Click here to read part 1 of our interview with Mike Connors, CEO of Bulbs.com.
When Mike Connors and several other founders/investors first launched Bulbs.com (www.bulbs.com) in 1999, fluorescent, HID, and CFL technology were dominant, the internet was still in its infancy, and the lighting sales process was more conventional. Times have definitely changed.
“We started out as an online B2B venue with 2-3 people working the phones to answer questions or make deals,” recalled Connors of the initial introduction of Worcester, Mass.-based Bulbs.com, an online replacement lighting supplier which has since grown to service 200,000 commercial and industrial businesses in more than 300,000 locations nationwide using the site and web search strategies along with support from nearly two dozen inside salespeople to sell to commercial verticals including property managers, retailers, hotels, restaurants, and dozens of other segments.
In Part 2 of lightED’s interview with Connors, the lighting industry veteran shares thoughts on the threat posed by Amazon, some of the new and unexpected ways lighting sales may continue to evolve, and strategies for distributors.
lightED: Are you concerned about recent moves made by Amazon Business?
Connors: Because our customers are more likely to buy online than those of an electrical distributor, I think that Bulbs.com feels more threatened by Amazon than many distributors do. I know that electrical distributors view Amazon as a threat, but what I think they fail to recognize or believe is that Amazon might not remain an online-only entity. Jeff Bezos is a true visionary and has become a powerful competitor; Amazon is hiring scores of developers who continue to improve their user interface along with seasoned category managers to merchandise their different product categories, including commercial lighting. To think that Amazon won’t try to compete where distributors live and breathe and eventually put ‘feet on the street’ is putting your head in the sand.
lightED: How do you see the future of lighting sales evolving, both via online and brick-and-mortar mediums?
Connors: The internet will clearly play a huge role – growth there will continue to outpace everything else and customers will ultimately choose the company that’s easiest to work with. There are an increasing number of tools that lighting designers use to help identify how much lighting is required to pass local energy codes, enhance sales and productivity, etc. and I think we’ll be seeing that software increasingly making its way onto websites to enable more DIY analyses. Overall, the online channel will be highly used to make decisions. On the brick-and-mortar side, Home Depot and Lowe’s do well, but they may close stores as online channels, including their own, become more popular. In my opinion, I think that Walmart could become a more significant player – perhaps alongside Amazon — in the MRO arena. Amazon continues to build more distribution centers to get products to customers more quickly, but Walmart already has several thousand locations in the U.S., any of which could be turned into a B2B distribution center overnight. The right combination of repurposed locations would give Walmart the ability to offer same or next-day delivery and enable them to compete effectively against players like Grainger.
lightED: What final words of advice would you share with distributors?
Connors: I think that many electrical distributors still look at e-commerce as an objective box that needs to be checked off – e.g., if they hire a person, build a website, etc., they’ll be covered. Many still have no understanding of how to truly integrate e-commerce with a branch or inside sales strategy. So my take-away message for distributors is that they’ve got to adopt e-commerce. Local and regional distributors deliver on their own trucks and can take an order tonight and deliver it to the jobsite in the morning. They have to leverage/sell that capability more than ever and stay close to their customer, because when they’re not looking that customer may be searching online for the products they sell.