How Grainger's e-commerce team takes on one of the biggest challenges in search

How Grainger's e-commerce team takes on one of the biggest challenges in search
Written by Andreas Rekdal
January 30, 2018Updated: March 27, 2024
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image via grainger

Grainger was always designed to be mobile.

In its early days, the company had a product catalog designed to fit easily in a shirt pocket. Since then, Grainger’s catalog has grown to showcase more than 1.6 million individual products — but now, it’s more pocket-friendly than ever, thanks to the company’s e-commerce team.

Brian Walker, Grainger’s vice president of digital architecture and operations, said that while the company was founded more than 90 years ago, its digital roots are about as deep as they come. 

“Grainger was an early pioneer in the digital space,” said Walker. “In fact, we were probably a bit ahead of the market, starting an online industrial marketplace in 1996.”

And even by that point, the company had already been distributing its hardware catalog as a CD-ROM for five years.

It presents all kinds of challenges from the standpoints of technical architecture, scaling and usability.”

Since then, those digital efforts have paid off. Last year, Grainger made $10.4 billion in sales, with an average transaction size of about $300. The majority of those sales originated from its e-commerce platform.

That kind of scale, said Walker, makes working for Grainger’s engineering team interesting.


“It presents all kinds of challenges from the standpoints of technical architecture, scaling and usability,” said Walker. “There isn’t a business in the United States that doesn’t buy the types of products we sell. So, we must think through prioritization, how to present content in a way that is useful and convenient across every customer size and type — and actually get them the products they need when they need them. The scale challenges get meaty, quickly.”

That challenge is compounded by the fact that buyers of industrial supplies need a lot more direction in finding the right products than the average online shopper.

“When shopping in a consumer setting, the searches tend to be really specific. You frequently know precisely what you want, and you likely have a preference for the style and brand,” said Walker. “In our business, most search queries are a lot less specific. A common scenario is when something at our customers' location breaks and needs to be replaced. The customer needs a solution, but they don't buy these types of products every day — and may not know what to call it.

“Our challenge is to help the customer get to the solution they require given limited experience with the product they have to repair,” Walker added. "We have to interpret our customers' intent and help them traverse a huge set of very nuanced, seldomly purchased products and help guide them to the solution that is going to satisfy their needs.”

But on its quest to build the best e-commerce platform possible, Grainger isn’t limiting its talent search to people who know its industry.

“There aren't many people in the technology space that have deep experience in MRO or industrial supply, but that's not necessary,” said Walker. “We're looking for people who are curious, smart and are skilled developers. We want people who enjoy working in a collegial environment and love solving complex problems at real scale.”

Jobs at Grainger

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