eCommerce for wholesalers & distributors: the benefits, trends and challenges

eCommerce is no longer just for B2C sellers as the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the growth in the eCommerce market, putting pressure on wholesalers, distributors, and manufacturers to offer a digital experience. The entire supply chain has been disrupted, forcing B2B sellers to go digital with their shopping experience to compete with other suppliers and wholesale giants like Amazon.

The increase in demand for online sales comes with a need to digitalise operations to effectively adapt and deliver a multi-channel experience. A recent survey by Wunderman Thompson Commerce, a global eCommerce consultancy business, states that 46% of B2B purchases are now conducted online, with 58% expecting to use digital shopping channels more in the future.

Remote sales deals and digital self-service is likely to continue even in a post-COVID world. A study from McKinsey found that only 20-30% of B2B buyers want to ever interact with reps in person and that 90% of B2B decision-makers expect the remote and digital model to be here for the long haul.

Using your existing, potentially manual processes will not benefit you in the future as the sales world becomes digital. It’s crucial you build a solid foundation for your back-end processes to manage the shift effectively. More importantly, to compete for the market share you need to be part of the change and give your customers what they want. This means more than launching a website, it requires offering a seamless multi-channel customer experience.

Other B2B wholesalers are offering digital experiences and making it easy for the customer to purchase what they need, so don’t get left behind.

3 benefits of eCommerce for wholesalers

B2B buyers have changed. Not only has the industry had to adapt over the last few years but the demands of the buyers themselves have changed. Importantly, they are millennials, a latest study shows 60% of all B2B buyers are millennials. Millennials have grown up using the internet which means they are tech-savvy. Their demands are different and they’re much more self-reliant. Accenture found that most buyers are already 57% of the way through the buying process before the first meeting with a company representative. An online presence has therefore become critical if you want to have the opportunity to increase your customer base.

Growth

Increasing your routes to market increases opportunities for your business and enables a larger playing field to compete with other suppliers. By implementing eCommerce into your long-term sales strategy, you’ll build the foundations for future expansion. Take your business from your doorstep to regional, national and beyond. With the right multi-channel order management software, you’ll be able to increase your customer base without a huge increase in employee hire or overhead costs as the software can take away the admin processes leaving you to pick, pack and ship the goods.

Efficiencies

Adding digital sales channels to your operation doesn’t mean increasing your workload. After the initial build and creation of your website, your integrated ERP software can automate and manage repetitive tasks, which can help to streamline your processes. Customers become more self-sufficient with their account details, payments and re-ordering, removing time-consuming admin tasks. Choosing an ERP system that integrates with your Marketplace or eCommerce website enables you to automate stock management, finance, pricing, analytics and customer processes to build a streamlined operation.

Flexible & adaptable

If we’ve learnt anything from COVID-19, it’s we need to be adaptable and flexible in order to successfully meet challenges. The effects of the pandemic will be felt for years to come but it’s also taught the wholesale industry some vital lessons in staying agile in their approach. Agility relies heavily on technology and eCommerce provides a platform for you to continually adapt to customers’ changing demands. Current methods of sales and order management may be working for you now, but the world is adapting so don’t hinder your future success.

Key challenges wholesalers face with eCommerce

Traditional wholesalers are reluctant to make the shift to digital because they believe the challenges involved in eCommerce are too large to consider.

It’s not as easy as buying a website and you can start selling online, but with the right tools and a solid digital business foundation in place, you’ll be able to adopt an online strategy that will adapt with you in the future.

B2B buyers want the same experience as B2C shoppers but they do have different needs which lead to the following challenges facing wholesalers.

The complexity of the B2B process

Many wholesalers think there are too many challenges involved in eCommerce, so the sales model simply won’t work for them. It’s true, there are some challenges involved in launching and managing a multi-channel sales operation but there are plenty of software solutions and technology that can provide assistance.

Often there are many decision-makers involved in a purchase, the buying times can be lengthy, and they can require specific account terms, financial options, or delivery requirements. But with the right eCommerce features such as Punchout, Manager Approval & Budget Control options and customer portals, these processes can become digital. Similarly managing stock levels, special pricing, customer relations and particular contract terms can all be handled with integration into the right ERP system.

Staff adoption & culture change

Wholesalers are concerned about who is going to manage an eCommerce website. With their team capacity already high, it can seem like there just isn’t enough time for someone to manage and maintain the website. Plus, the team may not have the skills and knowledge they need to begin owning the website, but this is where effective change management is needed to shift the culture within the business, not just implement the software and hope for the best.

Often, reputable software partners offer training so your key employees can have the basic knowledge to get started and you’ll typically be assigned a Project Manager to guide you through the process through to launch. The project isn’t going to run itself, that’s why it's important for someone to lead the initiative and set expectations and goals from the outset.

With the right ERP integration, selling online doesn’t mean an increase in workload or require additional staff. When set up correctly, the digital channel simply becomes another sales rep that secure deals and filters them into your warehouse, finance and purchasing department, just the same as any other order.

The B2B process is personal

Whilst B2B buyers are looking for a B2C experience, the B2B process is typically more personal. Account Managers or dedicated sales reps are assigned to an account to support the customer and nurture and grow the account. Typically, customers are also offered special pricing, customer-specific deals, or personal account terms.

Assigning customer rules to your specific customer profiles or accounts in your ERP system is one way to personalise the experience and set up their specific pricing structures, account terms and up-sell or cross-sell opportunities.

Managing multiple data points

There are a lot of moving parts within wholesalers’ supply chains and this can become complicated without the addition of online sales channels. Therefore, a solid digital foundation is key to adapting and expanding your business. With an ERP solution in place to manage your stock movements, purchasing, invoicing, contact management and reporting, the software can provide a holistic view of your business ensuring you stay in control.

A robust integration with your ERP software gives you the visibility and efficiencies you need to handle all the moving parts without additional overheads. Data synchronisation updates stock levels, invoicing, contact details, product information and order fulfilment so your sales channels are kept up to date without manual processing.

Key ERP trends

There are increasing pressures for wholesalers and distributors to improve and refine their digital offering. With 2020 accelerating the move to digital there are key things businesses need to consider in order for their eCommerce store to be successful.

User experience

As the B2B and B2C lines blur, the expectations for first-class customer service is high. Usability is key to encourage sales and will also help the introduction of your website to existing customers. It’s crucial your website represents your brand, so customers feel they can trust the site but ultimately, if the website is easy to navigate, products are labelled correctly for search and the checkout process and customer portals are simple and intuitive, customers will make the purchases and return as a loyal client. 

Loyalty programs

It’s not unusual to expect discount codes or loyalty points schemes when shopping with your favourite high street brands and that can be easily transferred to the B2B world. Regular customers like to be rewarded for their loyalty and in an offline world, customers may receive discounts off large orders or their regular orders and this can be replicated online. Special pricing or bulk discounts can be set up on specific customer accounts or you can use loyalty points schemes for customers to collect per order. Those loyalty points can then be used against future purchases, delivery discounts or other special perks. This is a great way to make the online experience feel personal.

Integration for multi-channel

One solution doesn’t fit all and as you introduce digital channels to your strategy it’s likely your sales reps and trade counter will still be busy. This is because each channel serves a purpose and you may have customers that purchase from you in one way only, or you may have customers purchase through every channel. Therefore, it’s crucial that the shopping experience is the same throughout. Your customers need to be confident that their details, product offerings, pricing and stock levels are the same no matter how they choose to shop. The only way to control all these moving parts is to automate and centralise your processes with ERP software.

Demand for fast order fulfilment

All wholesalers are in competition with the online giants and this has set B2B buyers’ expectations at an all-time high. An efficient operation and full control are the key factors that will allow you to offer quick service to meet demand. Centralising your data and managing your business through one ERP solution increases your visibility and gives you the flexibility you need to manage your warehouse, offer quality customer service, spot potential problems in your supply chain and fix issues before they arise. Slick processes, control of your supply chain and honest communication are at the core of effective multi-channel selling.

Key B2B eCommerce considerations

Before moving forward with your eCommerce project it’s important to consider the challenges and identify goals, a plan and deadlines for a smooth and successful project.

High volumes of product data

Wholesalers and distributors have sizeable product catalogues and they often underestimate the time it takes to get their product data in order. Some businesses take an eCommerce project as a great time to cleanse their stock information to ensure the information is up to date and accurate; if you have thousands of items, this can take time. Whilst you are cleansing your data, you’ll need to consider your product information. Do you have the relevant datasheets, specifications, product information, and images? When your stock goes online, you’ll need visual representations, even videos in some cases, to showcase your products. Without this, you’ve closed the shutters on your online storefront and your customers will pass you by.

Another key thing to consider is your product catalogue structure. The usability of the site is crucial, which is largely based on the navigation structure. Your menu and product categories need to make sense to your customer. Consider this before importing products so you have mapped out the possibilities, giving you and your web developer a clear idea of the structure of your site.

Good content

A good website has great content. Content is all the information, resources, graphics and attachments that make up your website. Your content informs the customer of who you are and what you sell, so make sure it highlights your USPs.  Content needs to be high quality and represent your brand. Some manufacturers will supply images, datasheets, and product overviews of your items so it’s worth asking for help from your suppliers.

Make a good first impression. Your website homepage is your storefront so make sure it matches your brand and is easily recognisable. Have a clean and simple style so visitors aren’t overwhelmed and have enticing and attractive banner images with your latest offers and products. Increase credibility by including reviews and testimonials from customers on your website too.

Personalised accounts

As you cleanse and organise your product data you’ll also need to consider your contact data and pricing structures. If you’re setting up customer rules to manage special pricing and account terms, ensure you consider all options and how this will affect new customers signing up to the website. Will you have an approval stage, or will new customers or retail clients be able to set up an online account immediately?

Centralised & accurate data

Updating prices, stock levels, product data and customer information manually for each sales channel is impossible. Make sure you have a centralised software solution to handle your stock, contact and order data from one place. This means you’ll keep overhead costs and admin time low whilst still running an optimised operation. An eCommerce and ERP system integration will mean your stock management, finances, CRM and reporting is managed and sometimes automated from one source, putting you in control.

Conclusion

As the percentage of B2B businesses expecting to shop online rises, you need to make sure you’re keeping up with competitors otherwise you risk being left behind. By identifying and reviewing potential challenges upfront and by ensuring you have a strong digital core for your business operations, you’ll be able to launch a multi-channel sales operation to help increase your new business opportunities and provide additional avenues for customers.

Future-proof your business with a software-focused operation and a strong digital presence.

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