ATI’s e-commerce website at is going in for an upgrade to improve user experience.

ATI Takes on E-Commerce

June 28, 2016
Distributor embraces the challenge of rethinking its online presence to make customers more comfortable buying online.

When Autonomy Technology Inc. (ATI), Las Vegas, recently decided to upgrade its website and e-commerce systems, founder Greg Knowles saw it as an opportunity to rethink the way customers buy online. With online sales averaging about 7% of the company’s total sales, Knowles wants to see that number grow, with a near-term target of 20%. The challenge in getting there, he says, is to make the process more comfortable for buyers.

One sign of the customer comfort level can be seen in the average order size. ATI gets about 40 orders per month online, but the average order size is about a tenth of the average off-line order. Online orders run about $300 each while offline orders average $3,500. It’s certainly not that customers are unwilling to buy online — they do it all the time in their personal lives. Knowles attributes the difference to customer hesitation to trust an online system with a high-consequence order.

“A lot of the products customers buy online are more expensive than anything they buy for the home, but I don’t really think it’s a price point thing, as much as, ‘If I don’t get this, I’m fired. It’s gotta go right,’” he says. “You’re messing with more than their dollars, it’s their job. If they don’t get something they ordered at home, they just don’t get it. If they don’t get something at work, if the right part doesn’t go to their customer, it’s a whole new level of risk.”

To get customers comfortable with that risk, ATI is incorporating business-to-consumer principles in its business-to-business platform so that customers get immediate feedback on order status, tracking, order history and real pricing.

Customers often think they aren’t getting the best price unless they call someone and ask, Knowles says. “We wanted a good feedback area, so if customers have any questions they can get them answered quickly. These questions are seen by the company’s president, vice president and customer service people, so we elevate it to very high level. We want people to get a response right away. They want to know somebody sees it and has the answers.”

The company’s experience building its online identity demonstrates that consumer-grade e-commerce can be done by electrical distributors without the resources of a billion-dollar company. ATI does rank on EW’s annual Top 200 list, but at #195 in this year’s list, with sales somewhere over $15 million, it’s not the biggest of gorillas in any of its local markets. And yet, it’s investing in developing custom product data and imagery to boost customer confidence that they will get what they want from the order.

Knowles, a graduate of the Industrial Distribution program at Texas A&M (class of 1990) and already an electrical industry veteran of 14 years across distributors such as Warren Electric and Summit Electric, manufacturers Square D and Cutler-Hammer, and wire specialist JCH Wire & Cable, decided to venture out on his own in 2004.

Since then, ATI has grown from a specialist in portable power and OEM custom cables for heavy equipment into a full-line electrical distributor with special emphasis on switchgear, portable generators and custom cable, along with more recent growth in automation and control systems. It has locations in Las Vegas; Bend, Ore.; and Anchorage, Alaska.

Many distributors and software vendors are likewise focused on making business-to-business e-commerce more like business-to-consumer, but for Knowles the trick lies in being sensitive to the way traditional electrical trade transactions differ from consumer transactions and finding ways to adapt.

“We’re trying to bring up the price per order, but that may not be possible, and if so we’ll have to accept that,” he says. “People who spend thousands of dollars want personal service, and if at all possible, we’ll give it to them.”