New ‘Portal Select’ is Like Amazon Prime B2B for Smart-Home Pros
Portal.io already lets smart-home technologists search for specialty products, build proposals and purchase gear wholesale from a single site. New ‘Select’ service, to be demonstrated at CEDIA 2017, elevates service to Amazonian levels.
Portal.io already has a strong following among smart-home integrators (5,000+) and suppliers who embrace the company’s online marketplace, proposal and ordering platform.
That B2B platform, however, is getting a lot more powerful with the addition of Portal Select, to be demonstrated at CEDIA 2017 in September. The new service looks a lot like Amazon Prime for the home-technology channel. For "Select" vendors and products, dealers get free shipping, three-day delivery or better, and financial rewards above and beyond Portal’s usual 1% rebate.
“Our whole goal has always been to make it easier for dealers to do business – to reduce the friction between dealers and suppliers,” says Josh Willits, Portal VP of Dealer Happiness. “Look at Amazon. It’s an easy buying experience. It’s what everyone talks about.”
We provide details on Portal Select below, but first a little history lesson.
Out of the gate in 2014, Portal (then SupplyStream) solved a couple of the biggest pain points for integrators: finding products and placing orders, whether through distribution or manufacturers directly. With Portal, dealers could comparison-shop among suppliers, picking providers based on product availability, shipping policies, warehouse location and pricing.
It was a glorious thing for integrators used to buying stuff through multiple suppliers with different modes of communication -- some via fax, some via phone, some through good or bad e-commerce engines.Portal would display this data, along with up-to-date product specs, photos, and related info. Dealers would create shopping lists and press one button to dispatch all purchase orders to multiple suppliers, including distributors and manufacturers directly.
Portal soon added a project proposal platform that allowed dealers to pick products, insert customer pricing, drop it all into a proposal template, and zip it off to customers. Once approved, a single button press would issue purchase orders to all suppliers.
More recently, Portal launched a consumer-facing site for clients to view and approve proposals and otherwise communicate with their installers.
"We love being able to take a client-approved project, hit a button, and turn those plans into POs for the various distributors," says Walt Reardon, president of Gulf Coast Audio Video in D'Iberville, Miss. And for emphasis: "All I have to do is push a button to get them out."
Portal has continued to add new vendors, software and services, including improved search results, and an API that enables third-party providers like D-Tools and ProjX360 to incorporate Portal data into their software.
But Still the Friction! Enter Portal Select
While Portal has eliminated much friction in the specification, proposal and purchasing process, a few important obstacles have lingered: 1) It’s still a pain in the rear for qualified dealers to become authorized by manufacturers and distributors, 2) product availability can be unreliable or just plain lame, and 3) shipping costs can sting.
Portal Select dashes these obstacles … but only for a limited (“Select”) subset of vendors and their products.
Let’s start with pain point #1: No matter how long a dealer has run a thriving home-technology business, it can still be a monstrous pain to set up new vendors – financial records, references, bank accounts, your first-born child … and then thumb-twiddling for two weeks until the authorization comes through.
Say you usually buy your matrix switches from Acme, but no one has it in stock, so you’ll settle for a comparable product from Soylent Corp. Man, that would take a lot of paperwork for a one-off buy.
In the case of Portal, Select suppliers might offer “their whole product line, or a subset that they’re willing to sell to dealers they don’t already have a relationship with.”With Portal Select, as long as you’re “unlocked” with three different Portal vendors, you can buy anything you want from the Select marketplace. No hassles, just click.To be fair, distributors themselves typically offer similar accommodations: Once they’ve blessed you as a qualified dealer, you can buy pretty much everything they offer except for protected lines.
Portal Select represents the “Amazonification” of the original SupplyStream platform, according to Willits. “Vendors get to sell to new and unique dealers. We facilitate the transaction and reduce friction.”
He cites CE Pro research that over 20% of dealers are purchasing from outside the channel – from the likes of Best Buy, Amazon and Home Depot.
“A lot of them are buying for a premium price on Amazon because they know they’re getting in two days.” Willits says. “Maybe they haven’t even checked with their vendors because Amazon is just so easy. I think we can turn that revenue back to our distributors and to vendors’ own dealer portals.”
Willits gives all the credit for this inspiration to Portal founder Kirk Chisholm, who “always imagined this kind of ‘industry passport’ for SupplyStream.”
Now onto pain points #2 and #3: In addition to the always-available-to-anyone commitment from participating vendors, they must also provide free shipping and guaranteed delivery in under three days.
The “passport” applies to distributors as well as manufacturers. Wholesalers in the program will sell their Select wares to any triple-vetted dealer, free of shipping charges, in three days or less.
Willits says that some Select vendors might choose to include their entire product catalog in the special marketplace. Others might put just one or five SKUs in there. Some might already offer these products to any and every dealer. And some might already offer generous shipping terms.
But Willits says dealers can expect to find at least some products in there that normally are reserved for a small group of anointed dealers.
“There is a mix of open/protected vendors participating,” he explains. “Shipping terms vary per vendor, but in all cases the Portal Select free shipping and guaranteed delivery is better than their current programs.” (Emphasis all his.)
The ever-effusive integrator Joe Whitaker of The Thoughtful Home sent me his unsolicited feedback on Portal Select as soon as he saw the new offering.
“This is a huge deal,” he gushes. “Freaking Amazon for HTPs [home technology pros]!!!! This is one of the biggest advancements in product acquisition ever. Not only for finding, ordering, and even shipping, but the big deal is to be able to easily get access to product lines without hassle, and to be able to add gear to my arsenal without having to support the entire brand.”
There’s yet another perk of Portal Select: As mentioned above, dealers already get a 1% rebate for products sourced through Portal. Many of the products in the Select marketplace, however, come with additional rebates from manufacturers who want to up the ante.
Not surprisingly, “I like the idea of double rewards on Portal Select items,” says Jeremy Rasti of Baton Rouge-based Crescendo AAV “To date, since the rewards program was introduced, I’ve cashed in about $1,000 in rewards.”
He recently bought his first “Select” products from Legrand, a brand new vendor in the Portal family.
“I found it to be quick and easy,” Rasti says. “I think this will be an even more powerful feature when more vendors get on board.”
Like Rasti, Portal loyalist Justin Gant of Dallas-based 7Pixl “can’t wait for more manufacturers to get on board.”
He thinks Portal Select will be especially advantageous for “smaller manufacturers that lack wide distribution.”
That’s really nice and all, but Portal is working really hard to nab the big fish, starting with Legrand (OnQ and NuVo) for now. More big wins will be announced shortly. In the meantime, see Portal partners below.
Supplier Side Economics: Where's the Money?
Since its 2014 launch, Portal has continued to add more vendors and distributors to its platform. They come in a variety of flavors – some barely engaged, some active participants, and now a small but growing number of Select partners, including the aforementioned Legrand.
Portal does all the heavy lifting on the back end – gratis – in order to get vendors on the roster. Suppliers pay a small percentage of any purchase issued through Portal Select.
Some manufacturers have expressed concerns to CE Pro about the Portal model. Knowing all the search and purchasing patterns of every dealer, Portal theoretically could entice any one of them to switch loyalties via targeted ads touting promotional pricing. Add your favorite speaker to a proposal, for example, and Portal could suggest you buy a comparable product for 50% off, today only, just for YOU.
More importantly, perhaps, the fact that Portal users can upload product details and confidential price lists from their dealer-direct vendors – whether those vendors support Portal or not – spooks some manufacturers who don’t want their protected data floating around on someone else’s cloud.
What if Portal ended up selling or sharing this valuable data, even by accident? Sure, direct competitors could find a treasure trove in there, but worse: An analytics and e-commerce giant like Amazon could parse every little nuance about the way integrators shop, and figure out how to grab that business.
On these concerns, Willits says Portal has “talked about providing data to suppliers in aggregate,” but hasn’t acted on it.
He says for certain: Suppliers won’t have access to dealer proposals.
“The last thing anyone wants is for a vendor to call dealers and ask why they didn’t spec their products,” according to Willits.
Also, vendors won't be seeing competitive information about another vendor – not specifics, not in aggregate.
On the other hand, something portal might consider selling is high-level analysis on Portal activities in aggregate – like what percentage of proposals include outdoor A/V, or how rebates influence product choice, or whether certain loss leaders can help vendors grab new customers for the long haul. Today, however, that business model is way down on the priority list.
Willits says the company has also discussed run-of-the-mill advertising on its sites, but “the problem is the call to action takes away from the whole experience for the dealer. It just breaks down the whole process.”
What Portal prefers is a contextual advertising model a la Facebook. Based on user searches and other online behaviors, Portal can deliver the best audience for any given vendor.
“Facebook lets you target ads to certain people, but advertisers don’t actually see the data,” Willits says. “We give them the results they’re seeking, but they’re doing it through our platform without giving them the raw data.”
Dealers appreciate that, Willits says: “If we can show dealers how they have access to new products that meet specific needs based on search criteria, it’s a much better experience and translates to immediate sales for vendors who support us.”
So, yes, as with Google and Amazon and Facebook and others, expect to see “sponsored” results specific to a search query.
At the end of the day, though, “Everything we do, we do for the dealer.”
Happy dealers place more orders through Portal, and “our biggest opportunity is on the transaction side,” Willits says. “We must make it as easy as possible for dealers to find everything they need on our site."
Portal claims the following vendor partners so far. Each vendor’s commitment to the platform varies. Here’s the key:
No stars – At a minimum, these suppliers are “actively participating” in Portal by providing product information to the site.
One star * – These preferred vendors are the real deal, providing product and data feeds to Portal, enabling dealers to incorporate them into proposals and purchase them on the fly. To participate at this level, suppliers must load their authorized dealers into the system, giving Portal the opportunity to sell more stuff to these customers.
Two stars ** – Participants in Portal Select
[D] - Distributor
Not listed – hundreds of vendors who find their way into the system, usually via distributors or dealers.
- 21st Century [D]
- AC Infinity*
- Access Networks*
- Atlantic Technologies*
- Audio Authority*
- Audio Control*
- Audio Plus [D]
- Automated Outlet [D]
- Blackwire [D]
- Capitol Sales [D]
- Current Marketing [D]
- Digital Projection
- Expert Warehouse [D]
- Future Ready Solutions*
- Heckler Designs*
- ICE Cable*
- Key Digital**
- Legrand (OnQ/Nuvo)**
- Liberty Wire & Cable
- Monitor Audio
- OEM Systems*
- Origin Acoustics / iRoom*
- ProSource [D]
- Sanus (Milestone)*
- Screen Innovations
- Security System Depot [D]
- Sierra Select
- The Davinci Group
- TItan Networx**
- Transformative Engineering*
- Volutone [D]
- Windy City Wire
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Julie Jacobson is founding editor of CE Pro, the leading media brand for the home-technology channel. She has covered the smart-home industry since 1994, long before there was much of an Internet, let alone an Internet of things. Currently she studies, speaks, writes and rabble-rouses in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V, wellness-related technology, biophilic design, and the business of home technology. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, and earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin. She is a recipient of the annual CTA TechHome Leadership Award, and a CEDIA Fellows honoree. A washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player, Julie currently resides in San Antonio, Texas and sometimes St. Paul, Minn. Follow on Twitter: @juliejacobson Email Julie at firstname.lastname@example.org
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