Empowering Distributors: A glimpse into the high-tech software market

September 17, 2019

Category: News

This post highlights Four51 customer, thumbprint, and features an interview with market development director, Kayla Bryant. The original article was written by Elise Carr and posted on Print+Promo on August 27, 2019.  Print + Promo provides insight into new products and technology, strategic partnerships and alliances, new equipment and software, marketing and sales tools, end-user needs and much more for a competitive edge.


Software solutions are no longer a wish-list item for most businesses; they are a necessity in a world where efficiency is king. From single source software to e-commerce platforms, the options are plentiful. So, what’s a distributor to do? Research, research, research. No matter where you are in the decision-making process, Print+Promo is here to help. We profiled two household names in the print and promotional products sector. Find out what they offer, where the technology is headed and how you can benefit.

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FOUR51 ECOMMERCE SOLUTIONS

Greg Gill has never been one to wait for trends to happen. The owner of the Apopka, Florida-based distributorship “thrives by bringing order to chaos,” helping businesses create custom and memorable brand experiences that have measurable results. Approximately 13 years ago, he wanted to take his vision of using e-commerce and online services for thumbprint, a print business at its core, out into the print and promo space.

As Tod Ellington, chief operating officer of thumbprint, tells it, such a move predated the widespread adoption of e-commerce tools, so Gill was “kind of taking a shot” when researching options. There weren’t many to choose from back then, but one particular company had already made a name for itself in the industry: Four51.

Founded in 1999, Four51 strives to out-innovate the limitations of e-commerce so that print and promotional product distributors can remove the constraints of manual, resource-intensive business processes and ready their business for the digital demands of their customers. Today, the business has more than 400 enterprise customers that specialize in a wide range of verticals and over 15,000 connected buyers and suppliers, and processes over 25 million annual transactions and more than $5 billion in annual revenue.

“Generally, our customers turn to Four51 when standard, out-of-the-box e-commerce solutions don’t work for their business,” Kayla Bryant, market development director for the Minneapolis-based e-commerce provider, said. “Sometimes, they have a customer threatening to leave if they can’t deliver on their unique requirements, or they’re trying to win a new, highly demanding customer on a tight deadline. Either way, they need a technology partner that can deliver on complex requirements, and fast.”

Bryant explained that prospects might have unique approval rules they need automated, like granting five different individuals permission to approve certain aspects of an order before it is submitted. Or, the customer might use a “team budget”-type of payment method that needs to be set up in the system by a regional manager and assigned to the appropriate location, but approved by corporate before the location can place an order.

Although thumbprint uses Four51’s e-commerce ordering platform for the front-end, Four51’s role doesn’t stop there. In fact, the company is very active in the full cycle of thumbprint’s sales and production process.

“Behind the scenes, there is a logistics piece of Four51’s platform that allows us to connect our suppliers and automate the orders going through the back end of our world,” Ellington explained. “So, our customers interact with an e-commerce experience on the front end, which is important to us because automation reduces labor. But on the back end, the process is also automated—orders are processed, sent to production and then out to the client, and then the loop is closed by communicating order tracking and closing out the order.”

When asked what business challenges Four51 helps thumbprint overcome, Ellington talked about providing automation and logistics for the distributor’s space within print, promo and apparel, and was quick to mention the system’s ease of use.

“For sure, the ability to [speedily] create variable products on the site is the most powerful [feature],” he emphasized. “Other people also use a similar architecture like Pageflex as their base, but the way that Four51 has made it easy to apply that and integrate it with other standard creative tools like InDesign, for example, the overall process with Four51 is very simple. Whether people have web technology experience or not, they can come in here and learn how to put those products together and make it very flexible for our client.”

Bryant provided some insight to Four51’s onboarding program, which includes personalized, on-site training, as well as web-based training.

“Customers get access to an e-learning portal, an extensive knowledge base of resources and a case system for interacting with our support team,” she shared. “Customers are really well taken care of.”

Strategize to Optimize

Four51 is known for more than its e-commerce or web-to-print software. The company becomes its customers’ strategic partner, accountable for changing the economics of their businesses. To make this happen, Four51 uses a consultative strategy to uncover customer pain points as early as the courting stage of the relationship.

Bryant said that ongoing distributor feedback is a big part of what drives Four51’s technology road map and decision-making process when it comes to developing updates and upgrades to platforms.

“We’re keenly focused on listening to our customers, constantly working to understand and forecast what they’re going to need next from a feature standpoint, integration capacity and service orientation,” she said. “For many of our customers, keeping up with marketing-savvy, more data-driven customers of their own with aggressive growth accountabilities means keeping up with new technologies and services that can continue to improve the online ordering experience.”

Four51 hears many requests for enhancements and evolution to the customer experience—things like chatbots, personalization, loyalty programs and data-driven analytics.

“Our customers avoid extensive development costs and lengthy timelines because our technologies are API-first, making it really easy to integrate with other applications that specialize in these applications,” Bryant said.

“Four51 has been a great partner for us over the years,” Ellington acknowledged. “They are really doing a better job now than they did originally of communicating with us, the distributors, letting us know [about] the things they are working on in their pipeline. That used to be a weakness for them, and now I believe that it’s one of their strengths. … They [value] our opinion and ask us, ‘Hey, do you think this will help you? If we do this, how do you see it impacting your business?’

“We’ve taken looks at the competitive landscape with other software platforms, but we found at the end of the day, even if there are one or two features that maybe another platform has, there’s a relationship and a legacy that we’ve built with Four51,” he continued.

The Future

“Historically, the main focus across the print industry from a web-to-print standpoint has been the ability to enable digital self-service order entry, or, in other words, the ability to move your order processes online and put your customers in charge of the order,” Bryant observed.

The future looks more exciting, with opportunities far exceeding self-service order entry. According to Bryant, the print and promo distributors who are getting ahead are using technology to solve all kinds of workflow issues that happen both upstream and downstream of the actual print project. To think of the project at hand, and nothing else, would be a mistake, as that is only one portion of a larger workflow.

“What we do is help our customers think beyond just the print and automate the complex, manual processes that get the distributor operating more efficiently,” Bryant said. “Things like connecting and simplifying the supply chain by integrating suppliers, and setting up rules to allow an extensive line of approvals to take place on every order are some common examples. By doing this, we’ve seen our customers increase their revenue per employee, eliminate manual order errors and win big, new customer deals.”

Ellington agreed and encouraged distributors to be open-minded outside of the e-commerce piece when evaluating vendors, because anyone can build a simple storefront, shopping cart and checkout experience.

“To be able to be dynamic and to make sure you’re sticky as a partner to the client requires the ability to be able to help them with their logistical processes, increasing their efficiencies,” he noted. “When you’re looking at these platforms, I wouldn’t just look at the front-facing, or the client-facing, piece; I would also look at the back end and how it integrates with your current processes and systems from an order processing, production and project management [standpoint].”