Curley: Just last year alone we added about 120,000 industrial SKUs to our offering. The group was very beneficial in giving us the ability to tackle some of these a lot faster than we would have been able to alone. We’ve concentrated a lot on some of the top categories, including abrasives, lubricants and adhesives, and then tooling.
But we’re even starting to get into some of the electrical and pipe, valves and fittings. Because everybody’s looking to consolidate. So if we’re able to be that one-stop shop for our customers, it really adds value. It ultimately saves the customer money. We’ve also seen quite an expansion in our outside sales force.
NetPlus: Your outside sales expansion, combined with a lot of new categories – how are you taking advantage of training that NetPlus and our preferred suppliers offer to make sure you have what you need to properly sell these products?
Curley: We are taking advantage of not just the in-house trainings, but we recently started digging into the offerings through Tooling U. We also bring in suppliers to Northern to do classroom trainings, and we’ve got a video studio in house. We’ll shoot videos after trainings are done at the end of the day and send that across the country to our work force. Training cuts the time it would take to be able to properly source and merchandise these products.
As a merchandiser it gives me the ability to see it from the manufacturer’s side of things and really understand the products, which makes it easier to translate to the website, catalog and mailers. To cut that learning curve in half is huge.
NetPlus: How involved will your sales team be in that in the future?
Curley: We are not only looking to get salespeople involved, we’re looking to get our technical sourcing team involved. We get a lot of technical questions coming in, so it’s not just the salespeople we want to make sure are up to date on the information. It’s important to make sure we build the knowledge within the entire company. NetPlus really does give us the ability to do that.
NetPlus: What’s your advice for distributors that want to find the right suppliers?
Curley: Just be open to it. At the Annual Meeting, you have to be willing to listen and take what the suppliers have to offer. And follow up. It’s tough to get everything done in 18-minute meetings. But the follow-ups are where it’s at. If you’re not open to it, you’re closing doors on potential sales. For us, it may not be a category we’re in today, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to be one that we’re in tomorrow.
NetPlus: What’s the value of the Annual Meeting for you?
Curley: The Annual Meeting is one of the beneficial parts of our membership. They do it right. We get a lot done, and it’s beneficial to see some of the vendors that you may or may not be able to see throughout the year. We usually go with at least two of us, and we each take our own meetings, so we’re at about 40 meetings for the entire show.