How Zoro Made Its Product and Collective Team Better, Faster and More Efficient

The e-commerce company continues to evolve to better meet the needs of business owners.

Written by Taylor Rose
Published on Feb. 07, 2024
How Zoro Made Its Product and Collective Team Better, Faster and More Efficient
Zoro
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When Matt Nicole was young, he would trail behind his father, walking through the large distribution plant where his dad worked. Nicole marveled at the industrial space — seeing the complete journey that a product would take from the moment an order came in, to becoming something tangible in the world.

“I’ve had a long journey to where I am and I feel like that small moment of walking through a factory as a kid has been completely fleshed out,” said Nicole, now a senior director of digital product management at Zoro. 

Because of his career journey and role at a company that is a modern-day equivalent to his dad’s workplace, Nicole explained, “I now know what it takes to not just get the item out the door, but to know where everything was before it was even ordered.” 

What does Zoro do? Chief Technology Officer Andy Goodfellow explained, “Zoro makes it easy for our customers to find, buy and get all the tools, parts, and supplies for their business.” 

Zoro has grown through several iterations, but it has always been a digital-first company. The website launched in 2011 and had around 20 employees. By 2016, the website had over a million products, and today, the company has over 600 team members.

“Zoro’s unique in that it’s digital first,” said Nicole. “There wasn’t a Zoro catalog out in the world when the website first launched. We’ve been around for over a decade making inroads in a truly digital-first customer-centric fashion.” 

The company has stayed relevant by making frequent adjustments to create a better customer experience. 

“In my personal life, I know mechanics, electricians, plumbers, contractors, DIYers and more who use the sites and catalogs in our industry every single day,” said Nicole. “Their livelihood depends on our collective ability to know, have and get everything to them quickly, reliably and at a great price.”

 

 Zoro leader stands at screen presenting to team with slide that reads “2024 Zoro HQ.”
Zoro

 

 

Even Better Than Before

Zoro has recently undergone a significant transformation. The company identified key opportunities to enhance the customer experience, while also capitalizing on improved cooperation among its internal teams.

“We found that the gaps between our independent processes could often appear ‘fine’ to us when looked at individually, but when viewed as a whole we weren’t delivering on the promises our customers should have been expecting from us,” said Nicole. 

The improvements help customers find products they need faster, and ensure Zoro can ship those products with greater speed than before.

The discovery began when the team found a process that was taking days more than it should have. 

“The whole company swarmed to see how they could help,” Nicole recalled. “Some teams hired people, others prioritized software development which hadn’t previously been identified. And we now have hundreds of thousands of items which we can confidently say will ship the same day.” 

 

“The whole company swarmed to see how they could help, and we now have hundreds of thousands of items which we can confidently say will ship the same day.”

 

To make the adjustments that were needed, teammates in product, engineering and design spent time investigating the ins and outs of Zoro’s fulfillment process. This deep dive led to collaborations across departments and teams that normally wouldn’t interact day to day.

“This helped us bring the most important information about fulfillment to our customers earlier in their journey,” said Nicole. “It wasn’t until we really started collaborating deeply with our partners across the whole company that the obstacles our customers face could be truly put front and center.”

The efficiencies and UX updates the team made will “help Zoro continue to be our customers’ preferred destination for all of their business needs,” Goodfellow said. 

“The impact on the business is anticipated to be significant, leading to increased customer loyalty, better market competitiveness and enhanced profitability through optimized pricing and inventory management,” he continued. 

Goodfellow played the role of strategic driver and connector for cross-departmental enablement, all while overseeing the technical aspects of the product adjustment. 

“The Zoro team utilized a combination of bespoke technologies including Zoro’s powerful data platform for competitive pricing analysis, high-velocity customer experience updates, master assortment data management and greatly improved industry segmentation to find leverage that created value for both the business and our customer,” said Goodfellow. 

For Goodfellow, the “key insight” came while analyzing the initial hypercore product performance paired with their enhanced same-day shipping and fulfillment ability. This revealed a significant volume lift and positive gross profit after Zoro’s pricing investment.  

“It validated the shift in strategy and provided a clear direction for the team’s go-to-market approach going forward through 2024,” said Goodfellow. 

He shared how successful collaborations with teams that worked in marketing, product, supply chain and analytics were crucial. 

“Strategies such as clear communication, defined roles and responsibilities, and regular cross-functional meetings ensured that collaboration was effective and aligned with our goals,” said Goodfellow.  

He went on to note that part of the goal was to streamline the online customer experience. 

“A large amount of technology was leveraged to gain actionable insights, automate pricing strategies and enhance the customer journey online — aligning with our refined market strategy,” he explained. 

 

 Zoro logo on wall leading to office entryway, with branded balloons next to the door.
Zoro

 

Helping Customers Find What They Need

Today, Zoro brings together more than 12 million unique products in its quest to help customers find, buy and get what they need to run their business. 

“That takes a lot of work every day by lots of people across the company,” Nicole said. “One thing we know — but a lot of our customers don’t — is that we not only have a lot of the things they need, but we can also get the products to them very quickly.”

 

EVER GROWING

Zoro started out with 180,000 items in 2011. By 2016, the company had over a million items on the website. In January 2024, the site sells over 12 million unique items.  

 

One of the ways that the Zoro team is able to get the right products in front of customers quickly is through a from-scratch build of the company’s own search and recommendation engines. The process has taken a few years, but it was a career milestone for Nicole. 

“It’s been a real joy working with such a dedicated team of people working to identify and solve the unique problems our customers have,” he said.

Nicole noted that the recommendations engine is built on top of an in-house real-time event pipeline, which the team uses for everything from analytics to driving web-scale advanced data science algorithms. 

“Finding the right product for the right customer becomes a lot easier when we control the full stack,” said Nicole. 

The Zoro search engine is also homegrown. The team started by focusing on using tried-and-true search ranking out of Lucene in Elasticsearch. Nicole noted that his team has a lot of runway for adding more advanced techniques. 

“The look and feel of Zoro is polished and always improving,” said Nicole. “We have historically focused on getting people to the thing they’re looking for as quickly as possible, but through this project we spent a bit more time watching and learning about how the items actually get to the customers.”
 

“The look and feel of Zoro is polished and always improving.”

 

The cross-departmental collaboration continues to help Zoro improve. Nicole spoke about how the various teams work like a well-coordinated relay race — the category management and merchandising teams acquire the right products, all the way to the marketing and pricing teams who help customers find the right products at the right price. 

“The culture at Zoro is really world class,” concluded Nicole. “We all work together to create a single clear view of the world we think our customers would value — and work together in order to bring that future to life.” 

 

Read MoreHow Zoro Is Fostering Community in its New Chicago Office

 

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images provided by Zoro.

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