Oh, What A Tangled Web We Weave

August 17, 2005

roll goods producers focus on their websites in the hope of ensnaring customers

The Internet, the World Wide Web or just simply, the Web. No matter what you call it, everybody knows what you’re talking about. According to CommerceNet, Cupertino, CA, (www.commerce.net) there were approximately 242 million Internet users worldwide in January 2000. Of this number, 120 million were in the U.S. and Canada, 70 million in Europe and 40 million in the Asia Pacific region. The remaining 12 million were located in South America, the Middle East and Africa. As the number of Web surfers grows, so does the necessity for companies to have websites that keep visitors interested and, more importantly, willing to return. For this reason, many roll goods producers in the nonwovens industry are taking another look at their websites and making major improvements, either through an inhouse e-business initiative or with the help of outside resources, to make sure they are giving their customers exactly what they want in a website.

“Our website is an important tool to communicate with our customers and other relevant target audiences,” explained Franz Junkermann, vice president marketing and sales for Colbond Nonwovens, Arnhem, The Netherlands. “As far as our customers are concerned, the website is an additional tool next to our personal selling contacts. Obviously our website must be informative and easy to find, visit and navigate not only for our customers but for all on-line visitors. Any website should meet these basic requirements.”

Pieter Meijer, vice president marketing and sales for BBA Nonwovens France, Biesheim, France, expressed a similar sentiment, “Our customers expect a website that is informative, easy to navigate and provides contact information such as telephone and fax numbers and e-mail addresses.” Mr. Meijer also mentioned that the website for the BBA Group, Cheshire, U.K., is currently being redesigned to better serve its customer base and will be up in a few months. “We are creating a global BBA Nonwovens website that responds to the various needs and will become a portal for customers, suppliers, employees and other business partners,” he added.

BBA is only one of many roll goods producers currently revamping an existing webpage to provide customers with what they are looking for. SI Technical Textiles, Chattanooga,TN, is preparing to revise its main site, www.sind.com, according to Kemp Harr, director of marketing communications. “Just this past year we revised two of our sites and we’re getting more traffic through them, so we know we’ve done a few things right and we want to put some of those practices into the home site,” he explained. “We found if we are more empathetic about what users are looking for when they come to our site, we can route them more quickly to the data they are looking for so they don’t get lost and subsequently leave.” Mr. Long gave the example of SI’s newly designed geotextile website, www.fixsoil.com, which starts off by asking users which type of professional group they fit into and then leads them directly to the appropriate information depending on the answer. “We try to make our websites easy to navigate and we put ourselves at the desk of the user to understand what kind of information they would be looking for and try to give that to them easily,” he added.

Making information easier to find is also one of the goals for the new website of Lydall Inc., Manchester, CT. The new site, which was launched in January, replaces the company’s original site, which was launched in 1999. The old site, according to vice president of e-commerce Jim Carolan, was more focused on investors than other types of visitors. “The first website was characteristic of sites done at that time—a lot of information that was primarily written and developed with corporate viewers in mind,” he detailed. “With the new site, we tried to focus on things such as the look and feel of the site so that it pays a lot of attention to issues like corporate brand identity and gives customers a comfortable look as they are going through it. We also focused on navigation and speed, so it’s a very easy site to get through.” To make the site faster for users, Lydall included a great deal of content in its site and stayed away from using too many graphics, which tend to slow a website down. Additionally, the company instructed its website design advisory consultant to develop a site where visitors could get to the information they needed within four clicks or less. “We really wanted a website that had all the contemporary features of navigation, speed and the ability to get at lots of information very quickly,” Mr. Carolan said. “As we monitor web traffic, we don’t want to find out that people are dropping off at inappropriate points or times. We wanted what experts call a ‘sticky’ website.”

Surf’s Up
While speed and easy navigation may help companies rack up website hits, some roll goods producers within the nonwovens industry have taken the initiative to add user-oriented functions and features that keep browsers coming back for more. For instance the protective apparel website for the DuPont Nonwovens business, Wilmington, DE, features an interactive permeation database. “In protective apparel, while it is up to the end user to make the best decision to meet their safety needs, we provide information to help them make an educated decision,” explained Susan Sullivan, CRM manager e-business for nonwovens. “We developed an interactive permeation database where end users can input the chemical they are exposed to and the returned permeation data allows the end user to determine which fabric and garment provides the highest level of protection.” Ms. Sullivan believes the DuPont Nonwovens websites are fast becoming the trusted resource for users to help them make educated decisions for their protection needs. “And for this reason, we strive to make our websites content rich and to provide valuable information,” she affirmed.

Content information that is fresh and informative for users is also a focal point for Polyfelt GmbH, Linz, Austria, whose website has been located at www.polyfelt.com since May 1999. According to vice president marketing and sales, Wolfgang Aue, the company’s website is valuable to its geosynthetics customers with the reference projects it posts and constantly updates. “For customers who are not really sure how and where to use our products we provide information about applications and what would be the suitable products for those applications,” he explained. “We provide reference projects so if customers want they can contact a specifier or construction company to find out what were the pros and cons of using our product in a particular situation.” Mr. Aue also mentioned that the projects are updated often to provide information for both customers and press members involved in the construction industry. “Young projects, news and information—these are the parts of our website that would help customers return to the site because they know they get the newest information about the industry,” he added.

A similar idea has been set in place on the website for Mogul Nonwovens, Gaziantep, Turkey. The company’s site attempts to give its customers the information they need to make business relations with the company smooth, according to commercial director Serkan Gogus. “We tried to make our website as informative as possible because we don’t have anything to hide from our customers,” he stated. “On most websites, you find only information regarding the company, but they don’t give you details regarding products and applications. We believe cooperation with customers makes business easier. When customers know your products and applications well, they can clearly tell you what they need.”

Roll goods producer Toyobo, Osaka, Japan, also attempts to make its website—which has been on the Internet at www.toyobo.co.jp since April 1996—as informative and current as possible. “Some of our customers require press releases and new technical information in detail,” explained Shigeki Tanaka, group leader marketing and development for Toyobo’s spunbond operations department. “We try to update the content as frequently as possible and we have a wide variety of information about our products.”

While most websites are primarily for customers, some roll goods companies have realized that they can serve a dual purpose. Approximately six months ago, Sorbent Products (SPC), Somerset, NJ, launched its interactive site at www.sorbentproducts.com as an information portal for its customers and as a means of support for its distributors and distributor salespeople in the field. “Although end users would also find it effective to be able to look things up on the site, most of the sections we developed were really geared toward what a distributor salesperson would need to know about us or our products to help them make a sale,” said Mark Johnson, vice president sales and marketing for SPC. For this reason, the company decided to not only place Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) on its site, but also to give users three different ways of finding product information. There is also an application section with a map of a hypothetical plant where users can click on the section they need a solution for and obtain a list of relevant products and information, according to Mr. Johnson.

While its website is relatively new, SPC is already putting things in place for stage two of the site. Marketing tools such as brochures, surveys, photos and flyers will be available for salespeople to customize and download from the site. A distributor-only password-protected area for customers will be launched, where customer-specific information can be accessed. “Customers will be able to get answers to the three basic questions they are most likely to ask us—what’s my price, what’s the availability on a product and where’s my order,” Mr. Johnson added.

The addition of a customer-centered extranet feature is something other nonwovens companies are exploring or have already added to their websites to give customers access to important information 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Nonwovens-newcomer Unifi Technical Fabrics (UTF), Mocksville, NC—a subsidiary of Unifi Inc., Greensboro, NC—launched its website in September 2000 at www.utf.com. According to Unifi’s vice president and general manager of nonwovens and president of UTF, Michael Mebane, the site piggy-backs Unifi’s internal B2B capabilities. Through the company’s sister company Unifi Technology Group (UTG), Unifi has established a password-protected enterprise-wide order management system that enables users to obtain information, such as order status, shipping history and billing information, they would normally have had to make a call to get. “Our objective is for somebody not to have to pick up the phone to call us and ask where their order is,” Mr. Mebane detailed. “Our objective is for them, wherever they are and whatever their time zone is, to have enough information up front so they know what’s happening. We’re really focusing on the entire customer relationship and information exchange as a part of our strategy. We’re doing this stuff every day in Unifi’s other two businesses, so we’re looking forward to using that technology and capability to become the easiest company in the industry to do business with.”

Another company that has taken this idea to a new level is Johns Manville (JM), Denver, CO, which began development of its “JMConnexus” extranet platform early last year. The platform is currently in the pilot stage with several customers and company officials anticipate a launch date during the third quarter of 2001. “The extranet is a presence we are establishing for basically our existing customers, which is more of a customized-type offering,” said Steven Lister, general manager, Filtration Division for JM. “They will be able to go in and get purchasing history, order status and potentially order on-line. Very few, if any, of our current competitors have this type of offering. This is a case where we are proactively trying to bring additional value to our customers.”

The Birth Of A Salesman
JM is not the only roll goods company looking at the possibility of selling nonwoven products on its website. Foss Manufacturing, Hampton, NH, plans to begin selling its “Ozite” and “Kunin” brand felt products through their respective websites, www.ozite.com and www.kunin.com, after a major rehauling of all of Foss’ websites is complete later this year. “We will be offering e-commerce capabilities for some of our brands, which already have a strong branded presence and are packaged products that can go directly to retail or retail partners,” explained Jenifer Smyth, marketing strategist for Foss. “We just want to get our feet wet on that side of the business first and down the road the ‘FossFibre’ antimicrobial technology will be part of it as well.” She also mentioned that in orderto avoid conflicting with any of its retail partnerships, Foss will offer products normally not available for retail, including certain colors of Kunin crafting felt, on its websites. As for selling its roll goods over the Internet, Foss is not currently looking at that avenue as an option because of the specialty nature of its products. “We do not sell roll goods on-line because, as a specialty company, many of our products are custom made and have different end uses,” Ms. Smyth said. “We are open to it for the future, but we want to get our feet wet with our retail felt products first before taking on the larger roll goods issue.”

At Lydall, the company recently launched an initiative to market GDL (gas diffusion layer) components for fuel cells and is currently selling these products on its website, according to Mr. Carolan. “We are selling those products on-line and even up to and including building in a feature that will accept credit cards to make transactions a lot easier for customers,” he added. As for the rest of its roll goods business, Mr. Carolan mentioned that although the sales opportunities Lydall has received through its web presence have created off-line selling, this is just the beginning of what the web can do for them in the area of commerce. “So far the Internet has indirectly assisted Lydall and we’re typical of many B2B businesses, especially those associated with industrial manufacturing. A lot of the information that we’ve had on our website has created sales leads that have been converted into an off-line selling or marketing activity,” Mr. Carolan detailed. “Because of this, we haven’t been handling the selling or marketing processes completely on-line yet. That benefit has been indirect and is just the tip of the iceberg. It is going to become much more important and more critical for us to be successful at it.”

Another roll goods manufacturer planning to make its products available for purchase over the World Wide Web is Colbond Nonwovens. While the company’s website was only just launched in mid-2000, the company already offers certain e-business options and plans to eventually include an area for purchasing products on-line. “The sale of roll goods will be included as well,” stated the company’s Mr. Junkermann. “Our on-line activities, however, are not stand-alone activities. They are a technical addition to our service, as a result of which both our client’s and our own efficiency will improve. A borderless marketplace is opening up, requiring companies to do business differently. Within the scope of the entire e-business process, focus and emphasis will be shifting, following new developments and market requirements.”

Textilegruppe Hof, Hof/Saale, Germany, is also considering selling its nonwoven products on its website, which was launched during the last quarter of 1999 at www.textilegruppehof.com, according to sales director Detlev Käppel. “We have planned for this, however we want to first look at the response to our website,” he explained. “Once we have received a lot of hits and feel ready to install a purchasing website, then we will do it. At the moment we have lots of hits, but we think the time is not yet right to sell roll goods via the Internet due to our specific range of products.”

Hof is not the only roll goods producer that feels the time is not right to begin selling roll goods on the Internet. “As our business is a commodity business and based on orders, I don’t believe we can sell roll goods on the Internet the way retailers do but we can receive and process orders on-line,” explained Mogul’s Mr. Gogus.

Mr. Mebane of Unifi also voiced his concerns over selling roll goods on a website. “Customers cannot purchase roll goods at Unifi’s site. The problem with this is that an uninformed customer can make a tremendous mess for themselves and us,” he explained. Mr. Mebane went on to mention that for customers, the ability to look through product catalogs and track orders on-line is important; however, when purchasing nonwovens, customers still need access to a customer service representative who knows the customer’s needs and can assist in making the right product choice. “There are reasons why you don’t want to automate everything you do because that will create more work for you,” Mr. Mebane added. “You need to put in strategic breaks in automation, whether it be in general material handling or order processing.”

Web Spinning
Although there is still some debate as to whether nonwoven roll goods are an appropriate target for e-commerce, most producers agree that websites are an indispensable marketing tool both for making product information available and reaching customers in hard-to-reach areas of the world. This has been the case for Tex Tech Industries, Portland, ME, whose website has expanded its business through globalization, according to vice president Stephen Rossi. “We are a relatively small company and providing a presence to our geographically diverse customer base was expensive and logistically difficult before our website was developed,” he detailed. “While it does not replace our emphasis on personalized customer service, it does provide us with the perception of a larger presence in the markets in which we deal. Additionally, our website allows us to succinctly express Tex Tech’s capabilities and mission in one highly accessible location.”

Susan Stansbury, marketing director for Georgia-Pacific (G-P) Nonwovens Group, Green Bay, WI, also mentioned that the company is putting greater emphasis on face-to-face marketing and sales presentations, but is still using the Internet as a way present information to possible future sales leads. “Direct contact continues to be the most important tool for us right now,” Ms. Stansbury explained. “A lot of the information you can find on our website we edit for specific communications, meetings or presentations and then present to specific customers and prospects directly. The website has, however, helped us channel global inquiries and capture the interest of some prospects that do not attend the usual industry meetings and trade shows.”

Mr. Aue of Polyfelt expressed a similar sentiment. “When you don’t know your customers, the Internet can have much more input for creating new relationships. It helps us to communicate and reach people in remote areas of the world where we cannot do direct marketing or use classical means of marketing,” he said.

Getting the message out to the far corners of the world is one thing, but making sure those possible customers can read the information on a website is another. For this reason, a number of roll goods producers have made their websites multilingual. For example, while the homepage for SI is currently in English, the company plans to place international buttons on its websites where users will be able to choose from six or seven different languages. “It doesn’t give a user the whole site in another language, but it gives them a brief understanding of the business we’re in and a contact name for someone who knows the language,” explained SI’s Mr. Harr.

While reaching potential customers on a global scale can be an important move for many companies, other roll goods producers are finding their websites to be great marketing tools for existing customers as well. At Western Nonwovens (WNI), Carson, CA, the company’s website—which will be relaunched later this year and relocated to www.wni.com—has allowed existing customers to learn about products they may not have been aware of before. “People know us in the bedding business, but we have a lot of specialized industrial products such as filtration,” stated Richard Kenney, COO. “Opening up the world to let them know we have these products available is essential to us. Our core business is important to us, but growth is coming in specialty products. Being able to be found by people that are looking for solutions will be the only way to do business in the future.”

Eagle Nonwovens, St. Louis, MO, launched its redesigned website, www.eaglenonwovens.com, in January. According to vice president sales and marketing Michael Brennan, Eagle’s site has become an on-line marketing tool geared toward showing off the company’s corporate identity. “By redesigning our website to include pictures of our people, facility and equipment, we have essentially given potential customers a plant tour while they are sitting at their desks,” he said. “It’s almost like obtaining instant credibility. At the current cost for web design, the embellishment of corporate image engendered by an attractive, professional website can be a bargain for a new enterprise.”

What’s In A Name
Even though a website may contain a great deal of information that would be of use to visitors, it won’t be of any good if a visitor cannot find a company’s website or gets lost on the site due to the way it is structured. Many roll goods companies, such as BBA Nonwovens, have a main company website using the company’s name as its domain name that acts as a gateway to extensions of the main site that are usually focused on particular segments of the business, including products, technologies and other categories. “Our domain name is easy—bbaNonwovens.com,” stated BBA’s Mr. Meijer. “Because we have multiple products and a variety of brands, we have chosen to have the company name as the portal to the site.” He also mentioned that the company is also using some product-related sites as well as sites for some key brand names that will be linked to the BBA Nonwovens main site, allowing them either to be accessed directly or through BBA’s homepage.

This structure has also been adopted by Textilgruppe Hof for its website,which acts as a starting point for the company’s product-specific websites which all link back to the main site, according to Mr. Käppel. “We have a general company website for all of our products and then each company itself has its own website divided into market segments,” Mr. Käppel detailed. “It’s not a breakdown of all the specific capabilities, but it is company-wise and product-wise.”

Although the domain address for Lydall’s website is www.lydall.com, the company has ensured it can be found by those searching the web who may know what product they want, but do not have a specific company in mind. “We’ve made every effort to use all web tools available to us to make sure that anyone interested in our technologies will be able to find Lydall,” explained the company’s Mr. Carolan.

For nonwovens companies that are part of a larger corporation, such as the G-P Nonwovens Group, an important part of the structuring process is making sure the site can be found both directly and through the parent company’s main website. According to Ms. Stansbury, when the company was a part of Fort James, Green Bay, WI, she made sure the nonwovens page was easy to find from the corporate site and by short-cutting the name to www.fortjames.com/nonwovens. This method also gave her a website domain she could advertise and promote. Later this year, the company’s nonwovens site will be moved to www.gp.com/nonwovens to become part of the G-P corporate site. “I think by putting this type of direct short-cut to use and promoting it is the best of both worlds,” Ms. Stansbury assessed. “We’re not promoting our group GP.com, we’re promoting gp.com/nonwovens. We make ourselves look stand-alone, yet there is a corporate benefit because once people get in there they can get to the rest of the company. The efforts made by a particular unit in a company depend on the efforts made by that business unit. That’s why in our unit we are making some extra efforts to have a particularly nice section.”

DuPont has created separated websites that target specific needs in a variety of end markets for its “Tyvek” brand protective material . The markets include weatherization systems, envelopes, medical packaging, graphics and protective apparel. “While each site addresses the different business needs of a wide range of customers, we also have a brand strategy that ties all the sites together,” explained DuPont’s Ms. Sullivan. “Tyvek.com is our brand site, which addresses the unique nature of Tyvek and allows the customer to move to the specific site that addresses his or her particular application. Customers appreciate this kind of organization and have come to rely on it.”

Cast Your Web Wide
Now that most roll goods producers have realized the importance and potential of the Internet and have either relaunched new sites or are in the reworking phase, the question that remains is: will the importance of the World Wide Web continue in the future or is it just a passing fad?

“I think the Internet will play a large role in the nonwovens industry, just as it has in every other industry,” Ms. Smyth of Foss stated. “There are ways the Internet is changing business practices that we can’t always predict and everyone is starting to sit up and take notice. I think it may be a little longer coming within the nonwovens industry, but I think we’re seeing the Internet really giving manufacturing and business easier and more sophisticated ways of doing business.”

Mr. Johnson of SPC expressed a similar idea. “I honestly think the Internet will play a very strong role, whether it be in nonwovens or otherwise. The opportunity for B2B is nothing short of huge. It’s the best single place to go for information.”

Other nonwovens companies believe the Internet will continue to play an increasingly important role on the global playing field and might ultimately mean the difference between success and failure. “The nonwovens business has been a very regional business because it’s harder to ship products and other things,” explained WNI’s Mr. Kenney. “Part of what we’re doing is becoming a global supplier by having a number of lines so that we can make the same product in a number of places. The Internet will become more important just for that reason. As competition gets keener, regional companies will begin to perish because they won’t be able to supply from multiple regions to their customers. Companies are going to need a mixture of commodity-type and specialty products to exist in the future world and the Internet gives them that opportunity to be known and get their specialty products and services out on a more non-regional basis.”

Many companies argue that the Internet and websites will retain their importance as marketing tools in the future. “The Internet will continue to be an important marketing/advertising tool that is a crucial component of any successful organization’s corporate communications efforts. Integrating this tool to reinforce a sales message is a responsibility no marketing professional should overlook,” said Eagle Nonwovens’ Mr. Brennan.

All in all, it seems the Internet and the nonwovens industry have an interesting and promising future ahead of them. Although many roll goods producers are wary of what the future power of the Internet may hold for them and what it will mean to the overall business, there is no hiding the fact that the World Wide Web is here to stay and will have a large effect on the nonwovens industry in some way, shape or form.

“The market for nonwovens will be no different from every other market surfing on this Internet tidal wave, however, we cannot forget that basic sales and marketing principles will still apply,” concluded Tex Tech’s Mr. Rossi. “Companies will still need to differentiate and communicate and the Internet provides a great tool to accomplish both.”

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