Omni-channel business tactics are increasingly prevalent in ag retail.
Ag retailers, along with suppliers and co-operative partners are increasingly using digital platforms to do business with farm customers. Using a mix of digital tools to complement traditional business channels is what Taylor Wildeman, director of operations with WinField United Canada (WinField United), calls an “omni-channel business strategy.”
“Omni-channel is connecting in all the places a customer wants to go,” he says. “Omni-channel is the broad strategy; having both a physical presence and a digital presence.”
Wildeman says North American agri-businesses have been going omni-channel for several years, as farmers continue demanding more flexibility from their retailers.
“Ag retail is like many other industries: resources are tight, time is tight and you have to find the best way to deliver your message and connect with your customer,” he says.
Retailers in Western Canada typically have the face-to-face part of business down pat and it is the digital, or e-business, aspects of an omni-channel strategy which require the most development.
“I consider e-business smaller in scope, really focusing on the digital transformation of the retail experience,” he says. “At WinField United we are learning throughout this process too as we look at what the grower wants, what the retailer wants and what technology exists. So, that means in some cases, we're building the road 10 feet in front of us.”
Getting Started with New Channels
Co-operatives like WinField United, which has retail owners across Western Canada, and GROWMARK Inc., headquartered in Illinois and serving over 20 member companies in the United States and Ontario, work with their retailers on e-business tools and processes.
Jordan Kuhns, agronomy portfolio manager with GROWMARK, says he supports their corporate level IT systems and helps member companies get the most value from everyday systems, such as their agronomy software.
Kuhns says the particular channels leveraged in an omni-channel strategy varies among retailers, but can include any interactive latform allowing customers to take actions such as placing orders, requesting quotes or entering other information.
Omni-channel is the broad strategy; it’s about having both a physical presence as well as a digital presence.
“It’s going to vary from company to company. But, from our perspective, the way that omni-channel starts to show itself is that ability to do business how your customers want to do business with you,” says Kuhns. “If you had the capabilities to do that across a variety of platforms and means, that's probably a good indicator that you're on the right track.”
When evaluating new tools, both Wildeman and Kuhns say it is necessary to meet with the retailer and ask questions to establish goals and clarity from the outset, as mapping an omni-channel strategy includes many moving parts. Customer-facing technologies, supporting internal processes and systems, and human resources are all necessary to make the strategy come to life.
“It goes back to the core of how you would look at any project. Really, the first thing is making sure that the retailer is clear on their vision so we can help support them with some of the tools that may be available,” says Wildeman.
Once those key goals are established, the partner company can help the retailers set some key landmarks along the road and then begin working on the right tools to carry the retailer forward. This may come in the form of building, buying or partnering on software and technology.
“If you're looking at building versus buying versus partnering, I recommend taking a survey of the resources in your internal IT division,” says Kuhns. “Or, if you're in a cooperative, in the co-op’s IT division to assess the time and effort it would take to build something yourself.”
Your Human Resources
Wildeman stresses that planning for e-business isn’t just about technology, but must also include human resources. This includes evaluating your team’s skillsets, implementing new or updated training programs, education requirements and potentially a change management strategy to help staff adjust to their new roles.
“Generally speaking, embracing e-business will affect every aspect of that retail,” says Wildeman. “You will ask our administrative and office staff to work a certain way, you will ask your sales team to work in a certain function, your warehouse staff will need to make sure that product they are supplying or loading is then being entered into the system correctly.”
Reid McBride, manager, procurement, logistics, & marketing with G-Mac's AgTeam (G-Mac's) can attest to this firsthand. G-Mac's is an independent retailer and WinField United owner company, with 10 locations in Western Saskatchewan. McBride works with the company’s head office team in Kindersley, SK.
With support from Winfield United, G-Mac’s is executing a three-phase e-business plan. They are currently in phase two and working on elements of phase three. McBride says he has seen that not only does e-business impact all staff, but e-business is better when it impacts all staff.
“The more people involved, the better. Agronomists who are actually in the fields and account managers who are actually talking to customers are feeding us ideas, information and asking us questions,” he says.
“To be successful, we need to have the whole company involved.”
Laying the Foundation
McBride says G-Mac's unknowingly began laying the groundwork for omni-channel about five years ago, when the company set up social media profiles and launched a new website. Company leadership also created a new position – ag innovation manager – dedicated to implementing new tools. The company then approached their digital strategy more formally after meeting with WinField United about two years ago.
“Doing these things that we saw as part of our business was actually moving us to a place where we sat down and thought about this in earnest,” says McBride. “The meeting two years ago is when the leadership team really evaluated what this would mean to our company.”
Since then, McBride says that digital undertakings have complemented, not replaced, traditional ways of interacting with customers.
“The traditional retail channel remains as important as ever. A large group of customers still want to interact this way,” he says.
“Our ultimate goal is to digitally recreate what makes us successful as an independent retail and enhance that traditional retail experience.”
Without resources from WinField United, McBride does not think this undertaking would have been possible for G-Mac’s.
“I think it would be very difficult for any independent retailer in North America, for sure in Western Canada, to do this alone,” he says. “We have an omni-channel business account manager at WinField United who helps us with everything: marketing campaigns, strategies, platform upgrades, really organizing the process from start to end.”
G-Mac’s is working to upgrade their online customer experience. Right now, McBride says customers can log on to a Grower Central portal, powered by fellow CAAR member Tronia Systems, which allows customers to view invoices and financial information. The portal will soon be integrated into a larger dashboard called ATLAS, which will be adaptable, showing relevant components to specific accounts. McBride says the ATLAS dashboard will also be interactive, with the functionality for customers to communicate with their agronomist and account manager right from the dashboard.
“The experience for one customer may look very different than what it will be for another,” he says. “And that’s how it’s supposed to be.”
McBride says the goal is to have a group of customers using ATLAS by the end of this calendar year, but lots of groundwork still needs to be done to get there. Internal IT upgrades and investments in digital fiber connections (no small feat for a rural business) are two significant boxes the company must check off.
“By the end of the year, if we bring some of our customers into the fold and bring in manufacturing and distribution partners, we will have met a significant milestone,” he says. “There is always a new milestone. This is continuously evolving, and one day we will be working toward milestones we are not even thinking about right now.”
Read more about e-business in the October 2019 issue of the CAAR Communicator.
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