B2B ecommerce is all fine and dandy until you have to implement it. Then you’re faced with a series of choices. Should you build your platform in-house? What about cloud-based ecommerce solutions? You’ve heard a lot about those.
And just what kind of things should it do? What kind of things do you need it to do?
A B2B ecommerce solution can be a massively-expensive, multi-year, completely customized in-house development project or a basic, inexpensive platform that’s not at all purpose-built to your specific business and customer needs. And everything in between.
It’s really what you make of it.
That means you need to know exactly what your business needs are to find the best B2B ecommerce platform that serves them. To help you do it, we’ll first define what B2B ecommerce software is. Then how to choose the best B2B ecommerce platform for your business. Along the way, we’ll take a look at the features that many of the best B2B ecommerce platforms have (and don’t).
What is B2B Ecommerce Software?
The definition of B2B is business-to-business. B2B ecommerce, then, is a suite of ecommerce tools that helps run all aspects of your B2B business. That includes selling your products and services, managing and tracking sales team performance, managing customers, fulfilling orders, sending invoices, and receiving payment.
Newer B2B ecommerce platforms are cloud-based, which means they exist only on the internet. You access them through a B2B ecommerce website or a B2B ecommerce app (both sometimes referred to as a B2B ecommerce portal). Cloud-based platforms have two distinct advantages:
- You don’t need to install or maintain any software on your end. Your technology partner providing the B2B ecommerce services maintains the platform for you.
- The platform is compatible with all operating systems, mobile devices, and tablets, as long as you have a web browser. You don’t have to wrestle with software installation and compatibility. You just have to access the internet.
If your business is growing or positioned for growth, finding the right B2B ecommerce platform is fuel on the fire. Here’s what to look for.
How to Choose A B2B Ecommerce Platform
To succeed with the modern B2B buyer, you need to have a B2B ecommerce platform in place. It’s no longer debatable. Before you set out to choose, let’s first consider a high-level market overview of B2B ecommerce platforms. That’ll give us some idea of what’s at stake.
Then we’ll look at the features that make the best B2B ecommerce platforms great and how those features can impact the specific needs of your business and customer base.
Market Overview of B2B eCommerce Platforms
You can choose to build your own B2B ecommerce platform, purchase software for on-premise deployment, or “rent” a cloud-based system. The last option is also referred to as the software-as-a-service, or SaaS model. Let’s take a look at each.
Building Your Own B2B Ecommerce Platform
Building your own platform can seem tempting. But it rarely ever works for small- to medium-sized businesses.
Here is a set of questions specially designed to help you determine if a build-your-own solution is the right move. Ask yourself:
- What are your must-have features? Are they unique or niche enough that prevailing systems on the market can’t deliver them out of the box?
- What is your level of urgency? Can you afford to wait months, if not years, for your in-house solution to be ready?
- What’s your budget? Are you willing to pay tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to build something in house, when you could be paying $50–100 for an off-the-shelf solution?
Answering these three questions will help you determine how much money you stand to make, or leave on the table, if you build your own solution.
Using an Existing B2B Ecommerce Platform (SaaS or Software)
The alternative, and the recommended option for the vast majority of businesses, is to use an existing system. Regardless of whether it’s installed on-site or cloud based. But you will ultimately have to choose one or the other. So, what do you prefer: having more control or having more convenience and flexibility? Let’s look at the disadvantages and advantages of each.
Using a cloud-based B2B ecommerce platform nets you the following:
- Compatibility with more platforms and devices and remote visibility from anywhere in the world—as long as you have access to the internet
- No management, maintenance, or support overhead. Your B2B ecommerce service provider is responsible for maintaining the platform and the infrastructure it runs on (servers). Along with making improvements, issuing bug fixes, and providing technical support.
- Easy, all-inclusive setup. Virtually every SaaS solution comes with installation, setup, and onboarding for your team included in the cost to get started.
- Infinite scalability. Cloud-based systems are easy to scale up or down as your company grows or adjusts its priorities.
Using an on-premise software solution, on the other hand, gets you:
- Better performance, in rare cases. Because cloud-based platforms are accessed over the internet, their performance is based on the quality of your internet access. If you don’t have access to the internet, or your access is not consistent, an on-premise solution will provide a more consistent experience
- More control, but at a significantly higher cost. By using an on-premise system you can choose your own hardware (servers) and software (operating system) for that hardware. You can also choose to store your data locally for offline access. And you have complete control over physical security of your infrastructure.
The key benefits of a cloud-based solution are convenience and flexibility paired with lower costs. The benefits of an on-premise solution are more control over your infrastructure, if you’ve got the time and resources to take advantage of it.
Features of B2B Ecommerce Platform
Now let’s evaluate the basic features you should look for in a B2B ecommerce platform.
- Cloud-based. A monthly “SaaS” subscription service for a cloud-based platform is the best option for the majority of B2B businesses. It provides the lowest monetary, organizational, and personnel costs in contrast to its massive upside in terms of sales volume, margin growth, and operational efficiencies.
- Multi-channel. You can’t just set up a B2B ecommerce website and call it a day. To experience ongoing success, you need to offer a complete suite of options. That includes both web and mobile capabilities for browsing your digital catalog, making purchases, and more.
- Built-in CRM. When we say CRM, or customer relationship management functionality, we don’t mean it solely in the sense of a platform like Salesforce. Your platform of choice should actively help you manage your relationships with your customers. Features like order updates, live chat support, and email marketing do just that.
- Integrations. No system does it all. Even the most robust platform needs a well defined scope to be successful. Which means, for a platform to fit in nicely within your workflow, it must play nice with your other tools and systems you have in place. This could be anything from a warehouse inventory system to an ERPs or accounting software.
Those are the basic features all B2B ecommerce platforms should have. But there are additional features, specific to your business, that a purpose-built platform provides.
A B2B ecommerce solution for the wholesale food distribution industry, for example, would likely include the following features:
- Catalog management. Most manufacturers and distributors sell the same products to different customers at different prices. This can be due to negotiated contracts and agreed-upon terms, discounts based on customer loyalty, geography- or volume-based discounts, and other variables.
- Route planning and optimization. It's helpful for food distributors to use technology to optimize their fleet's route management and delivery efficiency. A good B2B ecommerce platform has a built-in route planner app to do just that. Here's a specific resource about route optimization software. And here's some of the many benefits of route mapping software.
The ideal platform has a robust online catalog maker. It lets you set up customer catalogs that show or hide specific products with custom order guides and show different prices to different customers. It also lets you set up custom volume discounts, order minimums, free shipping, delivery selection, and more. Here's a whole guide on how to create a digital catalog.
But be wary of platforms that nickel and dime you. Some ecommerce solutions have so many features behind paywalls that, based on the number of products, product categories, catalogs, and order guides you can create, you’ll rack up crazy fees. The only kind of platform worth using is one that lets you easily import your existing product catalog and seamlessly make an unlimited number of variations based on your customer segments and their needs.
- Order management. A B2B ecommerce platform should deliver operational efficiencies above and beyond those of a sales rep manually taking orders. You should be able to set up robust ordering rules to take advantage of order management functionality. Look for the ability to:
- Sell by unit, in cases or packs, by weight, and being able to charge breakage fees
- Enforce ordering only in specific multiples (e.g., cases in multiples of 2)
- Set a minimum dollar value for an order to be eligible for a discount, or a dollar threshold to qualify for free shipping
- Set daily order cut-off times, delivery days and times, and delivery methods
- Allow customers to pre-order and back-order items, along with substituting options if something they order is out of stock
- Payment flexibility. Payment in the wholesale food distribution industry works a bit differently in some other industries. While it's great to have online payment processing and support for major credit cards as an option, that’s not necessarily how B2B food buyers like to transact and pay for their orders. With that in mind, it is essential that your platform accounts for the specific payment terms and structures that your buyers expect.
- Selling tools. Wholesale food distributors’ product catalogs are constantly changing. Whether it’s due to seasonal products, low-volume products being phased out, or new product lines being introduced. So it’s important that your B2B ecommerce platform has the tools to create promotions and allow customers to discover and try new product lines. Then you'll truly unlock the benefits of B2B ecommerce.
- Online and mobile digital catalog. Your buyers need to be able to not only read about what they’re buying, but they need to be able to see exactly what they’re buying. Think about a produce supplier who sells apples. Did you know there are over 2,500 varieties of apples grown in the U.S.?
Your product catalog needs to be accessible both online, and through a mobile app. Whether it’s for your sales reps in the field or for B2B buyers placing orders from a B2B ecommerce buyer app. Further, the digital catalog should have options for high resolution photos, product descriptions, and perhaps even suggested recipes. If you're selling into the restaurant environment, for example.
Best B2B Ecommerce Platform
Once you get beyond the basics, the best B2B ecommerce platform will really depend on the unique needs of you and your buyers. There are platforms out there that claim to be “one size fits all,” but you know what they say about jacks of all trades.
When you start to dig deeper into a B2B ecommerce platform comparison you’ll realize that an all-purpose B2B ecommerce solution provider may not work for you. For a reason as simple as the fact that oysters aren’t bought and sold the same way that shoes are.
Thousands of wholesale distributors boost sales, improve operational efficiency, and grow customers using BlueCart. If you’re shopping for a cloud-based B2B ecommerce platform that checks all the boxes above, book a demo. We’ll show you everything. And if you're interested in learning more, read our entire guide to choosing a B2B ecommerce platform and B2B route optimizaiton software.