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Channeling the online market

By Stephanie Andrews

Placing your next service center order could be just a click away

January 2013 - Technology is forever evolving. From ASUS tablet commercials to commuters using their iPads on the train, technology is a staple in our everyday lives. When it comes to the metals industry, technology is no different. As people rely on electronics to run businesses and simplify day-to-day tasks, the industry must find more efficient ways to plug into the World Wide Web. Stamford, Conn.-based distributor Channel Alloys has created an e-commerce site that allows customers to purchase metals with the click of a mouse. 

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“For many years we’ve had the online order feature,” says Chris Howard, president of Channel Alloys. “This year we improved visibility and added product sorting features for customers.” 

From real-time browsing through Channel Alloys’ inventory to checking test reports and creating spreadsheets of specific warehouse stock, Channel Alloys’ site reflects the unique challenges in the metals industry. “What really differentiates our website from many other online metal distributors is that it’s not a standard point-of-sale website,” says Clinton Blume, vice president of marketing at Channel Alloys. “In the metals industry, everything is so unique, every package is unique, and because of that, our system is 100 percent live.” 

Channel Alloys currently has all the bundles displayed on the website in stock, and the weights provided are not approximate; they are the actual weights of packages in its warehouses or in transit to the company. “We receive the packaging list from the mills prior to shipping, so we added that feature in there,” says Blume. “Essentially you can go on and see live bundles of materials that have just left the mill and are on route to our depots.” mm-0113-aluminum-image1

With inventory displayed in real time, there are none of the hassles of worrying two people will purchase the same item or inventory numbers are inaccurate. “The computer actually processes the order instantly. It’s not an order-entry platform where time lapses while someone manually enters it. It’s live, so material doesn’t disappear, [and] two people can’t buy the same thing,” says Howard. Once an item has been placed in the cart,  someone else cannot choose that same item. “If [the customer] clicks and it displays ‘order confirmed,’ that bundle is theirs, they know they got it,” Howard says.

To keep the site 100 percent live and accurate, it also is equipped with an automatic logout feature for those viewers who remain signed in but are inactive. “If there is inactivity for a few minutes, as a security measure, the user will be automatically logged out because it’s 100 percent live, and we don’t want any duplicate buys,” says Blume, “because again, the packages are all unique, which is really helpful for our customers because they know exactly what they are buying, the weight, the test certifications associated with that, the mill source and the country of origin.”

Site surfing

When the site relaunched in September, customers like Industrial Metal Supply, Sun Valley, Calif., saw a change. “I noticed the inventory was much more accurate,” says Chi Woodruff, product specialist at Industrial Metal Supply. “Once you drill down into items, it really gives good, accurate numbers as to what they have on the floor in real time.” 

Before the upgrade, Woodruff recalled moments when he would order online then discover the item already was sold. “You would try to place an order from the Web and they would apologize, ‘The material is already gone. Sorry our system has not updated yet,’” says Woodruff. “But now, inventory is correct when you place the order. It’s taken out immediately for other people to see.” He says the same changes also have been made to the numbers for inbound points of sale and “now everything is spot-on accurate.” 

For some, navigating the depths of a website can be a struggle, and depending on its complexity, it can be difficult to do even the simplest tasks. But Channel Alloys’ site takes the guesswork out of online ordering. “It’s easy to use, simple to navigate [and] very user-friendly,” says Peter Walter, sales manager and vice president of aluminum at Tri-Star Metals, Carol Steam, Ill. “It’s definitely a different layout. It’s more streamlined, easier to get to the different warehouses, see what inventory they have in each location and place an order.” For service center customers who may have order specifications, the drop-down feature allows them to search only for the items their customers want. “If I have a customer that requires a specific mill or country of origin, I can look at the certifications right there online before placing an order,” says Woodruff. 

Lightning-fast productivity

Customers have noticed a strong shift in productivity within their companies because ordering online through Channel Alloys is so simple and fast. “I compare it to the old way we were doing things,” says Woodruff. “I’ve seen how it has helped our productivity at IMS. We used to email requests to multiple vendors for quotation and hope for a response in several hours. Using the website, I can usually have an answer in less than 10 minutes. It’s very fast and efficient.”

Ordering online eliminates multiple steps from the traditional ordering process, which saves customers time. “I can go online, select my product, see where it is located, click the checkout button, assign a PO number, hit submit order and that’s it,” says Woodruff. “If you know what you’re looking for, it can be a 30-second process.”

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Channel Alloys’ sales team also has sped up its order filling process. “In the past,” says Blume, “we would manually type product codes, bundle numbers, weights, and attach warehouse releases, test reports and packing lists. Now, we can process instantly, even while the customer is on the phone. The computer finds the documents and automatically attaches them to an email that goes directly to the buyer.”

Convenience at your fingertips

From checking the weather on the iPhone to listening to music on the iPad, people have technology in the palm of their hands. Channel Alloys’ customers don’t have to be at their desks to enjoy the convenience of ordering and checking inventory online. 

“I’ve definitely used my iPad to look at inventory, check locations, bundle sizes and view certifications,” says Walter. And he says the website works just as easily on a smartphone or tablet as it does on a desktop. Accessing the site on a mobile device isn’t just for customers. “I do it all the time,” says Blume. “As an employee, I have access to all the features, but certainly customers can login on their iPhone and navigate right through it and place an order and look at stock.” 

This shift to using handheld devices has been a growing trend during the last decade. Although some industries haven’t needed to shift over quite so quickly, the fact that customers are using their smartphones and iPads to access their account and order online speaks volumes about this technological shift. “Metals, in general, are a little behind other industries technologically, especially if you look at the medical industry and how much can be done through electronic data interchange systems,” says Woodruff. “[This site] is bridging the gap between the way metals has traditionally been and where we are going. Channel is setting a trend here.”

Although there are those who remain skeptical of the online ordering market, Channel Alloys’ customers believe in the company and stand by its product. “Since the site upgrade, they have not failed to deliver,” says Woodruff. “When I place an order on the Web, I have 100 percent confidence they will deliver.” And for those who appreciate the ability to talk to a live person, Channel Alloys’ customer service department also shines. “Chris, Clinton, Edgar and Sharleen really set the standard for excellence in service,” says Woodruff. “Whenever you need something that can’t be handled on the Web, they are always on top of it.” “Since there are things computers do and can’t do, there is always the human element at Channel, which will never go away,” says Blume.

Channel Alloys plans to move forward with a technological mindset in the industry. “At this point, the industry will change to some degree,” says Blume. “We want to be ahead of the curve so by the time the rest of the industry arrives here and it becomes a standard, we will be well-established and another step ahead with our own technological advancements.” MM

 

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