Like a lot of entrepreneurs, Adam Sandow, the founder, chairman and CEO of Material Bank, likes to act on what excites him about a new business opportunity.
“What excites me,” he says, “is how we can leverage media and market trust and purview that into design … to build new things, new services.”
That strategy most recently has produced Material Bank, a new online marketplace designed to change the way architects and interior designers connect with hundreds of manufacturers and peruse thousands of products and specifications to find and get samples of the materials they’re considering for their design and building projects—and that they need to get in hand ASAP to submit attractive time-sensitive bids on projects.
With MaterialBank.com, Sandow says, his goal was to “build an ecommerce platform compelling enough to get a slow-changing industry to change quickly.”
So far, so good, he adds. Since officially launching in January 2019, Material Bank has signed up close to 200 suppliers and thousands of customers, who can deal in transactions already involving more than 100,000 SKUs and 25 million product data points. Sandow figures that’s just the beginning. Each manufacturer has a few hundred to 10,000 SKUs, and each SKU can have 50 attributes. Plus, Material Bank expects to expand far beyond 200 suppliers, he adds.
An online ecosystem for a complicated business
That’s a lot of data- and order-crunching, but Sandow figures he has the technology ecosystem in place—including a “highly customized” Magento ecommerce platform, SearchSpring site search and content management, a Made4Net warehouse management system and Locus Robotics warehouse robots—to support it all and keep Material Bank’s buyers and suppliers happy.
“Sampling is a very complicated process, and it will never go away,” Sandow says. In choosing material—paint, carpet, leather, wall covering, flooring, etc.—designers and architects have to search technically for specifications like fire prevention, chemical ingredients (e.g., Is that furniture material free of formaldehyde?), care treatment and washing details, and they have to review physical samples in-hand, he notes. And they can’t decide what to purchase until they get physical samples.
“No matter how good online visualization gets, or how good augmented reality is,” he adds, “you can’t just go online to experience the cool feel of marble” without having it in-hand to view, touch and inspect.
It’s also about the speed of getting those samples. When architects and interior designers are working out the details of a job bid, they need all of their material samples as quickly as possible—meaning within a day or two, if not within hours—and that can be tough to accomplish if a team is searching for and ordering samples from multiple suppliers, whether online or offline.
For suppliers making their materials available online as well as offline, the ease and speed of moving samples is just as crucial at a time when customers’ expectations are high thanks to Amazon.com and other leading online retailers, Sandow adds. “If you’re not as easy to deal with as the consumer ecommerce platforms, you’ll become roadkill in the B2B space,” he says.
Bringing the ease of B2C to B2B
Material Bank, he says, is an example of how the relative ease of product searching, purchasing and order fulfillment common in the world of online retailing can extend into the B2B world—in this case, bringing online retail-like smoothness to the chore architects and interior designers face of finding the right materials among thousands of options when designing the lobby of a grand hotel or the entrance to the main hall of a university. And then getting samples—lots of them, from multiple suppliers—delivered quickly from a single online order to experience both the ease of online ordering and the ability to quickly have the samples in hand.
“A designer can come to Material Bank at midnight, Eastern time,” he says, “search any material technically or just visually and request materials from any manufacturer; their samples can go into a single box, and it will be on their desk by 10:30 a.m. their local time the next morning.” For free. (Although Material Bank currently ships only to the contiguous 48 states, it’s planning to ship to additional areas including Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico.)
Material Bank earns revenue by charging the manufacturers providing samples a monthly service fee, plus a “small” transaction fee, Sandow says. He declines to be more specific.
Getting a slowly changing industry to change
Sandow isn’t new to the art and science of evolving traditional businesses in the digital age. Since 2003, he has built a media business that publishes content in print and digital publications for interior designers and architects and has extended it into publications focusing on personal beauty trends. And as the publishing industry has evolved into a more digital state, he has reworked his business model to not only produce online as well as print versions of titles like Interior Design, Galerie and NewBeauty, but also to develop new digital ways of interacting with subscribers.
Subscribers to Interior Design, for instance, can now click from the digital magazine to search for and view collections of products similar to those featured in the magazine’s pages, access extensive product details, use online features to share that information with colleagues and click for more information on the manufacturer or to link to the manufacturer’s website. The manufacturers include such names as Herman Miller for office chairs, Studio Brovhn for desks and other office furniture, and Sancal for sound-absorption furnishings. In addition, subscribers can link to click to view office and residential interior designs on Instagram to complement the magazine’s content.
Sandow has brought a similar strategy of thinking through new ways of digitally interacting with the buyers and sellers who use Material Bank, he says. “We’ve thought a lot about building an ecommerce platform compelling enough to get a slow-changing industry to change.”
To do that, his technology team developed MaterialBank.com on a Magento Commerce 2 ecommerce platform, from Adobe Inc., which is designed with a broad collection of APIs to connect with some 25 million data points of product specifications on hundreds of thousands of SKUs from about 200 manufacturers. APIs, or application programming interfaces, are sets of software instructions for automatically exchanging information between disparate software applications.
The Magento platform’s customer-facing front end was customized with the Angular development framework, which developers use to produce dynamically changing content across mobile and desktop applications. Sandow’s technology team integrated the Material Bank website’s product catalog, site-search and visual merchandising technology from SearchSpring, providing for more useful ways for architects and designers to search and navigate through dozens of material samples for their particular type of projects. The whole platform is hosted on internet servers from Amazon Web Services.
The result of the platform configuration, Sandow says, is “lightning-fast search, beautiful imagery, and clean and comprehensive data.”
The API-based platform’s flexibility, he adds, is enabling his team to respond to requests from users for customized features. “We’re getting a tremendous amount of ideas for new features,” he says. “Large architectural firms are asking for customized features that work for them.”
Sandow declines to explain such customized features for specific customers, but notes that among the things Material Bank’s team is looking at are tools for recognizing and searching for particular patterns in material samples and color-filtering to improve how site users can zero in on what they need.
More customers, more orders to fill
That flexibility, he adds, has become even more valuable as Material Bank has attracted more users in more industries than he had expected. “The biggest surprise is the number of corporate users—fast-food companies, luxury apparel chains, hotels, universities, airports, convention centers, corporate headquarters and large-scale amusement parks,” Sandow says. “A lot of them have corporate design offices, and they all have to make material decisions.”
Finding particular samples on Material Bank is one thing; getting them fulfilled in a faster order is another.
Material Bank operates a single distribution center—an 80,000-square-foot facility near the main FedEx Corp. shipping center in Memphis, Tennessee. The proximity of the FedEx terminal makes it easier for Material Bank to process returns of samples at no charge and to re-stock them, Sandow says.
Sandow’s team integrated Material Bank’s ecommerce site and financial accounting software with a Made4Net warehouse management system that works with LocusBots warehouse robots—or Mbots for Material Bank—to expedite order picking, packing and order fulfillment.
LocusBots, which are designed and manufactured by Locus Robotics in Wilmington, Massachusetts, are programmed to receive order information from the Made4Net WMS. The system organizes orders into “waves” and develops pick-lists for the robots and warehouse workers.
Robots with warehouse-mapping software
Locus Robotics was founded by former clients of Kiva Systems, a provider of warehouse robots that is now a part of Amazon.com Inc. operating as Amazon Robotics. The Amazon Kiva robots are programmed to follow a grid on warehouse floors to bring racks of products to warehouse pick workers as part of the order fulfillment process.
LocusBots serve a similar function, but instead of a floor grid, they use algorithms to accept clusters of orders for products in the same warehouse section or aisle and rely on warehouse mapping software to follow an optimal path among merchandise racks. Pick workers in the aisles then read order information on the robots to place the order items in bins that the robots then carry to packing stations.
Material Bank didn’t specify for publication its number of robots or the cost of operating them. The cost of LocusBots runs about $950 per robot per month, plus a system implementation fee of about $75,000 for a system with dozens of robots, says Rick Faulk, CEO of Locus Robotics. It takes four to six weeks for a typical implementation, he adds.
Locus Robotics, which introduced its LocusBots in 2016, has more than 26 clients with its robotic systems installed in 38 locations, Faulk says.
2 million SKUs—and many Instagram fans
The combination of Material Bank’s ecommerce site and warehouse operation, Sandow says, is enabling it to process more than 100,000 samples ordered per month—a volume that increases every month as its number of users grows about 30% per month. Next year, Material Bank plans to move from its 80,000-square-foot Memphis distribution center to one “five times that size,” Sandow says, adding: “We think we’ll eventually be in excess of 2 million SKUs from up to 1,000 manufacturers.”
The company is also taking other steps to prod and manage its growth. It plans to use more content development tools from Adobe and the APIs in the Magento platform to plug in external software.
“With the size and variety of product types that are included in Material Bank’s catalog, we are looking at highly sophisticated product information management systems with robust data analytics,” Sandow says. “We can then leverage the data to develop insights, which can be used to add value both the Sandow company and for our partners.”
One recent development was its launch of an Instagram account, where it shares images of trendy materials in individual sample size and in pictures of buildings and rooms decorated with the same materials. The response was unexpected, but hopefully a sign of growth to come, Sandow says.
“We launched the Instagram site 90 days ago, and we already have 12,000 followers,” he said earlier this month.
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