B2B Ecommerce Platforms for Wholesale Distributors Guide

July 20, 2023
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A few years ago, Google found that around 50% of B2B buyers were millennials. That’s double the number from just 3 years prior. Next up is Generation Z. The majority of B2B buyers are now digital natives. They grew up with the internet. Their expectation of commerce is that it’s digital and easy

That’s why B2B eCommerce is following the path blazed by B2C commerce. Because all those people who came of age transacting online are now the decision makers on the buyer side. There will come a time in the near future where the vast majority of commerce is eCommerce. And we’re getting there fast. It's now hard to find the absolute best B2B wholesale platform, as there are so many options.

And that means there’s a huge opportunity just staring wholesale distributors in the face: get ahead of the curve and implement a reliable B2B ecommerce platform. If you don’t, your buyers—those buyers who now expect their B2B transactions to be as easy ordering from Amazon—will go to your B2B-savvy competitors. It's crucial to start with the basics and learn how to run a wholesale distribution business, first.

It’s just a matter of time before one of two things happens. You’re either going to lag behind and lose clients because you’re falling way short of their expectations. Or you’re going to get out in front of buyer behavior and ride the huge B2B ecommerce wave straight to the bank. The choice is yours.

If you do choose to deploy a B2B ecommerce solution, you’re in the right place. We’re going to walk you through everything you need to know to take your next steps. First we’ll describe just what B2B ecommerce is. Then we’ll go over the benefits of it. And finally we’ll cover what to look for in a B2B ecommerce platform.

After, you’ll be equipped to take your next steps into one of the brightest futures the B2B industry has ever seen.

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What Is B2B eCommerce

B2B, pronounced B-to-B, means business-to-business. It means any and all transactions that take place between two businesses. For example, between a meat distributor and a steakhouse. Transactions in the B2B sphere are often for the materials needed to make finished goods that are eventually sold to the public.

This is opposed to B2C, pronounced B-to-C, which means transactions between individual consumers and businesses. You buying something personally off of Amazon is a B2C transaction.

The Meaning of eCommerce

Ecommerce is short for “electronic commerce.” That just means the process of buying and selling things online. It’s like a traditional marketplace, but totally digital and online.

There are a few different kinds of ecommerce:

  1. B2B ecommerce: A business selling to another business
  2. B2C ecommerce: A business selling to an individual consumer
  3. C2C ecommerce: An individual consumer selling to another individual consumer

B2B vs. B2C

To get a better idea of the differences between B2B and B2C, let’s explore the three main differences:

  1. The decision-making process. B2B transactions are bigger in both volume and dollar amount than B2C transactions. That means transacting with a B2B vendor is a higher-stakes decision. And the decision-making process behind it is more complicated. There will be numerous decision makers involved in what are usually drawn-out negotiations. B2C transactions, on the other hand, usually have a single decision maker. And that’s usually the person who is the ultimate user of the product or service.
  2. The decision-making time frame. The time frame for a B2B decision is much longer than a B2C decision. B2B buyers vet suppliers at length because B2B relationships have higher switching costs and risk factors. B2C decisions tend to be impulsive. And if you’ve ever been on Amazon as a shopper, you know what that feels like.
  3. Marketing and customer acquisition. Finally, how you market to B2B buyers is different from B2C buyers. B2B marketing tends to be focused on how the buyer will meet business-critical metrics. Instead of a focus on brand identity and customer experience like in B2C marketing.

B2B eCommerce Statistics for Distributors

The numbers around the growth of B2B ecommerce for distributors are telling: 

  • 2 billion people shopped online last year
  • 69% of buyers ordering online with a computer
  • 57% of buyers not ordering online want to
  • 40% of buyers want to order with a mobile app
  • The B2B ecommerce market made up 12% of all B2B sales in 2018

To take advantage of these new buyer behaviors and expectations, you’ve got to have a transactional digital presence online. Let’s look a little deeper into how B2B ecommerce is affecting the marketplace.

How Is B2B eCommerce Changing Things?

As millennials who grew up with B2C ecommerce marketplaces become decision makers in the B2B landscape, the above trends will continue. What does it mean for the wider marketplace? Here’s what you can expect to see.

  • Mobile-first transactions. About 70% of all adults in the U.S. shop online, and 87% of those between the ages of 30 and 49 shop on their mobile devices. By the end of next year, 75% of all ecommerce transactions will be done on a mobile device.
  • Frictionless payment processing. Getting from a product page to an order confirmation is getting easier and easier. That makes cart abandonment rarer and rarer.
  • Personalization of customer experience. Transacting online allows for the collection of lots of data. And that allows for sales and customer support teams to leverage that data to curate customized experiences.
  • Peerless customer support. 9 out of 10 people say they’ll switch over to a competitor following a bad experience. B2B CS operations now regularly have built-in live chat functionality and in-app messaging; tools that handle a higher volume of customer contacts with better results.

We know B2B ecommerce is the future of B2B. Now let’s look at its benefits.

B2B eCommerce Benefits

There are many benefits to using B2B ecommerce platforms. There’s also a bit of hesitation. We think unnecessarily. Here’s a list of benefits along with some of the common refrains we hear from businesses hesitant to implement a B2B ecommerce solution.

B2B eCommerce Pros

  • Higher conversion rates. Whether or not a buyer completes a transaction depends on that transaction’s convenience. 52% of buyers say that over half or of their purchases are dictated by convenience. And 97% say they’ve aborted a transaction because it wasn’t convenient enough. B2B ecommerce platforms make the transaction process convenient.
  • Lower costs. B2B ecommerce platforms lower the cost of managing a website. From having a digital storefront to using a catalog creator to create a digital product catalog. It also lowers lost revenue and buyer churn by eliminating ordering and delivery errors.
  • Better customer experience. The right B2B ecommerce platform makes it almost effortless for someone to create a buyer account, browse your digital catalog, add products to the cart, and finalize the transaction. And it all happens in a single ecommerce storefront. You can even ensure on-time delivery with your platform's built-in multi-stop route planner. Check out our whole guide on route optimization software if you're interested.
  • Reduced human error. B2B ordering usually involves numerous points where the buyer’s order is received and input into the system. Often transposed multiple times throughout fulfillment. A good B2B ecommerce platform minimizes and automates the steps necessary for an order to be received and fulfilled.
  • Improved customer relationships. When customers place orders within B2B ecommerce systems, data is collected. That data can be leveraged to customize future buying experiences and enhance the customer experience. Your sales team can approach buyers with insights about historical and seasonal order volume, par levels, and more. Your business increases its value to your buyers, becoming a consultant.
  • It’s a massive opportunity. U.S. B2B ecommerce will reach $1.8 trillion by 2023. That’s 17% of all B2B sales. The industry will have a compound annual growth rate of 10% during the next 5 years. You have to position yourself to leverage this, and that means implementing a B2B ecommerce platform.

Common B2B eCommerce Misconceptions

  • Price shopping. Many businesses are hesitant to give customers the opportunity to compare their prices against their competitors’. But the right B2B ecommerce platform is designed with your specific industry in mind. It protects you from customer price-shopping your products while also allowing those same buyers to discover vendors in verticals you don’t service.
  • Lack of personalization. B2B operations also fear the deterioration of the relationships between their clients and their sales reps. And that that deterioration will eat away at personalized service. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. When sales reps are equipped with insights from the built-in CRM of a B2B ecommerce platform, they’re able to leverage unique buyer data to take a consultative approach with each buyer. The value of their relationship to buyers actually increases ten-fold.
  • Privacy. Established SaaS platforms have already taken the efforts to ensure that data is secure and confidential information is not shared nor accessible from other parties. If you should decide to create your own platform, you will need to consider where your customer data is housed and how their data is secured, and be prepared to explain.
  • Security. Some businesses think online payment portals open them up to a lot of credit card fraud risk. Maybe they did in 1995. Today, every reputable B2B ecommerce platform incorporates industry-leading security tools that secure money and information from B2B and B2C transactions. Having top-notch security is a non-negotiable for B2B ecommerce platforms these days. It’s the cost of doing business.
  • Added cost to maintain. The hesitation about excessive added cost is only valid if you’re building your own in-house platform. Otherwise, you can get a reliable B2B ecommerce solution for $50–100 per month.
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Best B2B eCommerce Platforms

Now let’s look at what separates the good B2B ecommerce platforms from the others. And what you need to consider to find the one that’s right for your business. 

There are a lot of options out there. You can engage in an expensive, multi-year in-house development project to get the most customized system possible. Or you can opt for something much less expensive off-the-shelf that will likely do everything you need with some sacrifice of customization.

They key to picking the right B2B ecommerce software is knowing exactly what you need from it. To help you get there, let’s look at what exactly ecommerce software is and how to identify which ones will be best for your business’s unique needs

B2B eCommerce Software: What Is It?

B2B ecommerce software is a suite of ecommerce tools that assists with all aspects of operating your B2B operation. Things like selling, tracking and analytics, customer relationship, fulfillment, invoicing, and payments.

Many of the newer B2B ecommerce platforms are cloud-based. That means, to you, they exist only online. Platforms like this have two main advantages. First, you don’t need to install or maintain any software. Your B2B ecommerce partner maintains the platform for you. Second, the platform is compatible with all operating systems, tablets, and mobile devices. All it needs to run successfully is a web browser and internet access.

If your B2B business is in a position to expand, the right B2B ecommerce system will supercharge your growth. Before we get into the aspects of B2B ecommerce platforms you should look for, let’s take a high-level view of the market.

B2B eCommerce Platforms: Market Overview

At the outset, you’ll have one big choice to make. Do you build your own in-house ecommerce solution, or do you “rent” a cloud-based system, also called the software-as-a-service or SaaS model? Let’s look at each.

Building Your Own B2B eCommerce Portal

Building something and totally owning it seems tempting, especially for many entrepreneurs and business leaders. But, truthfully, it rarely, if ever, works for small- to medium-sized businesses.

Ask yourself, “What are your must have-features? Are they unique enough that existing systems on the market can’t deliver? What is your level of urgency? Can you afford to wait years for an in-house solution to be coded from the ground up? And what’s your budget? Are you willing to pay tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on a proprietary software? The last question is especially poignant because many of the best B2B ecommerce platforms cost only $50–100 per month.

By answering these questions, you’ll get a feeling for how much money you stand to make, or leave on the table, if you go forward with building an in-house platform.

Using an Existing B2B eCommerce Solution

On the other hand, and this is the recommended option for the majority of businesses, you can use a system someone else built. IT can be installed on-premises or cloud-based. Let’s look at the disadvantages and advantages of each.

Cloud-Based B2B eCommerce Platform Benefits
  • As long as you have access to the internet, you can access the platform. It has compatibility with more platforms and devices, and more remote visibility, than any other platform.
  • Your B2B ecommerce provider is responsible for maintaining the infrastructure and making improvements, fixing bugs, and providing tech support. You don’t have to do any management and maintenance or pay out-of-pocket for support.
  • The setup is easy and all-inclusive. Every SaaS solution comes with installation, setup, onboarding, and training for your team.
  • It is infinitely scalable. Because it’s cloud-based, it’s not constrained by hardware size. it has room to grow. And that means it can grow with your business.
On-Premise B2B eCommerce Platform Benefits
  • An on-premise solution can perform better in some circumstances. Cloud-based platforms are accessed over the internet, and if your internet connection is spotty, an on-premise solution delivers a more consistent experience.
  • You’ll get more control, but at an exceptionally higher cost. You choose the hardware (servers) and software (operating system), which gives you the ability to customize. You’ll also have total control over the physical security of this infrastructure.

Cloud-based solutions over convenience, flexibility, and lower costs. On-premise solutions offer occasional performance benefits and more control.

B2B eCommerce Platforms: Features to Look For

It’s almost shopping time. Let’s go over the basic features you should hunt for in a B2B ecommerce solution.

  1. It should be cloud-based. A monthly SaaS subscription is the best option for the vast majority of B2B businesses. In terms of costs, it’s the lowest. Monetary, organizational, and personnel costs are all much lower. And it has a huge upside in terms of boosting sales volume and profit margin.
  2. It should be multi-channel. It’s got to have more than just a website. You’ll need a variety of access points for customers, which include both web and mobile capabilities for browning, purchasing, and receiving support.
  3. There should be a built-in CRM. Having an internal customer relationship management functionality helps you actively manage customer relationships with live chat support, email marketing, and more.
  4. It should be able to integrate with other tools and tech easily. No one system can do it all. Even robust platforms need well-defined scopes to succeed. For a platform to fit nicely within your workflow, it must play well with others

Those are the basic features you should look for. But, depending on your industry, you’ll need business-specific features. A B2B ecommerce platform for the wholesale food distribution space, for example, would benefit from the following:

  1. Easy, thorough catalog management. Many suppliers sell the same products to different customers at different prices. All due to negotiated contracts. An ideal ecommerce solution sets your customer catalogs up to show or hide specific products. It also has custom order guides and different prices displayed to different customers. And it’ll let you set up custom order minimums, volume discounts, delivery selection, and more. Just make sure you’ll be able to easily import your existing product catalog and effortlessly make an unlimited number of changes based on customer segments and needs.
  2. Order management that allows selling by any unit and being able to charge breakage fees, enforcing ordering in specific multiples, setting a minimum dollar value for an order to be eligible for a discount, setting daily order cut-off times, and allowing customers to pre order or back-order items.
  1. Payment flexibility that allows for specific payment terms and structures. B2B buying is different from other industries, and is often highly specific to each buyer. 
  2. Selling tools to create promotions and allow buyers to discover new products and try new product lines. That can be seasonal products, low-volume products, or new product lines. Anything that needs a shot in the arm.
  3. ‍Your buyers need high-quality images and clear, detailed information about the products you’re selling. That’s the only way they’ll be able to see exactly what they’re buying. We can’t stress this enough. B2B transactions are high-stakes and high-volume. If you remove uncertainty with a crystal-clear catalog, you’ll encourage a lot more buying 

Launching Your B2B eCommerce Platform

Once you find the right B2B ecommerce platform, it’s launch time. Here’s how to make the most of your new platform’s debut: marketing strategies and website best practices. Your B2B customers want to shop with B2B wholesalers that focus on user experience with drag and drop functions for ease of use. Wholesale customers in general want everything they need in one easy-to-reach location. Your wholesale platform and wholesale eCommerce experience needs to fulfill those wishes and needs. With those features, you can be the go-to wholesale business in the eCommerce world.

Marketing Strategies for B2B eCommerce Platforms

As part of, and after, your launch, you’ll need to focus on attracting potential customers and spreading the word about the new functionality to existing customers. Here are some great B2B marketing strategies to put in play:

  1. Email everyone. Email existing clients introducing them to the new transaction portal. Email prospects in your lead pipeline letting them know you put a premium on innovation and you’ve just made it easier for them to discover your products and transact.
  2. Use your existing website and display a banner or other visual element that plugs your brand-new ecommerce functionality. You can also do this on other websites using paid advertising or ads on partner sites.
  3. Spread the word about your new capabilities in existing customer newsletters. Announce your entry into the B2B ecommerce landscape. Including quotes from an early-adopting customer and senior leadership within the company will give instant credibility.
  4. Send out a press release announcing your company the new owner of an industry-leading B2B ecommerce transaction portal for purchasing.
  5. Train your markets and sales staff to talk about and introduce the new platform to current buyers and prospects during their calls and prospecting.
  6. Use social media to talk about your ecommerce platform. Social media shines when the conversation is natural, so become a part of it. You can even schedule multiple social media posts as the launch date approaches.
  7. Reference it on recorded messages—when someone calls your company’s phone number or customer service department.
  8. Include a callout to your new online-ordering functionality on every invoice and receipt you generate.

Best Practices for B2B eCommerce Websites

Having a navigable, easy-to-understand website is the cornerstone of an effective B2B eCommerce platform. The right catalog mapping, site architecture, and use navigation flows are all vitally important to reducing bounce rate and cart abandonment. Remember these best practices:

Easy Navigation

Your navigation should allow all users to navigate and search your product catalog with as little effort as possible. Minimizing clicks, from discovery to purchase confirmation, is the goal. That ensures your regular customers can seamlessly and quickly use your platform to place re-orders. Having a few clicks also encourages existing customers to set up recurring and standing orders.

Simple, Clear Product Discovery

Your buyers can’t smell, taste, or touch your products online. Maximize the things they can experience: words and pictures.

Here’s how we can make words and pictures easy and accessible:

  • You should use common names for products that make them easily recognizable to people in your industry. What are the simplest, most widely understood names for the products you’re selling? Use those. This is also the place to highlight essential features that will grab their attention and get those products in their virtual shopping cart.
  • Use exceptionally high quality images. If you have multiple products that look similar, source unique images for them all.
  • Be transparent and clear about your pricing and pricing structures.
  • Reduce cart abandonment by making payment terms, methods, order minimums, and how to pay totally obvious.
  • Have accessible customer service by providing live chat, in-app messaging, or, at the very least, a promised 24-hour response time for callbacks and emails if a customer submits a request for help.
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