Most distributors or wholesalers are taking a hard look at their e-commerce and digital strategy. But most have realized that building an e-commerce site is not an easy task for many reasons, including:
- B2B e-commerce is complex
- E-commerce resources are hard to find and are expensive
- Cost of entry can be high
- A lack of instructional information and good consultants
In the distribution world, large companies like Watsco, Grainger, Amazon, and Ferguson continue to invest in their e-commerce platforms and reap the rewards as a result. However, the cost of those rewards tends to be tens of millions of dollars invested in e-commerce platforms, integration and high-cost resources.
How can small and mid-size distributors compete?
Small and mid-size distributors can compete with the big distributors by being smarter in how they make their investments. There are four general areas of investment that define an e-commerce strategy:
- E-commerce platform and software
- B2B E-Commerce consulting and resources
- Digital marketing
- E-commerce platform and integrated software
Before we talk about how to selectB2B eCommerce software, we must begin by looking at the first 12 months of operation. When it comes to e-commerce, most distributors don’t know what they don’t know. Distributors need to spend some time figuring out how their customers want to interact with them online. You can’t afford to customize your e-commerce platform until you know what you should be customizing according to your expected return on investment.
In more practical terms, this means finding a B2B ecommerce solution that works for your business out-of-the-box. Any customization can happen down the line. Selecting a solution that meets a small set of initial requirements is what’s important right now.
For distributors, select a platform that has the following:
- Ability to optimize for Google – you have customers right now looking for your products on search engines like Google. Search Engine Optimization or SEO is a critical must have.
- On-site Search and Navigation – if you have over 1,000 SKUs then you must have a good search box. Guided and faceted navigation is also critical for your customers to find your products.
- Product catalog management – you want the ability to easily change and enrich your product information, attributes, descriptions and images without involving IT.
- Customer pricing – when customers come on to your site they want to see their pricing, terms and conditions
- Simple checkout – the checkout should be intuitive, simple and as frictionless as possible. That means you should probably take a hard look at your “new customer” onboarding process.
- ERP integration – choose software and partners that have lots of experience integrating with YOUR ERP system.
- Great business tools – your site needs to be changed regularly without involving IT or a vendor at each step. Choose software that gives you ALL the tools for your team to make changes.
To get up and running quickly, you need software that gives you as many B2B e-commerce best practices as possible without requiring customization.
So, without opting for customization, where does a distributor invest?
- Integration with the ERP.The ERP, or enterprise resource planning system, is the lifeblood of most B2B organizations. The e-commerce site is an extension of your organization and, therefore, must be tightly integrated into your ERP system (which includes software for managing product information and pricing, inventory records, customer orders, inventory records and financial accounting.)
- Creative design.Invest in creative design to make your site look good, instead of just relying on software developers. Creative design is worth every penny because it will make you look professional and credible. Good creative design will help you build online trust with your customer.
- Product data.If your product data is lousy, your operation is not unusual. To improve, pick the top 5-10% of your most popular products and invest in building our unique descriptions and attributes for those products. Have your staff or third parties keep them accurate and up-to-date as you import new product data from your suppliers. Make the data on your important products as rich as possible.
Consulting and resources
There is a gold rush going on in e-commerce that has made resources hard to find and extremely expensive. Most companies turn to consulting, but again it is an expensive play, and there are not a lot of consultants that understand B2B e-commerce.
Instead of spending your money on high-priced consultants that recycle advice, engage consultants that are B2B-focused and have a heart of a teacher. Then hire ambitious people that have a desire to learn about e-commerce and your business. Use your consultants to teach your people and grow expertise in your organization.
“Build it and they will come” used to be the mantra. But not anymore. It is no longer enough to build a B2B e-commerce site; you have to know how to market it. From search engine optimization, or SEO, to marketing automation to digital advertising, you must construct a funnel of awareness, consideration and conversion–or a customer journey where a customer first becomes aware of your brand, considers your products, then places an order on your site. Google calls it See, Think and Do.
Keep it simple
I believe that small and mid-size distributors have an incredible opportunity to compete with even the biggest of competitors. However, they must start today. And when you don’t know what you don’t know, keep your first efforts simple and focused.
Justin King is the founder of eCommerceandB2B.com and the Commerce Advisory Group, which provides consulting, training and advice in choosing and implementing e-commerce technology.