Sunday, April 18, 2021

From manufacturers to distributors and B2B brands: how COVID-19 revitalized interest in B2B eCommerce

Let’s not kid ourselves: the COVID pandemic has been with us for a long time. Like an uncontrollable forest fire with no sign of letting up, it threatens many businesses to this day. As in the early days of the outbreak, the companies that survive today were forced to improvise. They had to act on their feet, made painful decisions to pivot out of harm’s way, and learned how to operate in a tough situation.

Comment: According to McKinsey, digital, particularly eCommerce, remains a high-impact move.


The downturn is unwelcome, but it represents many opportunities. Without acting aggressively to capture market share and investing in technologies that grow productivity and increase sales, companies can see further losses. This encourages positive habit-forming, driving leaders to explore new revenue recovery strategies. With offline shopping collapsing, businesses will need to focus on strengthening their web presence – even investing in a B2B eCommerce solution in the process.

6 ways to do business differently: B2B eCommerce pain points revealed by COVID-19

Even though stores closed, people still needed to buy HVAC parts or visit automotive ecommerce sites. Businesses that invested in digital communication channels such as chat, email, video, and eCommerce, suffered less during mandated stay-at-home orders.

However, brands that put off or chose not to invest in their digitalisation initiatives struggled. They had to look for new communication channels, weighing their decisions, while trying to keep selling. In the aftermath, businesses lost opportunities and revenue streams, which could have easily been avoided with a digital strategy that included eCommerce.

  1. Build-in flexibility and agility

The pandemic dealt an unusually large blow to businesses with low cash reserves, such as airlines and small restaurants. Even on a good day, businesses with lower profit margins, high operating costs, and debt burdens may not have cash on hand to quickly make significant changes. However, those who had an online presence or invested in one beforehand came out on top.

No business wants to be caught unaware, but that is precisely what happened to many of them. Through no fault of their own, organisations contended with slumping sales, a reduced workforce, and added productivity losses attributed to physical distancing, disinfection, and reduced working hours. In one of the early examples, fashion brands such as Zara pivoted to make and sell masks. So, pandemic or no pandemic, the importance of agile processes cannot be overstated.

A difficult time is the right time to move your business forward. Your strategy must include a framework that supports flexibility and agility. Pay special attention to cross-functional communication, collaboration, and idea exchange to quickly make the right decisions. Making the right choices with digital selling and eCommerce now can have a profound impact as the situation normalises.

  1. Take online selling seriously

As the general public gets used to working from home, companies, too, are casting aside the old ways of doing things. Large organisations started using Zoom instead of the conference room, Slack instead of the watercooler, and spare bedrooms in place of cubicles. With nowhere to go but online, we are increasingly relying on digital tools to reach our goals. This trend is accelerating across all aspects of the economy, affecting manufacturers, distributors, retailers, and the smallest of brick-and-mortar sellers.

It’s not surprising that eCommerce is rapidly growing across all selling models such as B2C, B2B, D2C, and more. Brands want to reach customers wherever they are. Customers expect natural, frictionless online experiences. They expect personalisation and convenience in the form of tailored self-service portals, custom prices, products, and payment options. Thus, businesses ignoring the customer experience in the post-COVID environment simply risk alienating their audience. This can lead them on a downward trajectory that is difficult, if not impossible, to reverse.

  1. Be there for your customers

COVID gives brands a unique opportunity to build and strengthen relationships with their customers. Uncertainty and fear are grappling emotions, and many successful brands have mobilised their marketing resources to address them. If your message is a source of reason, calm, truthfulness, and transparency, customers from all-around will take notice.

Secondly, integrate all your digital channels with other back-office systems. To deliver the right information to the right customer, you must clearly understand customer needs and wants. With a CRM built into your eCommerce system, the guesswork around customer behaviour, intent, and shopping patterns suddenly disappear. This allows you to focus on strategies that reduce churn and increase conversions. Your eCommerce CMS offers similar benefits. It informs customers of the right inventory levels and out-of-stocks, tying it together with your marketing strategy. Working in the background, a strong eCommerce API will allow you to set up integrations with ERP, PIM, or WHM systems, feeding accurate data to your systems, employees, and customers.

  1. Pay attention to mobile

You could be doing everything right, but if you don’t pay attention to how your website looks, feels, and performs on mobile devices, your customers will look elsewhere. Mobile-friendly eCommerce doesn’t only mean a well-working interface for customers. It also means easy & responsive typing, searching (including voice searching), navigating, ordering, and so on. Businesses relying on field sales or wishing to monitor their eCommerce activity on-the-go will also appreciate the mobile functionality of back-office interfaces.

The impact of COVID-19 on eCommerce shifted customer expectations on mobile. So, ensure your B2B eCommerce solution is capable of accommodating your customers’ desired objectives in the same way your desktop site can. When considering platforms, look past their mobile functionality. Explore the API and the ability to support Progressive Web Apps (PWA). This can offer customers native experiences complete with push notifications, offline capability, and quick loading speeds.

  1. Re-evaluate your supply chains

The pandemic demonstrated the fragility of global supply chains. This left many businesses fighting to maintain continuity. What’s worse, these businesses had little room to maneuver in case of disruption. From the inability to effectively deal with out-of-stocks, reductions in workforce, or bottlenecks in fulfillment, businesses were ill-prepared to weather the storm.

On the flipside, COVID pushed businesses to reevaluate suppliers that were risky, inefficient or impeded visibility into the production or fulfillment processes. Brands started sourcing suppliers closer to home and moving out crucial processes from high-risk countries. Reevaluating supply chains on the basis of proximity to their main area of operation and market, aiming for less population-dense and overall safe areas, is another strategy companies can take.

Your eCommerce system can help you here, too. By keeping systems such as ERP, CRM, PIM, WHM, and others tightly integrated with eCommerce, you’ll eliminate data silos and get crucial data where it needs to be. Increased visibility means more accurate reporting and timely decision making that only benefits your business.

  1. Break into new markets

The post-COVID world will emerge with new customers, new businesses, partnerships, and relationships. The way manufacturers conduct business with distributors, the markets that brands target will change. Naturally, eCommerce will play a big role in this, injecting agility and flexibility into traditional sectors. A great example of this is the burgeoning D2C market. Large players such as Pepsi, Nike, Adidas focused their resources on selling direct to customers and away from retailer partnerships.

Whether you want to pivot into a new market or sell alongside existing ones, you’ll need an eCommerce solution that addresses your needs. For example, selling direct to consumers and maintaining existing relationships with distributors requires powerful segmentation and multi-website capabilities. In other cases, it could require the use of headless architecture or connecting multiple ERP systems together.

Lessons the COVID-19 pandemic taught us about B2B eCommerce platforms

Just like everything else affected by the virus, the way businesses operate is going to change. People that can do their work from home will likely continue to do so. Tasks that can be reduced or automated as a requirement of social distancing will be. Technology will play a bigger role in getting brands the visibility into customer activity, supply chains, and sales processes.

For many businesses, COVID served as a wakeup call to reevaluate existing processes. For some, this meant outdated eCommerce solutions that buckled under high demand. Others saw first hand what happens when customers don’t have accurate inventory information, and when ERPs, warehouses, and fulfillment systems operate in silos. The lucky ones were able to pivot to new markets such as D2C and B2B2C, or quickly launch additional capacity because their systems were built for scale.

While every business is different, there a few universal points to keep in mind as you examine B2B eCommerce platforms:

  • We want a great shopping experience on any device, with no exceptions. Thus, a platform you choose must offer the same, fluid tablet, mobile, and desktop experiences.
  • No one has the patience for slow-loading pages and downtimes. Every page must quick, accurate, and work the same way regardless of the browser and connection type.
  • Wrong product information risks breaking promises, angering, and alienating your customers. Make sure you always offer accurate stock, prices, restocking, and shipping times.
  • Customers come back to experiences that save them time and feel tailored to them. Deliver the right promotions, product lists, ordering flows, and the self-service experience to every client.
  • Organisational data silos reduce productivity and leave you blind to the customer experience. Strong integrations between systems increase productivity, helping you grow sales.

B2B eCommerce, COVID-19, and new ways of doing business

There are many businesses still adjusting to life with coronavirus. If they haven’t already, brands are reconsidering how they operate now to emerge stronger after the pandemic.

If there’s one lesson that the business community learned from COVID-19, it’s that B2B eCommerce remains an integral part of business value chains. By making life easier for suppliers, distributors, retailers, and their customers, eCommerce systems make it easy to sell, too.

While no one seems to have the right answers about the future, it’s essential to get started on your eCommerce strategy as soon as possible. After all, the need for flexibility and resilience will last well after the peak of the crisis passes.

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