It’d be an understatement to say we cover activity out of W.W. Grainger a lot, or a heck of a lot. Just like news of Tesla in the automotive space, or Amazon in the e-commerce space, or Apple in the personal electronics space, Grainger is the biggest market mover for all things MRO. It has been for some time. It’s been No. 1 on Industrial Distribution’s Big 50 List for fours years running (and would’ve been for much longer under the list’s current methodology).
Everyone knows Grainger is huge in the MRO world. But beyond the company’s financial reports — it had $13 billion in 2021 sales and $1.0 billion in net profit — it’s hard to truly grasp the scale of the distributor’s presence and capabilities.
That is, unless, you’re the editor of a trade publication like ID and are privy to an inside look at the company at its annual trade show.
I spent Feb. 27-March 1 in Orlando, FL at Grainger Show — the company’s annual event showcasing customer appreciation, industry education, supplier networking and Grainger resources. It was the first time the event was held in-person since 2019 after the last two years of that were wiped out by the pandemic,. The 2020 event was one of the very first industry event casualties as COVID-19 began taking off en masse in the U.S., though Grainger did host a 2021 event
It was actually my third time attending the event — I did in 2018 and 2019 — but its prolonged absence and the general yearning to get back out to in-person industry events had me as excited for it as the first time.
Grainger personnel said the event had about 8,500 attendees, which is about 71 percent of the ~12,000 it had in 2019, but rather impressive given that many in the industry are still just starting to ease their way back into traveling. Even with facemasks abound, it was easy to pick up on the positive vibe from attendees there who were eager to discuss products and solutions, and I had more than a handful of product managers attempt to talk my ear off at their exhibit booths, though I happily obliged.
I’ve always liked that Grainger Show gives me access to the leaders of the company’s different solutions centers. The company is always pumping out news, but talking one-on-one with those specialists typically requires separate correspondence. In Orlando, they were all in once place, and I was able to interview many of them in succession.
Here’s just some of the highlights of my time at Grainger Show 2022:
It was great to learn from VP of sales & operations Sam Johnson about how Grainger’s KeepStock solutions can fit any sized customer and advise them in different stages from how to best manage their own inventory to Grainger taking over the entire operation themselves. In recent years, more and more customers are realizing the cost savings that can be found just by having the right amount of inventory in the right places, and they are increasingly happy to have someone take that responsibility off their hands.
Grainger’s Sr. Manager of Business Communications Janine Sheedy detailed everything I needed to know about Zoro.com and its role in supporting the company’s Endless Assortment e-commerce offering — including how it particularly caters to small- and mid-sized customers looking for quick buys. That platform’s growth from 6.1 million active SKUs at the end of 2020 to 8.7 million at the end of 2021 is remarkable.
Grainger’s Safety director Travis Kruse informed me all about how Grainger’s Safety team managed the myriad of tasks tied to the pandemic, from sourcing and supplying PPE to providing facility safety plans for customers of all types and sizes. People needed it all, and rapidly, and the company was often the first that industrial, commercial, institutional and governmental entities turned to for their needs. While those needs have certainly subsided, Grainger has seen product demand go from pandemic reactionary to more of an ‘endemic’ need, with customers wanting products to best live with COVID-19 has a long-term threat. Meanwhile, the company is still auditing facility’s safety management plans to optimize their foot-traffic flows. I also made sure to check out Grainger’s well-known ShoeMobile, which makes stops at various customer facilities to bring footwear safety solutions on-site.
I spoke with Grainger’s Public Sector VP Ben Nichols about how the company deploys its Disaster Response team — something I’ve always been curious about ever since following Grainger’s response to Hurricane Harvey hitting the U.S. Gulf Coast in August 2017. He told me how, once a disaster strikes, the company determines where to set up a basecamp from which to deploy needed supplies — largely to public emergency response teams (fire, police, EMS, hospitals, etc.). If a convenient location isn’t readily available, the company is typically able to make its nearest branch for that, of which it has about 350 in North America.
I spoke with Grainger’s Director of Metalworking Strategy Brad Laux about how the company is able to pinpoint cost savings that can be achieved by customers with identifying the right parts and solutions that will reduce waste and maximize jobtime, along with offering training, tool reconditioning and tool recycling.
Grainger Sr. Director of Services & Solutions Development Kevin Hartler filled me in all about how Grainger’s Consulting services work. I’d describe this as Grainger’s jack-of-all-trades offering, as it has a hand in essentially all of its services once a customer reaches a certain level of involvement. Whether in safety, inventory management, metalworking, e-commerce or beyond, Grainger’s consulting team steps in to essentially audit a customer’s current operation and determine customer cost savings that can be achieved through the company’s solutions.
I had a general idea of what the role was for each of these Grainger services, but I came away from the show with an infinitely better understanding of the nuts & bolts of them.