These days, more and more commercial manufacturers are offering e-commerce websites so customers can order products online with the click of a button. Alabama Correctional Industries (ACI), one of the top Department of Corrections offender work-training programs in the U.S., recently decided to join the club.

As a self-supporting government program, ACI relies solely on the revenue generated by their 500+ products and services to fund operations. They can only sell their products to government agencies within the state of Alabama. Yet those agencies are not required to buy from them, which means ACI must be able to compete with commercial firms that offer the same products.

Since implementing Global Shop Solutions’ ERP (enterprise resource planning) system in 2015, ACI has dramatically improved shop floor efficiency while reducing production and administrative costs. But as Director of Operations David Smith looked ahead, he saw the need for an e-commerce website to keep up with the evolving manufacturing industry. This resulted in a complete redesign of their existing website, including the addition of e-commerce capabilities.

Alabama Correctional Industries’ new e-commerce website

“Customers could look at our products on our old website, but they couldn’t add them to a cart and buy,” says Smith. “We struggled to keep product information updated because we relied on the Department of Corrections IT staff to do it, and the site didn’t do a great job of showcasing our products.” To overcome these flaws, the ACI team opted for a complete redesign of their website. Their primary goal was to offer e-commerce functionality to their customers, but they also wanted:

  • A user-friendly design and layout for easier navigation
  • The ability to make changes on their own to keep product information current
  • The ability to integrate with ACI’s ERP system, so customer orders automatically and immediately get sent to the system without the need for manual input
Furniture in the ACI showroom

ACI engaged with their ERP vendor, Global Shop Solutions and Expert Internet Marketing (EIM), an online marketing firm, to handle the transition from the old “online brochure” type of website to a full e-commerce site. EIM designed and built the new site, and Global Shop Solutions integrated the website and ERP system. Phase one of the site rebuild has been completed. Existing customers can shop and buy products online, and the website/ERP integration currently under way. Until the website and ERP integration is complete, online orders are uploaded into the ERP system so it can launch the process of creating sales orders, work orders and getting production started. All involved expect successful completion of phase two – full ERP/website integration – within a few months.

Good for ACI, Good for Their Customers

The new website offers several benefits to ACI and its customers. For customers, ordering product will be quicker and easier. “Our website functions like any commercial e-commerce site,” says Smith. “Customers log on, add items to their cart, and place the order. The one difference is that we aren’t allowed to accept payment online. Instead, the system will automatically send an invoice to the customer, who will forward payment by mail.”

The warehouse floor at the ACI clothing plant

According to Matt Sexton, project manager for EIM, customers will also be able to access order information without having to call ACI. Instead, they will log onto a secure ACI web portal and see the information electronically. “This kind of integration allows programs running on different operating systems to communicate with each other,” says Sexton. “Once we get it up and running, it will provide access to ACI’s ERP database so customers can see their orders, shipping status and other information related to their account. The data is always up to date because it resides in the ERP system, and the web portal is secure, so ACI doesn’t have to worry about unauthorized access.”

For ACI, the automatic transfer of customer orders from website to ERP software eliminates the time and expense involved in manually transferring the data. It also eliminates the errors that inevitably occur when uploading or manually keying in data. “This will take a lot of pressure off our customer services representatives,” says Smith. “When phase two is complete, all information will instantly flow into the ERP system as soon as the customer completes the order. This will trigger the system to generate the sales orders and work orders needed to start production.

“In addition, new customers will be able to go onto the site, create an account and order products. This data will also be sent to Global Shop Solutions, which will create the customer account and the order in the ERP database. We’ll have a complete e-commerce site anybody can use as long as they meet state requirements to buy from us.”

Doing It Right

For other correctional industries considering an e-commerce website, Smith offers the following recommendations:

Set clear goals. Decide what you want to accomplish with an e-commerce site. Then evaluate whether the advantages to you and your customers will outweigh the time and cost of building a new website. 

Build a diverse team. “This starts at the leadership level,” says Smith. “Our director saw the value in e-commerce and got involved from the beginning. We made sure to get input from people in different areas of the organization regarding what they wanted on the site and what they wanted it to do. The more people you bring to the table, the better your decision-making will be.”

Select a qualified web developer. The company should have experience converting old websites to e-commerce. If they haven’t worked with a correctional institution, make sure they understand the differences. For example, the inability to accept credit card payment will require a different checkout process.

Make sure your ERP system is up to the task. Can your ERP system communicate with the necessary Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) software? Some legacy ERP systems may have difficulty with this type of integration. If so, can your ERP vendor provide a workaround or an upgrade to enable the communication? If not, you can still have an e-commerce site, but you lose the benefits of automatic data transfer to your ERP system.

Organize your product data. Handing the web developer a product brochure or .PDF file won’t suffice. They need detailed information, including product descriptions, high-quality images, SKUs, and quantities in a format they can easily build into the website.

Most important, stay in close contact with your web developer and your ERP vendor throughout the project. Building an e-commerce site is a complex process, and the more products you have, the more complex it gets. Weekly meetings are highly recommended to keep everything on track.

“This project has gone well in large part because David and his team have been great to work with,” says Sexton. “He showed up on time for all meetings and communicated well. He listened when we recommended creating new images for their products and Photoshopping some to make them look more professional. He stayed open to our suggestions on how to make the design and user experience better. When client, web developer, and ERP vendor work together as a team, everything goes better.”

Ryan Young, project manager for Global Shop Solutions, agrees. “In a way, a website rebuild of this size and scope is a lot like implementing an ERP system,” he says. “It takes clarifying the goals, a lot of upfront planning and preparation, and constant communication throughout the implementation process. David and his team have done a great job of providing Global Shop Solutions and EIM with the information and guidance we need to build a world-class e-commerce site.”

This article was written by Martin Thomas, Operations Consultant, Global Shop Solutions with the help of David Smith, Marketing Manager, Alabama Correctional Industries and published in the National Correctional Industries Association’s (NCIA) Spring 2019 Newsletter. To learn more about NCIA, visit their website.