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Allied Beverage Group’s Digital Evolution

from Distribution Strategy Group

December 09th, 2022 / Tags: , ,

Transforming a business into a digital-first company is never easy. However, as B2B customer preferences and expectations evolve toward online shopping, self-serve purchasing and omnichannel interactions, distributors that want to grow market share must adapt to the new requirements.

Allied Beverage Group is a New Jersey-based wine and spirits distributor. With revenues well in excess of $1 billion, Allied is the largest in the state. Over the past 80 years, the company has grown through the addition of smaller distributors to its family of businesses.

After the COVID-19 pandemic, executives realized the company needed to shift direction and become more technology-driven to serve its customers’ changing preferences. To lead its digital transformation, Allied hired Judah Zeigler as the Vice President of Digital and eCommerce. With the support of Shift7 , Zeigler began working to build Allied Beverage Group’s digital strategy and create a technological ecosystem that could better support the company’s team and customers.

Allied Beverage Group’s Journey to Digitalization

Allied Beverage Group’s digital evolution began with the understanding that it would need to undertake a multi-element platform initiative – thinking beyond just ecommerce or other one-off investments.

“If you’re going to make a significant financial, human resource and organizational investment, you need to make sure that what you’re doing answers business needs,” Zeigler said.

Creating a strategic roadmap with well-defined goals is a necessary first step. Unfortunately, this is where distributors often struggle, said Brad Borman of Shift7 Digital. Rather than creating a deliberate plan, many will briefly research software options and implement out-of-the-box solutions that aren’t configured for their business needs.

A lack of customization, preparation and change management often leads to low user buy-in and lackluster ROI. “They experience short-term success and long-term failure,” Zeigler said.

To avoid that fate, Allied’s team began by outlining its strategic goals, Zeigler said. Allied Beverage Group wanted to:

– Provide an outstanding, best-in-class customer self-service experience

– Dramatically increase the ability of salespeople to be self-sufficient

– Transform support organizations, allowing them to solve true customer issues rather than repeat mundane administrative tasks

– Enable teams to deliver amazing customer experiences when buyers need extra support

After defining what it expected from its investment, Allied Beverage Group demoed various software solutions. Zeigler said they eventually decided to move forward with Salesforce because the solution was hosted in the cloud and allowed for the company to scale up capabilities as they needed them.

After years of acquiring other beverage businesses and folding them into the larger organization, Allied found itself with a lot of messy, unorganized and duplicate data. So, Allied Beverage Group also invested in a product information management (PIM) solution to manage and improve the quality of the company’s product information and make it easier for customers to find the correct items.

“With a product catalog as complex and as fluid (no pun intended) as ours, if you don’t have a PIM that’s connected directly to your suppliers to get all of the latest information, you won’t be able to provide the right information to your customers,” Zeigler said.

To keep its data clean, the company has focused on improving its data governance to ensure product information is as up to date as possible. Zeigler said this has included instituting a council with data stewards responsible for keeping data at a consistently high level.

3 Areas of Focus

After setting a solid foundation, Allied Beverage Group has prioritized three areas for digitalization:

– Customer service: Allied’s goal is to leverage technology to share customer service case data more easily and seamlessly across the organization. That eliminates the need for human reps to manually track cases and gives them more time to focus on helping customers.

– Sales: Allied will use CRM to better understand their customers’ purchase histories, shopping trends and contact information. “Every time you interact with our organization, with a person, a digital tool, whatever, that experience is unique to you. Why? Because we’re able to feed all our intelligence about you and your organization into that experience. We’re really leaning in on dynamic personalization,” Zeigler said.

– eCommerce: Because it operates in a highly regulated industry, Allied can’t sell outside of its approved distributor network within New Jersey. But that’s not stopping it from building out a great online experience for those customers. It features a customer-centric storefront with rich content and more refined search and exploration tools. Zeigler said this is critical to expanding their customers’ average order value, shortening the time to order and making the purchasing experience more efficient.

Digitalization – with a Twist

In the background of all this change is a layer of compliance that is unique to the wine and liquor industry. The alcohol industry must meet stringent regulatory requirements – both on a federal and state level. That raises the bar for Allied, whose business is literally on the line if they don’t integrate those requirements into its digital efforts.

For example, Allied Beverage Group’s ecommerce platform must be locked behind a log-in – which makes it difficult to maximize engagement. So, if Allied’s retail, restaurant and bar customers want to browse and purchase alcohol, they must first be approved by the company to open an account.

To add another layer of complexity, Zeigler said, Allied must keep track of customers’ liquor licenses to verify that they are up to date. Because of this, they needed to find a solution that would ensure they didn’t inadvertently sell to a user whose liquor license had recently expired or was revoked.

And, unique to New Jersey, Allied must keep track of payment deadlines and correctly manage rebates. The state’s laws include strict regulations governing what happens if a customer is late with a payment, and when customers can receive B2B rebates for which they may have qualified. That makes it critical that their tools make it easy for customers and Allied’s team to keep track of upcoming deadlines.

The Importance of Change Management

Change management is critical to any successful technology initiative, but many employees are already comfortable with existing processes. To improve adoption, Allied communicated with employees about the upcoming changes and how they would make things easier, Zeigler said.

Allied involved sales teams and other individuals using the new technology in the selection and configuration process. “We just finished the UAT (user acceptance training) phase of one of the clouds, and we had testers from across the organization – sales, VPs, sales managers, sales reps, sales assistants, pricing people – everybody who’s going to touch the system tested it. They’re the ones who have to use it,” Zeigler said.

A digital transformation is never done; distributors must conduct rigorous testing before and after launch and be willing to make changes and improvements well into the future.

“You have to test everything. You have to have testing built into your initiative at launch. Then forever after, if you’re not running A/B tests and you don’t have a testing platform built in, you’re doing yourself a disservice. These platforms are not meant to be static – they’re meant to be iterative,” Zeigler said.

Zeigler says they are already planning phase two, which will launch in the first half of 2023. Although the company has a roadmap, Zeigler said they strive to remain open to change. Their goal: to drive business outcomes, improve customer experiences, make their employees’ lives easier, and enable more efficient and scalable processes. And that requires flexibility to ensure they’re building the right tools to support them in the future.

In fact, to Zeigler, it’s an evolution – not a transformation. “I prefer the term digital evolution because Allied’s a very successful company that’s been doing really great work for over 80 years.”



This article originally ran in Distribution Strategy Group

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