By Ian McCue, commerce and retail reporter
⏰ 3-minute read
- Chimney supplies company Lindemann Chimney didn’t plan to sell direct-to-consumer until shoppers started ordering from its site for wholesale customers.
- The business relied on large marketplaces to gain traction and drive consumers to its own e-commerce site.
- Questions from customers and fulfilling a large volume of small orders remain a challenge with direct-to-consumer, but these orders now make up 16% of the company’s sales.
Lindemann Chimney Company’s initial direct-to-consumer (D2C) sales were not the product of a master plan. Consumers simply found the e-commerce site the company launched for B2B customers and started placing orders.
Unlike some B2B e-commerce sites, Lindemann Chimney’s site does not require customers to log in to make purchases, so anyone can buy chimney caps, dampers, cleaning tools and more. However, wholesale customers must sign in to view discounted prices.
But creating a site that made it more convenient for chimney professionals to restock their supplies also attracted a different group of visitors.
“The initial goal was to always have a website for our wholesale customers, but the unintended consequence was an increasingly profitable opportunity to sell direct to consumers,” Lindemann Chimney Director of Operations Michael Schaefer said.
“Although we treat them as separate types of customers, they act and think and shop the same way – they like quick navigation, easy checkout and reliable tracking information.”
A dynamic family business
Gary Lindemann started Lindemann Chimney Company 50 years ago as a chimney sweeping business and grew it into one of the largest such companies in the Chicago area. Gary’s son Rob later took over the business and expanded the supply side, which now accounts for about 50% of revenue. (Services represent the other half.) The company both manufactures its own products and sells other leading brands.
In light of the higher margins on consumer sales, other B2B companies finding success selling direct-to-consumer and clear demand, Lindemann Chimney started listing more items on major e-commerce marketplaces like Amazon, Walmart and eBay several years ago. The idea was that consumers would see the company’s items on those marketplaces -- which already attracted a large number of visitors -- and eventually find their way to Lindemann’s own e-commerce site.
Lindemann Chimney was surprised to learn many visitors to its e-commerce site designed for B2B buyers were consumers.
Scaling the D2C channel
As more consumers placed orders, the business hired a full-time employee to manage the D2C channel. This person sources new products, updates online listings and prices, creates marketing campaigns and fields questions from these customers.
Indeed, that last part has proven especially difficult with a group of shoppers that lack in-depth knowledge about chimneys.
“The biggest challenge then, and now, is dealing with the consumer questions that you don’t get from an experienced wholesale customer,” Schaefer said. “Many times, from a liability standpoint, we make sure to refer customers to local professionals should the questions start to revolve around ‘how do I install this?’ That’s where we draw the line.”
Fulfillment is another key challenge with D2C. While a warehouse employee picks wholesale and consumer orders at the same time, packing is more complex for the latter.
“Packing individual items vs. packing pallets can be more tedious and time-consuming,” Schafer said. “Printing multiple UPS/USPS tickets for these individual products can also be a challenge."
Keeping track of D2C orders that come in through a number of marketplaces in addition to Lindemann Chimney’s own site and ensuring they all leave the warehouse on time is another challenge. So is reporting inventory issues like returned and damaged goods.
There is one aspect of D2C that’s easier than B2B: No orders come in via phone or fax, so there’s no need to staff extra employees to take orders.
D2C central to future success
The Lake Bluff, Ill.-based company saw D2C sales jump about 30% year-over-year in 2019, and today, D2C represents 16% of Lindemann Chimney’s supply division sales. To maintain that momentum, the business will put more resources behind the channel – it plans to hire a new warehouse associate this year to focus solely on consumer orders – and hopes to boost profitability as it implements more efficient processes for order management and fulfillment.
Direct to consumer is critical to the continued success of Lindemann Chimney not only because of the extra dollars but also because it exposes the company to a new audience and prevents it from falling behind forward-thinking competitors.
“We all live in an Amazon world. We knew that if we didn’t play ball, we’d be missing out on a huge revenue source,” Schaefer said. “Long term and short term, it’s another revenue source that allows us to expand in other areas of the business.”