Come September, when many students across the country return to school via remote learning, foodservice operators will have another remote option through which to purchase equipment and supplies. That’s why SEFA, a dealer-based foodservice equipment and supplies buying group will introduce Culitrade to the industry.
For foodservice operators, Culitrade will serve as a “commercial e-commerce site that is there for anyone who wants to use the internet to make a purchase of equipment and supply items that our dealers would carry,” says Kelly Cain, SEFA’s CEO. “This helps our dealers future-proof their businesses.”
Behind the scenes, instead of it being a single dealer’s website, Culitrade will serve as a marketplace where participating SEFA dealers can participate. “The effort to create, deploy and operate a true e-commerce model is daunting. For any one dealer not already participating in the e-commerce world, it would be hard for them to catch up,” Cain says. “The problem we needed to solve is how do we help our dealers tackle this very expensive initiative to get off the ground. The next step was to say we will do it. We will create the content and maintain the platform. The dealers will do what they do best, which is wow the customers.”
Like other e-commerce sites, customers buying via Culitrade will be able to provide ratings, feedback and the like about the dealers that handle their orders. “The sellers will have a chance to win the customers’ loyalty by doing what they committed to doing,” Cain adds. “We will be able to leverage the distribution footprint of the SEFA dealers and their hundreds of branch locations. That’s a very powerful, last mile connection to the customer.”
Unlike other e-commerce marketplaces, where resellers remain in the shadows, Culitrade will shine the spotlight on the individual participating SEFA dealers’. “The website is meant to promote and position our dealers as the companies the customers do business with,” Cain says. “On other online marketplaces, that information is buried. Here it’s all about our members. We have a variety of dealers, and this speaks to all of them. Our e-commerce dealers are excited because it gives them another way to get in front of a customers.”
With dealer members throughout the country, it would seem inevitable that Culitrade could force SEFA dealers to compete with each other on a more regular basis. “Yes, there’s an emotional response where one member does not necessarily want another one selling in their backyard,” Cain says. “But this is not about being the lowest price or stealing share from another SEFA dealer. We intend to share with our members what items were sold where. We can spot trends and pricing opportunities, and it can even help local dealers capture more share. SEFA’s market share is 18%, so there’s a whole lot of business out there we don’t have.”
Culitrade will start with 30,000 SKUs, Cain says. In terms of other content, SEFA will leverage some of its existing educational materials to help populate the site with some of its previously existing educational materials. “One of the great legacies of SEFA is we have digitized training guides that we can turn into a buying guide,” Cain says. "It will be a high-quality approach to curating and personalizing the experience to help the customer make their purchasing decision.”
In addition to the buying guides and new product inventory, the site will also include a section called Culitrade Closeout. This area will feature dealer inventory items that came back from jobs with minor imperfections or were returned for other reasons but are still in working order. “We look forward to helping our dealers liquidate that inventory,” Cain says.
This is not the first time a dealer-based buying group has launched its own e-commerce . And one of the last attempts at an online dealer marketplace did not go well for some of the participating dealers and manufacturers. Cain’s well aware of this history. “It’s tricky and it’s going to take some balancing. But a future without an industry marketplace like this would be bad,” she says. “Some of the biggest advocates are some of the people that took the biggest beatings from that implosion.”
To help try to avoid any pitfalls, SEFA intends to rely on its dealer-based governance structure, maintain transparency with its members and stay true to the marketplace’s business model. “We are going to rely on our governance and accountability to make sure the oversight is where it needs to be,” Cain says.
In building awareness of its new online marketplace, SEFA plans to launch a digital marketing campaign to promote Culitrade. Cain also understands it will take some time. “It’s going to be a year before we get higher on search engines and getting the hits. The battle to drive traffic is tremendously challenging,” she says. “From an industry perspective, we have a dedicated webinar coming where all SEFA suppliers are invited. It’s not lost on us that a lot of suppliers took a beating on previous efforts brought forth by other groups, so we want to get the word out and benefit from their partnership.”
The imminent launch of Culitrade represents the latest in a series of initiatives SEFA has made to help its dealer members improve their businesses. “We need to help these dealers get fit to fight for their futures,” Cain says.
For example, the buying group launched an enterprise resource management initiative to help dealers better manage their companies and to provide additional business intelligence. “This ERP initiative allows our dealers a line of sight into how their businesses are performing that they never had before,” Cain says.
SEFA also offers what the organization describes as its Exclusive Advantage Program, through which the group offers its own private-label products. This approach is very similar to what some larger dealers do on their own. Finally, Culitrade strives to help better position SEFA dealers to compete in the world of online foodservice equipment and supplies sales.
“As those three initiatives converge, it’s a beautiful thing. It really is,” Cain says. “These are foundational systems that will carry them to the future.”