Digitizing how brewers get their hops - Yakima Chief Hops automates with Magento

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez July 28, 2020
Summary:
From using email and phone calls to a fully comprehensive e-commerce platform, Yakima Chief Hops finds value with Magento.

Image of a glass of beer
(Image by Mabel Amber from Pixabay )

Yakima Chief Hops is a 100% grower owned network of family hop farms throughout the Pacific Northwest, where its mission is to connect hops producers with the world's finest brewers. Up until recently the network of hop farms were relying on archaic, manual processes - such as email and phone calls - to get the products in the hands of brewing customers. However, Yakima Chief Hops (YCH) made the decision to migrate to Magento's e-commerce platform to automate transactions, adopt self service and improve transparency throughout the suppliers' processes.

Jordan Gottlieb, director of software engineering at YCH, and Brianna Vaughn, part of YCH's inside sales division, were speaking this week at Adobe's Experience Makers Live virtual event about the company's digital journey. Gottlieb said:

We will show how the flexibility of the Magento platform enabled us to address key business challenges and the value we gained both for our customers and ourselves by transforming from phone and email orders to a fully automated, fully transparent, enterprise grade B2B company.

Vaughn explained that prior to selecting Magento, YCH struggled with a number of challenges across all of the company's departments, in terms of flexibility and transparency. Every order, account inquiry, and request for a copy of an invoice had to be initiated by phone or email to a specific sales rep who then had to research multiple systems before passing the requested information back to the customer.

For YCH to live up to its goal of being one of the leading hop companies in the world, it needs to strive for transparency, traceability and accountability in everything it does. Vaughn said:

Before implementing our Magento Customer Portal, we were not achieving this well. We needed to address our customers' demand for real time visibility into their contracts and invoices, as well as provide self service ordering. Another benefit was accuracy and efficiency. Fully automated ordering reduces the potential for human error and processing delays and also allows us to cater to the online shopping habits of today's consumers, by offering them the ability to manage their accounts and process orders at any time, from any place, with any connected device.

Drinking the digital Kool Aid

YCH had a substantial set of technical requirements, but after months of research landed on Magento as the platform of choice, as it offered customisation and integration potential, as well as considerable localisation, scaling and cost advantages.

The company had been previously operating its own experimental e-commerce site, which it found wasn't a viable candidate for complete digital transformation or international growth. It lacked fully-automated integration capacity between YCH's enterprise systems, ERP, global warehouses, and third party logistics. There were also deficiencies in terms of product and lab information management system integrations and depended on advanced inventory, including detailed locations and lot level reservations. Gottlieb said:

We've been selling hops for 30 years in person and by phone or email. Digital commerce also represented a significant paradigm shift, both for customers and the company as a whole. From sales, to contracting, to logistics and everything in between. So intuitive administrative and customer experiences would play a crucial role in adoption and ultimately, success.

Vaughn said that automating the click to ship experience required a lot more than technology - the company had to discipline itself to focus on using e-commerce instead of YCH's "comfortably familiar" ERP system as the primary point of sale. This took a lot of cross-functional collaboration between all departments involved in the ordering process, including: planning, production, sales, contracting, warehousing, logistics and IT. She added:

Introducing our new digital commerce platform to our customers and business partners took a lot of finesse from sales and marketing. We had to provide a lot of support and education around the new processes and capabilities of the platform. Through measured, clear and concise outreach to customers.

From a technical perspective, YCH took a comprehensive overview of its entire system architecture, from network topology, to custom Magento extensions, to proprietary systems. Gottlieb explained how YCH customised the Magento platform for its needs. He said:

Our engineering team built several proprietary solutions. We built an enterprise integration service to keep Magento, our ERP and our warehouse management systems synchronised for integrations like inventory, contracts, orders, payments, etc.

We extended our API to behave as an integration proxy middleware, and a centralised logging endpoint. We developed Power BI dashboards for system integration and health reporting, to help our analysts triage any integrations that needed manual intervention. We built a product information system and a laboratory information system to help with bulk product updates around metadata and quality control brewing values.

[We also] extended Magento with advanced inventory. An order management system, a custom shipper HQ implementation for split deliveries and API shipping rates, a job manager, which enables transactional push posting to our ERP, and a B2B contract and custom invoice extension. They also built several custom API endpoints to enable some of our third party system integrations to work.

Benefits and lessons learned

The benefits of the project to YCH's business and customers have been "invaluable", according to Vaughn. On average, Magento self-service has absorbed approximately five complex, high average order valuable B2B orders per inside salesperson, per day. Vaughn said:

This empowers sales with additional time to work on other high value added projects and engage in more meaningful, direct customer interactions that help maintain stronger relationships with our brewing partners. This has also provided instant service for our customers. They now don't need to wait for the representatives to be on the clock to process the orders. Our customers can place orders whenever they want.

We've also opened up a direct communication to our home brew market. Previously we've relied on distributors alone to reach out to our B2C customers. Magento has helped us further increase B2C sales, move excess inventory and start to build more direct relationships with home-brewers to better understand their needs through user analytics and tracking.

In addition to the business value, Gottlieb said that YCH now has prepaid years of technical debt by phasing these solutions in at adoptable, testable rates. He added that the company now has platforms and frameworks in place that are proven to work and can scale. Gottlieb explained:

We're ready to bolt on integrations with new systems and services, such as third party logistics, artificial intelligence, there's basically unlimited potential for further growth opportunities. We have a sustainable, maintainable working model, that's flexible, extensible and internationally capable. So we can potentially turn up in any new territory almost as fast as we could source a warehouse or trading partner there.

We also have deeper insights into our customer base than ever before, from the added user tracking and analytics that come naturally with e-commerce. We've kicked off implementation for a data warehouse with a customer data lake, we're starting to tune for conversion, and we're taking a look at user experience and customer experience, and scrutinising the online journey our brand offers. For the first time we are able to analyse concrete digital customer behaviour, provide proactive customer support and features, and find new, better ways to add value than were ever possible before.

YCH has since also kickstarted a full redesign of both its public facing B2C marketing presence and its back-end B2B customer portals. The company is entirely redesigning and reintegrating its marketing and e-commerce homepage, public catalog views, product detail pages, corporate marketing and sales content. It is also on the verge of offering self-service to Canadian brewers this year and to European brewers in 2021.

In terms of the lessons learned, communication has been key. Vaughn said:

Budget time and money conservatively, but realistically. Processes used in a manual environment cannot always be automated, so it's helpful to make the team aware of these potential issues with undocumented, institutional knowledge and work, to discover alternative solutions to ensure all areas of the business are still serviceable.

From my experience, the most important lesson learned was that cross-functional communication is key. It's essential to make sure all teams affected are involved, which is kind of a given but at times can be overlooked. And that over communication between everyone is the norm. Transparent communication about the changing processes and expectations throughout the company is the number one thing that helped us succeed in our implementation.