B2B is playing catch-up with e-retail

Easy-to-use e-commerce is transforming the business-to-business market just as it has revolutionised consumer retail


People in an office brainstorming

E-commerce retailers aim to make online shopping frictionless, fast and fun for consumers. The same cannot be said for e-commerce in the business world, which lags way behind its consumer counterpart. Buying widgets, stationery, office furniture, raw materials or anything else needed to keep a business running tends to be cumbersome, clunky and slow.

Some companies are still asking their business customers to flip through physical catalogues and fill in purchase order forms by hand. Others have gone electronic with electronic data interchange (EDI) systems where they enter long-term contracts with customers who send in electronic files to order goods.

But this old-school approach is changing as businesses adopt the latest digital commerce techniques to boost their business-to-business (B2B) offers. With platforms supplied by providers such as SAP Hybris, IBM Commerce, Salesforce Commerce, Magento and Intershop, the B2B world is looking to replicate the speed, convenience and simplicity of consumer e-commerce.

“Consumers have been trained for convenience and ease of service so they expect things to be done that way quickly,” says Iain Devine, commercial director at e-commerce consultancy Salmon. “As a B2B vendor, if your customers have a choice of who to buy from, you have to give them something that makes it easier to execute the transaction.” For instance, engineers looking for a component online need to be able to search for them easily, as there may be dozens of similar widgets differentiated on a single element such as size or capacity.

Modern B2B e-commerce systems need to offer excellent parametric search, involving a number of elements such as price, colour and size, just as a secondhand car website search function might offer car type, price, mileage and distance from buyer.

B2B ecommerce tactics graph

The benefits

Between 70 and 80 per cent of B2B buying is done using legacy systems such as EDI and order entry systems, according to Mr Devine. But with a range of new e-commerce systems on offer, B2B vendors can give their clients greater convenience and search.

The new platforms have a range of advantages. They can allow permission for employees in different roles to order goods of varying value. This level of detail can be included in the software, allocating the agreed permission to each logged-in user. Meanwhile, many of the orders may be repeat purchases with slight changes. The system needs to be able to offer this in the same way that supermarkets store customers’ favourites in their online ordering systems.

The latest B2B e-commerce systems also give an enhanced ability to promote goods which are near the end of their shelf life or which are hard to shift. Mr Devine adds: “Consumers are quite fickle these days. If you have a choice, you’ll go to multiple places.”

Business sellers that offer the easiest and most seamless buying journeys are likely to keep hold of their customers rather than lose them to rivals with slower systems.

The old-school approach is changing as businesses adopt the latest digital commerce techniques to boost their business-to-business offers

The way goods are distributed is changing rapidly with the arrival of new technology, which is redefining the business models of B2B sellers. Companies need to boost the customer service and personalisation they offer customers. These are becoming more important than price and availability, which are increasingly seen as basics.

Trish Young, head of retail and travel for UK and Ireland at technology consultants Cognizant, says this is just what the new B2B e-commerce systems offer. “Companies offering an integrated and seamless purchasing route will enhance the overall customer experience. The next level is to ensure this experience remains tailored throughout,” she says.

“Slick websites count for nothing if they are not supported effectively.” Sales orders are no longer set in stone, but can be presented in live documents that can be altered by suppliers and customers in real time. “As a result, businesses are increasingly unifying e-commerce and supply chain platforms, giving a single view of stock and allowing accurate forecasting, reliable fulfilment and catering to the rising demands of logistics,” Ms Young concludes.