B2B ecommerce is finally catching up

The business-to-business sector has been slow to pick up on cues from the consumer world but those who have adjusted are reaping rewards
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The contrast between today’s B2B ecommerce leaders and “the way it has always been done” is as different as night and day. Traditional structures have been slow and inefficient, and as far from “consumer friendly” as it’s possible to be. Strictly nine-to-five dedicated delivery days and long lead times mean delays, delays, delays.

Compare this with a set-up such as that of Catering24.co.uk. The business is open from 7am to 11pm, delivering six days a week, with a 7pm cut-off for next-day delivery. “It sounds very retail but these are wholesale products to businesses only,” says its director, Oliver Lloyd. “Customers really like the convenience of being able to order on their mobile, 24/7.”

Convenience is key and the B2B sector is clearly looking to B2C brands for inspiration. It helps if your offering straddles both. Screwfix, the largely trade but also consumer-facing tool retailer, brings many typical B2C ecommerce facets to its commercial audience. Rapid delivery, and click and collect, are central pillars of the operation. 

Screwfix Sprint was started in 2021 and is available in more than 300 UK stores. Customers can have products delivered in 60 minutes, with the fastest-ever recorded drop being just five. 

“The majority of our customers are plumbers, electricians and multi-skilled people, and their level of work has accelerated,”’ explains Jack Wallace, Screwfix’s marketing director. “One used it 34 times in a single month. Time is money and it’s a savvy thing to use because, when you’re thinking ahead to your next job and what you need, you get it delivered to the site you’re at now and take it with you.” 

Customers really like the convenience of being able to order on their mobile, 24/7

Successful B2B ecommerce doesn’t just mean having couriers on speed dial. Back-end systems have to be able to cope with rapidly refreshing inventory and this isn’t something that many are set up to deal with. 

Wallace explains that the difference between Screwfix and traditional merchants is its ability to handle real-time inventory: “We know where every SKU [item] is.” This fuels a rapid-turnaround click-and-collect function, where customers can order an item via the app or online and, in some cases, find it ready to collect in one minute. “It’s a truly omnichannel, connected digital experience. We saw significant levels of customer acquisition [during the pandemic] and we’ve kept a lot of them because people appreciate convenience and certainty,” he says.

This is not a trivial endeavour. Lloyd emphasises that everything from staffing to back-end technology needs to be reappraised to meet today’s exacting B2B consumer’s standards. 

“We had to invest a huge amount into technology with enterprise resource planning software and warehouse systems. It has involved negotiating with nationwide couriers, so you can reach every corner, because that’s expected, too.”

Lloyd cautions against picking up an “off-the-shelf” website package because of the sheer back-end complexity. “There are so many other requirements, from stock availability, to payment access and credit accounts, to where your invoices go – they don’t always go to the place the goods are being delivered. It’s not your normal B2C website.”

He also recognises that there is a cost to bringing your B2B ecommerce operation up to meet today’s customer expectations, saying “it can knock you off your chair a bit”, but he wholeheartedly recommends making the leap. The difference in accessing new customers, a broader market and a broader product base is stark. It is also, he adds, financially astute.

“What’s really good for B2B businesses is cash up front. Payment by credit or debit cards – it’s cash in the bank within a couple of days, which is a massive transformation from an industry that was mainly driven by cash on delivery or credit accounts.”

Indeed, one of the critical factors determining B2B ecommerce success seems to be control – the ability to control your own supply chain, your own logistics, your own platforms and technology, and your own service proposition. 

John Steele, trade marketing director GB at drinks wholesaler C&C Group, explains that the sheer size of the business – the company supplies around one in four of every drink (or “serve”) sold in the on-premise or “on-trade” – is a natural advantage. The company uses its economies of scale to offer highly competitive prices but, while very important, it isn’t the only benefit. 

One key part is logistics; the business owns its own fleet, which helps drive efficiency. “If you think about what we can do on price in terms of the volumes we can purchase, on top of the convenience of 24/7 ordering [publicans rarely keep office hours] with one delivery, one truck, one invoice…” he says. 

Not every B2B supplier can compete on scale but there are lessons in terms of making sure you have the most effective supply chain. With control over inventory and logistics, it opens up everything from cost efficiencies to enhanced customer experience. Control over the full product and customer journey also generates a wealth of insight that B2B ecommerce companies can then use to drive stronger long-term relationships and business growth. 

C&C Group is an avid consumer of data, with the company owning its own insights business, Proof Insight. This makes sure customers not only have access to the products that they need, when they need them, but, Steele adds, “we have a level of insight that can feed into the platform that lets customers really be educated on what will drive profit for their venues”.

With personalisation pivotal to a successful B2C ecommerce operation, it’s interesting to see how companies such as C&C Group are bringing that to bear on their own relationships. Inevitably, data-led insight helps the company develop its own proposition and range but, by sharing those insights with its customers, the company brings added value to the relationship. Steele claims the data can go into such granularity that it can reveal how drinking habits change, postcode by postcode. 

Following the model set by B2C ecommerce companies will not always be appropriate – the B2B environment has a unique set of complexities that, as Lloyd says, can’t just be poured into a one-size-fits-all package. However, there are clear advantages to adopting as many tried-and-tested B2C strategies as possible.