Ecommerce Musings for Suppliers and Wholesalers
Based on the IBISWorld report, the equipment supplier industry sales, which includes Industrial Supplies Wholesaling, Farm Supplies Wholesaling and School Supplies Wholesaling, totals about $200B. Traditionally these industries cater to businesses, organizations and enterprises and have done business via catalogs, distribution centers, stores and customer support centers to drive the business. Long term client relationships are typical to these businesses, and are based on relationships, where in many cases, dedicated Sales Representatives help provide value to clients. For E.g. facilitating urgent shipping requests for certain items in an order or by providing alternative suggestions to out of stock or discontinued items; or providing insights into what the competitors are using.
By early 2000, customers became more empowered with increasing web connectivity enabling them to research any product as well as buy it online from their place of choice. Along with the online trend, increased costs to maintain huge stores with inventory and staff, reduced margins and industry consolidation forced them to realize they needed to change the business model.
Recognizing the need to embrace the online channel, significant investments were made to bring the businesses online. These early sites typically were minimalistic home-grown solutions which simply exposed catalogs and allowed basic ordering of products. However, this quickly became a catch-up game of trying to stay on top of the competition by developing new features which led to a huge increase in infrastructure cost.
As a result of the cost increase in maintaining a homegrown solution, a steady movement started towards using specialized platforms and products optimized for this line of business which were further customized to suit their own specific needs. Taking it a step further, specialized external partners were called upon to maintain, manage and upgrade the platforms as well as to provide robust infrastructures to host the eCommerce channels
Changing Customer Expectations
Over the years changing customer expectations and new developments in technology has transformed the online business in the B2B space. Today’s business buyers expect same level of experience as when they buy stuff online at a personal level. They want to be empowered to make business decisions about something they want to buy and want multiple means to procure it.
- Compelling UX
Exposure to B2C facing sites has conditioned our brains to expect an efficient, intuitive, easy to use website which provides detailed and useful product information. A great personalized experience needs to be complemented by a customizable catalog, promotions and pricing.
- Full eCommerce Experience
This includes going beyond the essential B2B eCommerce features and providing capabilities like live chat, reviews, intelligent recommendations, real time access to inventory and great customer support features to help with shipping, tracking and returns.
- Omni Channel Support
Today’s customers expect multiple ways to research and buy products and seek a similar experience be it via a store, online, mobile or catalog. The experience involves how fast they can access the site pages, the level of personalization, how helpful is the information they can get and how easy it is for them to process and place the order. The ability to shop and access the cart from any channel is important, this includes the website, mobile devices or a store where often times customers choose to click and pick up.
- Great Search Capability
Enhanced search with categorization, faceted navigation, and filtering along with auto complete features has become the minimal standard of expectation. With advancement in AI and Machine Learning, the search accuracy has improved and helps companies to provide accurate results that include relevant and dynamic recommendations for cross-sells and up-sells. In addition to having a robust site search, it is essential for companies to have an effective SEO strategy and implementation, so that the search engines display your products on the first page of the results.
Changing Customer Expectations
Some of the cutting-edge features beyond the current standard ones to look out for in a next generation B2B eCommerce site are given below
- Capable Product Information Management Platform (PIM)
PIM systems are a must-have for modern digital B2B businesses and must be tightly integrated with backend ERP systems and support a large number of products with various artifacts with the capability to configure, organize, manage and publish products. Also, support for product consolidation from multiple sources as well as the ability to syndicate products across other systems is essential. Additionally, support for mass updates, imports or exports based on filtering criteria also helps.
- Creative Ways to Customize Carts
Modern digital commerce cart should empower the customers and make it easier to place orders with features like bulk ordering, reordering and subscriptions/auto ordering features. Additionally, enabling customers to save pre-configured bundles or the ability to create and save dynamic bundles using configurators in the cart allows them to share it with peers and managers for collaboration and approvals.
- Support Virtual Groups or Cohorts
Education is one great example where this feature can be effectively used. In these cases, teachers first create a list of their students and then assign their class materials enabling their students to buy as kits. The students can log in independently and buy configured kits at their convenience.
- Punch Out
Punchout enables companies to control product assortments as well as streamline purchase order approvals and processing. This also provides the ability for the buyer to view the product catalogs and buy from the buyer’s website or e-procurement system. From the procurement system, the buyer can single sign on to the eCommerce site, search and add items to the cart and return the cart as a pending purchase order back to the procurement system.
- Flexible Shipping and Returns
Inventory visibility is critical to provide an excellent shopping experience. The ability to view inventory from multiple warehouses provides the buyer with the information needed to determine the most convenient method of delivery or returns which lowers the overhead of stocking the products early or getting the products late.
- Tap into Internet of Things (IoT)
Be ready to support IoT machines connected to business’s systems when they are ready to order. E.g., a printer or a copier ordering supplies when they reach a low threshold. The IoT enabled printer can order supplies and track its delivery and contact the installer when the supplies are available.