The 2015 B2B eCommerce Report: A View From the Frontline

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Analyst firm Forrester predicts that $1.1 trillion in B2B sales will be conducted online and that 1 million B2B sales jobs will be net displaced by 2020. But what are the facts amongst all the hype, how to make sense of it and what are the practical steps that need to be taken to ensure the B2B organisation is future-prepared come what may? We reached out to a panel of industry experts and end-users to ask for their personal opinions, views and advice about where B2B ecommerce might be headed.

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A View From The Frontline

The era of digital disruption, to quote a now hackneyed phrase, is very much here. Our competitors, our customers and our partners are digital. It is now up to us to transform our customer experience and operations to become a fully digital business. To do so, we need to shift our mindsets to understand how buyers are buying and sellers are selling in this digital landscape. Business to business (B2B) is often thought of as the sluggish older brother of business to consumer, yet in many ways B2B is driving innovation in digital – largely because of the extra layers of detail and complexity that it brings to the table.

Getting to grips with B2B ecommerce could have lucrative results for the organisation: it’s been reported that companies have seen a 44% increase in Average Order Value; 38% of executives agree that customers spend more online; 50% of organisations have reduced acquisition costs; 52% report decreased support costs; and more channels customers buy from, the more money they spend and the more loyal they are*1. Analyst firm Frost & Sullivan has projected that global B2B online retail will reach $6.7 trillion by 2020 in a study called Future of B2B Online Retailing*2 which was released in December 2014. “B2B ecommerce is twice the size of B2C in a very immature market and growing”, says Justin King, Editor in Chief at “The main drivers for migration to B2B are the pressure from industry leaders to move to online platforms,” says Archana Vidyasekar, Senior Research Analyst in Frost & Sullivan’s Visionary Research Group, which conducted the study."

The recent news that AmazonSupply will be subsumed into Amazon Business, allowing pre-qualified business customers the opportunity to shop online as they would at home, could prove to be the game-changer that leads or pushes the B2B industry headfirst into the world of ecommerce.

Profiling The B2B Ecommerce Industry – What Social Data Is Telling Us

We reached out to Crimson Hexagon, a social media analytics platform, to find out in what capacity people have been discussing B2B ecommerce on social media. Powered by patented technology and an in-house data library of more than 500 billion posts, Crimson Hexagon’s ForSight™ can analyse insights derived from social data.


“It’s interesting to see that the B2B ecommerce social media conversation is dominated largely by three themes from the consumer world - Mobile Devices, Search Engine and Social Media, as represented in the inner ring showing the most frequently used terms in this analysis,” says Liliana Osorio, EMEA Marketing Manager at Crimson Hexagon.

“The outside ring of the topic wheel provides a more granular look at words and terms and how they relate to the topics of conversation. These provide further insight into how the conversation is developing - graphic designer and software development skills are likely in demand.” Conversion rates in mobile devices is also an interesting trend.”


People talking about B2B ecommerce are more likely to talk about the following subjects than other Twitter users


People talking about B2B ecommerce or more likely to be aged 35 and above; and predominantly male – only 35% of those talking about B2B ecommerce are female.

What Does B2B Ecommerce Look Like Today?

B2B ecommerce is currently dominated by industrysponsored marketplaces relying on low-cost Internet platforms and ‘harnessing the value proposition of collective bargaining/selling’. While large and international enterprises have started independent markets to migrate services such as aftermarket, support or lead generation to online platforms most B2B business models vary from single firm-sponsored, e-procurement solutions and consortiums to collaborative marketplaces that aggregate demand and supply services. B2B models are also moving away from legacy systems which used EDI (electronic data interchange), toward online platforms where buyers and sellers can meet from anywhere in the world on the Web to transact goods and services with only a PC and the Internet.

There is definitely a trend towards more and more manufacturers and traditional B2B businesses moving into the world of D2C (directto-consumer) operations and ecommerce. You see this move in the wine industry, with the likes of Penfold’s, in home appliances, with our client Whirlpool, and many others. It only takes one major industry brand to make the move and others soon follow. B2B is definitely starting to come out of B2C’s shadow and giving some of the old-school retailers a run for their money in what can be achieved online.

B2B ecommerce has a very fast takeup rate and many global brands are joining in, such as AmazonSupply which has entered the market almost by stealth. Many smaller, nimble entrepreneurs have embraced it. But how often do you see a “Trade account login” link on a traditional B2C ecommerce site? A multi-channel approach to B2B is being adopted and while there’s still some reticence amongst traditional B2B sellers, it is declining.

When people think of ecommerce, they typically imagine shoes, groceries and electronics - the kind of stuff we buy at ASOS or Amazon. It comes as a surprise then that businesses have been buying electronically for much longer than shopping carts have been on websites. In the old days, this was referred to as Electronic Data Interchange (EDI). Today, B2B ecommerce is a broad church.

All told, B2B ecommerce is big, with some estimating its true value to be much larger than B2C ecommerce!

B2B ecommerce is far more varied than what most would think of when they consider B2C. While most will consider ecommerce to be an online catalogue with a card or PayPal payment at the end, B2B customers often require the ability to pay with a credit account or with other traditional offline terms and at preagreed varying discount levels. These issues magnify as you move further away from the UK. The winners are those who can build sites that match their customers’ buying habits and abilities.

B2B ecommerce is fragmented at the moment, with very different solutions being available across the market, depending on the size of the customer base. For large corporates and the public sector eprocurement on agreed contracts through marketplaces such as Ariba, Procserve and Science Warehouse is commonplace, whilst for the SMB sector it’s much more usual to have a very similar setup to a B2C site. The challenge comes with the mid-sized corporates; those which haven’t invested in linking their ERP to their online purchasing, but who require workflow to be implemented on the supplier’s website.

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Is There A Demand For Ecommerce In The B2B Landscape?

As consumers become ever-more comfortable researching, making purchasing decisions and ultimately buying online in the B2C environment, it is only natural that the same demand for an easy online buying experience will permeate their professional surroundings. A recent survey conducted by Accenture found that 49% of B2B buyers prefer making work-related purchases on B2C websites, with 52% expecting at least half of their purchases to be made online in three years’ time.

An additional 69% of B2B buyers prefer to pay direct using credit cards or payment systems rather than via purchase orders and invoices. In response, 83% of B2B suppliers surveyed are either in the process of implementing or upgrading their ecommerce platform or planning to do so within six months. The survey also found that 66% of B2B suppliers acknowledge shifting customer expectations and these are driving their technology investments. 83% acknowledged that Omni-channel strategy is critical to a company’s long term success and 85% identify Omni-channel as the crux for tech investment decisions.

Almost certainly. After all every buyer is a B2C consumer at home and why should they not demand the same real time fluid buying experience for B2B orders?

Yes. With almost half of B2B researchers being Millennials, there is an expectation that buyers and researchers can have a self-service experience in B2B just like in B2C. B2B buyers have expectations that have been set in at-home experiences like buying gifts, online banking, and regular online shopping. :

Most B2B organisations have a rudimentary commerce experience at best, and their customers are asking for a better self-service experience. Competition from pure plays like AmazonSupply that offer a breadth of products is also causing B2B organisations to rethink their digital strategies.

Absolutely! The consumerisation of technology is a big trend in computing. Employees increasingly expect the tools they use inside the office to be as convenient and powerful as those in the office. In addition, businesses realise practical benefits by using ecommerce. Firms are able to easily view their order history and receive and submit invoices without shuffling paperwork, and this results in higher productivity.

There’s huge demand for ecommerce in B2B – the UK public sector alone has separate systems for the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments, as well as NHS and University focused systems. Personally, I’ve dealt with global corporates like Atkins, Thomson Reuters and Oracle as well as smaller UK based firms of every size. The benefits of reducing administration and human error at both supplier and purchaser side are clear. The EU has set a deadline of 2016 for eprocurement implementation and they believe that they will save €100bn (£82bn) annually from the €2 trillion (£1.6 trillion) procurement spend by government organisations across the EU by mandating eprocurement.

What Can Be Learned From B2C Ecommerce And Where Does B2B Differ From B2C?

Quick and easy is what makes B2C ecommerce so attractive to consumers and B2B is not far behind. Order tracking is a key feature not only for the last leg when the order is on a lorry but for the whole process from payment confirmation, picking and pack, despatch and delivery. The ability to allow B2B buyers to self-serve though the cloud to find out all the details they need about their orders without having to pick up the phone is a useful feature that should be transferred. The ability to connect to the B2B ecommerce channels in exactly the same way as fulfilment houses can connect to B2C channels will be the differentiator for B2B ecommerce fulfilment and delivery.

The key difference for fulfilment and delivery comes down to price, logistics and technology. B2C sales may only be for one or two items at a basically fixed price (though bulk discounts are commonplace). Orders can be transferred from ecommerce channels direct to a warehouse management system. Shipping is relatively straightforward and the implications of export, such as duty and tax are comparatively small. B2B sales take longer traditionally and can rely on older, slower technology. Prices are more flexible and negotiable and there are many logistical factors to consider because many B2B orders are manufactured and shipped from China. Shipping large orders from China means high shipping costs, import taxes and duties, all of which influence consumer buying decisions.

A lot can be learned from B2C ecommerce especially regarding the customer experience. SEO, Search & Navigation, Rich product detail pages, Imagery, Mobile, and a simple checkout process are the basics. How B2B differs from B2C addresses the consumerisation of B2B, but consumerisation is often not the only thing. B2B businesses are extremely complex with complex customers ‘with sophisticated ordering processes; complex products with a collection of attributes; and elaborate.

Although B2C ecommerce can be described as the new kid on the block, it has quite a lot to teach its B2B cousin. This is because the B2C landscape is more fragmented and competitive than B2B, and consequently the pace of innovation faster.

We operate offices in over 30 countries and have customers worldwide. This means that we are working with multiple languages and customer buying styles. By working closely with the sales teams in each region we are able to ensure that we release ecommerce sites that are built to support their specific customer requirements. We built our platform from the ground up with a long term picture in mind, allowing us to modify by location while maintaining a standard platform and UI for the sites worldwide. It meant a long development period before the initial go live but greater efficiency as we roll out into further countries and add functionality.

B2C ecommerce provides B2B with a challenge, because it sets the standards for our users. So B2B users are coming to expect Amazon or Tesco style performance when purchasing in their work life, because they are used to that at home. So clear product presentation, quick faceted search, access to supporting media – all are prerequisites for the B2B buyer. B2B clients are typically operating against an agreed, personalised price structure, with a contract in place to refer to. Their need for eprocurement is often to handle the ‘dayto-day’ business, whilst a relationship with the existing sales operation is needed for the more complex projects or to negotiate terms in the first place. The ongoing relationship, the ease of use of the site and ease of access to business critical information like invoices or Proof of Delivery notes matter a great deal when a B2B client is selecting the supplier they are looking to purchase through. At my last company we had almost 50% of users whose roles were not to place orders, but to process invoices and to ensure that goods had arrived at the correct delivery address.

What Are The Challenges To A Successful B2B Ecommerce Operation?

Most B2B businesses either wishing to launch an ecommerce arm or strengthen their online presence are faced with some multifaceted challenges. These include the complexity of the proposition, especially when compared with B2C, and modernisation of the organisational infrastructure.

One of our challenges is getting traditional B2B businesses to think more “consumer”. It demands quite a change in mindset within many businesses, and may also require a change in team structure, business set-up, and personnel. Some B2B brands go into it with their eyes fully open, but some don’t and need help to move in the right direction. But the rewards of ecommerce for B2B are well worth it. What’s vitally important is to get in front of the buyer earlier on in their buying cycle. Ecommerce can help deliver this, but B2B brands must offer more value than they do today.

For the fulfilment house B2B commerce is nothing new, it is what they were founded for long before the rise of B2C ecommerce. However with B2B ecommerce there are major challenges ahead for fulfilment providers as they will need to invest heavily in cloud technology to meet the demands of Omni channel B2B commerce. Traditionally fulfilment houses received B2B orders though legacy technology by phone, fax, email or EDI none of which is really compatible with the ecommerce technology that precedes it. Fulfilment houses that have already adopted or been founded to meet the challenge of B2C ecommerce will have an easier time as the technology needed for B2B ecommerce is already in place.

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The primary challenge in B2B is balancing creating that great customer experience and the complexity of B2B organisations. In most B2B businesses there exists tremendous complexity. Complex customers who have complex ordering processes; complex products with complex attributes; and finally elaborate back end systems with their own complexity. So, while companies want to create a “consumer like experience in B2B”, they must do that in the context of the inherent complexity that exists. Because of that complexity, the role of the ERP is increasing*10. Most of what we have done in B2B is moving processes from the backend to the customer. In other words making ERP functions customer facing.

We operate offices in over 30 countries and have customers worldwide. This means that we are working with multiple languages and customer buying styles. By working closely with the sales teams in each region we are able to ensure that we release ecommerce sites that are built to support their specific customer requirements. We built our platform from the ground up with a long term picture in mind, allowing us to modify by location while maintaining a standard platform and UI for the sites worldwide. It meant a long development period before the initial go live but greater efficiency as we roll out into further countries and add functionality.

When you couple the requirement for a B2C experience with the challenges of a much larger product range (typically 20k products would be a small B2B website), a requirement for much greater product detail in the form of associated PDF or media documents, and the need to implement personalised pricing with a workflow structure, you start to see the complexity of a B2B site is an order above that of a typical B2C operation.

Where Is Innovation Needed?

Innovation in both people skills and software is needed for B2B ecommerce to be able to really take off and offer the customer a personalised, seamless customer experience online. Developments and enhancements that will help organisations meet the challenges described above will go a long way toward helping to develop B2B ecommerce in the right direction.

The constant pursuit of truth within all marketing activity, in terms of testing, analysis, and ensuring that there is a constant feedback loop. Moving from B2B to B2C is a big change in mind-set, even if the day-to-day does not change that much. What does your customer want? What are their needs? How can you meet these? How can you ensure happiness across all their touchpoints with you? How can you constantly improve to make things for your customer so that they convert better and become a loyal customer? Moving from B2B to B2C means thinking in a slightly different way – and is something that B2B marketers need to focus on. B2B brands needs to invest in the right website platform to deliver ecommerce. There are a myriad of choices out there, but this decision is key and will make or break the ecommerce operation at the front-end. Choosing a platform that can easily integrate with existing systems, but can also grow with your business as your ecommerce operation takes off and matures, needs to be a priority for the B2B ecommerce marketer. You should look at a platform with strong case studies in your sector, and one that offers personalisation – intelligent marketing, which is where the whole marketing industry as a whole is right now.

Warehousing technology that can interact with B2B ecommerce channels as seamlessly as they can with B2C channels is the next step. It is time to stop relying on outdated technology such as file transfers which take time and cause delay and move to the cloud. In the brave new world of B2B ecommerce every second is critical. There is some very exciting research currently being undertaken at the University of Cambridge which is looking at making products intelligent by using cloud based software. The implications for the whole supply chain are huge as potentially products could decide between themselves about the most efficient storage location in a warehouse; flag themselves to packers that they need to be picked when a packer is nearby. Traditionally, if you want to change some element of an order you need to contact the company, warehouse, carrier etc. However Product Intelligence allows the customer to self-serve and interact directly with their product or order and this will instruct the relevant people in the supply chain about what needs to be done with it.

Talented ecommerce people are limited. The good resources typically are at big agencies, big brands or at software companies. It is hard for B2B companies to find good talent. That shortage of talent means a shortage of knowledge inside of B2B organisations. Shortage of knowledge also means a lack of innovation because companies are focused on providing the basics. Innovation needs to be focused on making the buyers or researchers job easier. I call this the secret to B2B ecommerce. To that end, auto-filling shopping carts with relevant products is being done through Machine Learning

The major areas where innovation is needed is not so much in technology but in organisations culturally understanding where ecommerce fits into their sales and marketing operations. Essentially ecommerce shouldn’t be seen as a threat to the relationship building operation that sales teams undertake, it should remove much of the administration that bogs sales teams down – if it’s positioned correctly. I’ve seen sales directors who don’t appreciate what ecommerce can do for them blindly head over a precipice where their teams simply cannot support the work they are trying to commit to – winning contracts that you cannot fulfil is the biggest danger to the organisation’s reputation if the benefits of ecommerce are not realised.

On the marketing side, a greater understanding of when to use a digital message and when a traditional media message is required – so many companies are still not on top of their social media presence, and don’t have a programme to boost their followers and presence online, not appreciating the value that this gives in search terms and therefore new business. One of my old companies still has the same web presence and marketing structure that they had 6 or 7 years ago – although the majority of their lead generation is now via Google.

Where Do You See The Future For B2B Ecommerce Headed?

One of the major developments we see right now, is the move towards personalisation in digital. And this goes for B2B as well as B2C. More and more B2B brands that are moving into ecommerce are seeing the benefits of delivering the right content, in the right time, in the right place, on the right device, to delight and excite consumers, improve conversions, and keep those customers coming back time and time again. It’s something B2B brands should be looking at right now, or risk being left behind.

By 2020, I think we will see deliveries occurring by drones – something that really is not that far away right now! We will also see companies turning into media companies, in that they will need to react quicker to things happening within their sector or breaking news stories. Brands will need to create more and more content, and be set up to jump on the trend bandwagon to keep consumers engaged and interested, as consumers’ appetite for and consumption of content across numerous devices grows and grows.

5 years from now, I think B2B ecommerce will provide complete transparency into back end systems: ERP, CRM, and supply chain. I believe that the companies that survive will be those that embrace technology and become media and technology companies, including manufacturers. Technology and ecommerce will provide complete selfservice from research, buying, warranty and service for customers with all the information they need to make decisions at their fingertips. To enable that innovative customer experience, companies need to embrace technology.

I am expecting to see increased demand, higher expectations and a greater uptake of ecommerce sales channels in developing and non-western markets by 2020. It also seems likely that we will be way past discussing mobile versus desktop as we start to see VR display formats in our analytics. Five years is a long time when you work in online sales.

If those of us in the industry work with the traditional elements of sales, marketing and operations within our organisations, then there won’t be any need for a dedicated ecommerce team in the future – we will have embraced a true Omni-channel approach to business structure, such that web sales and sales will just be “sales”. That said, I don’t think we’ll be there in five years, cultural change in British business is much slower than technology change. What I expect is that the majority of companies will have recognised that there are significant efficiencies in embracing ecommerce and specifically eprocurement, and therefore procurement teams will be leaner and will be responsible for negotiating agreements and contracts rather than processing paperwork, with decentralised buying the norm in organisations. This will mean more web purchasing of product by people operating out in the field, and therefore B2B websites will become just as responsive and dynamic as the giants of retail.

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