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Quarter-century of vast change

May 12, 2000
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In 1927, W.W. Grainger had just opened its first wholesale outlet in Illinois. A year earlier, this newspaper was born in midtown Detroit.

Both companies started out with a few typewriters, several desks, and a weekly overhead measured in a few hundred dollars. Both companies aimed to serve the just-emerging refrigeration business, when household refrigerators were like computers — the “hot” product of the day.

Three quarters of a century later, both firms are still in business — but with vastly different and improved tools so sophisticated that they couldn’t have been conceived way back then.

For example, I write this column at home, and have the option of e-mailing it to the managing editor, faxing it in, or even (how retro) printing it on a piece of paper and walking it into her office. My files still contain some ancient articles typed onto canary-colored paper, complete with words X-ed out.

W.W. Grainger, as portrayed in a recent Wall Street Journal article, has adapted the same advances, and then some. The giant wholesaler has harnessed e-commerce with astonishing swiftness.

In 1998, online sales were $13.5 million — peanuts for this $4.2 billion company. In 1999, those sales had jumped to nearly $100 million, and the company is on a pace to do $160 million in 2000.

All of this from a company that tapped into the technology in 1995 with a $5 million outlay.

After another $50 million to perfect it, the e-commerce program is a model of the new system that other wholesalers are just now beginning to capitalize on. Last spring, the company unveiled its Order-zone.com, which offers thousands of products that Grainger doesn’t stock.

Another innovation put into place last November is its Web site auction sales, which lets it unload inventory that is excess or discontinued.

The question always arises: How did wholesalers stay in business before these dazzling tools were developed? W.W. Grainger is almost preposterously big. It sells 210,000 supplies to 1.5 million customers and at the end of the day it can account for every nut, bolt, and thermostat.

It also manages keeping up with the myriad of prices negotiated by different customers — the permutations of which are “astounding,” according to Donald Bielinski, who runs the program.

Astounding, too, is the progress provided by the wondrous machines at our disposal. Now where the hell is that “send” button?

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