Tuesday, August 9, 2011

B2B – an old term but a new opportunity for the flooring industry

Mitchell Dancik
If you had attended the latest Floor Covering Industry B2B Association seminar, you’d be impressed by the new and modern vision for B2B in the floor covering industry. You’d be right to think it has more to do with iPhones and iPads than with electronic data interchange (EDI) or file transfer protocol (FTP) - old terms that scare way more businesses than they attract. But as forward thinking and exciting as the new vision is, a new disconnect is developing that may keep the flooring industry from keeping up with consumers who’ve come to expect information at their finger tips.

There is good news. The proposed B2B solutions are the right technology for the new consumers who want information quickly. The bad news is that the flooring industry is not using the available technology to respond quickly.  Perhaps even worse, while we languish in our old comfort zone, consumers are creating new habits of getting better and faster answers from competitive channels - ones who have embraced new technology.   I fear we are cloaked in old terms and ways - we need to move beyond our comfort zone to ensure we do not lose touch with our consumers.   As Jim Gould warned us in his recent Floor Covering News editorial "Reaching the consumer in a changing landscape," monolithic supply chain models of the past will not survive.

Who is B2B really designed to serve?
The old business to business technology was originally intended to serve the flooring retailer. But today the target is anyone who needs an answer about flooring – that includes technology savvy consumers, retailers, sales consultants, designers, architects or a salesperson on an in-home visit.

How should B2B work?
B2B should work for the flooring industry the same elegant way web services work at the Apple Store – via phone or mobile device - regardless of our one, two, and three-step distribution maze. Consumers don’t care how many distribution layers it takes to service them; retailers don’t care how many computers it takes to communicate the information they need. Our business models are complex, but if we rely on that excuse we will be replaced by new businesses that are not bogged down in old ways and habits.

In December, 2010 I wrote about Web Services - the latest format for flooring B2B. (How can b2b revolutionize your business) and in June the flooring B2B community previewed a working prototype which was designed and explained by Armstrong’s Bill Hutchinson. Bill’s prototype can be used by any flooring company that wants to get involved with these latest developments.

For ten years the Flooring Industry B2B association (www.fcb2b.com) has worked hard to motivate suppliers and retailers to adopt their B2B standards and most of the important foundation building for web services is ready. We have an industry organization (www.fcb2b.org) represented by a broad and inclusive set of companies from all sectors of our industry with a working charter, committees, funding (though it could use a lot more), and an active and engaged membership.

If we build it, will they come?
This is perhaps the most telling question. Let’s be honest; we built B2B using the old EDI model of transmitting batches of data, and not enough retailers came to the party. We have some good excuses, like “the world changed the way business was done while we were working on the old plan.” Now, with slimmer margins and increased pressure to reduce expenses, I doubt we are going to see a big increase in the adoption of EDI-style B2B at retail. Let’s not waste any energy on regrets. That’s water under the bridge, and we didn’t waste our time. Much of what we built can be adapted to the new world. My prediction and fear is that if we don’t build it, they certainly won’t come.

What will it take from our industry?
Industry cooperation.
•    Every supplier must offer web services that can be tapped into by their distributors and retailers;
•    Every retailer must offer web services that can be tapped into from their web sites and mobile applications by consumers;
•    Every retail software provider must offer web service versions of their applications, as well as the ability to integrate supplier-provided web services into their applications;
•    Every supplier software provider (or in house IT staff) must offer web service versions of their applications, as well as the ability to integrate third-party-provided web services into their applications.

The end result must be information that can be viewed or transmitted from whatever device the user is comfortable using, even if the information requires data simultaneously from the retailer, the distributor and the manufacturer.
What should the flooring industry do now?
By now you may agree that “B2B” is an old term grounded in the past that doesn’t project its new capability or inspire new users.  We need a new name for our web service technology and new inspiration to move the industry forward.  Let’s start building these new web service applications, and cooperate as an industry so that anyone that asks about, purchases, or needs service on any of our flooring products can get the answers they expect and deserve.
I look forward to your comments. Please visit the fcB2B web site http://www.fcb2b.org/membership.php for further information and to see what you can do to help.  Thank you. 

Mitchell Dancik

Mitchell Dancik is president of Dancik International and a consultant for the Floor Covering Institute.  

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