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First retail, now B2B: In-person deals are plummeting

B2B e-commerce has never been hotter

Branch offices are clearing out as more and more B2B companies move online (Photo: Yan Krukov/Pexels)

Not long ago, if a salesperson were to complain to the boss about making the tedious rounds to clients’ branches, the likely response was that it’s “just the cost of doing business.” After all, nothing comes for free. However, the cost of doing business has risen from a few hours of boredom to contracting a potentially deadly virus, and it’s a price that not many are willing to pay. The solution many have discovered is to change the definition of “doing business.” 

Pretty much everyone is aware of the global shift to e-commerce on the retail side, but flying under the radar is the rise of e-commerce between businesses. According to Forrester, U.S. B2B e-commerce will reach $9 trillion by the end of 2021, compared to less than $3 trillion for retail. Gone are the face-to-face deals of years past — these days, business is done with a click of the mouse rather than a flourish of the pen.

A change that was needed – and wanted

Like many other online shopping trends, B2B e-commerce was already on the rise before COVID-19 rolled around.

“I think it was very evident that for suppliers, there was a critical importance of building a digital relationship with their customers,” Mitch Rose, senior vice president of sales for B2B payment company Billtrust, told Modern Shipper. “COVID just took it to another level.”

When the pandemic hit, customers of B2B suppliers could no longer go to branches to speak to representatives and learn about products. Whereas going digital was just a trend before, it had become a necessity, and Rose’s company saw that firsthand. From March 2020 to March 2021, Billtrust (NASDAQ: BTRS) saw its e-commerce customers’ B2B web sales increase more than 463%, while average order amount nearly tripled.

Having an e-commerce platform — and a good one — is now essential for B2B companies to place and fill orders, and buyer behavior all but confirms it. According to Gartner, 43% of B2B buyers would prefer not to interact with a sales representative at all, whether in person, on the phone or by email. And per McKinsey, around two-thirds of buyers prefer remote human interaction or digital self-service when buying from or interacting with B2B organizations. The shift to e-commerce hasn’t been solely due to necessity — buyers like it, too.

The new way of doing business

But what does B2B e-commerce look like? Well, just like in-store, consumers would prefer to find things for themselves online. A 2021 Infor survey revealed that 71% of distributors are prioritizing a self-service buying experience for their customers.

“If you have a search bar, [online shoppers are] going to try to find their own answers,” Michael Campbell, digital marketing director of B2B distributor Lee Supply Corp., told Modern Shipper. “And I know we’re talking about the digital world, but if you compare it to the analog world, if you walk into a store, you don’t want to be greeted with the, ‘How can I help you?’ You want to go try to find it yourself first.”

But as much as consumers want to shop on their own, a part of them wants some guidance from the seller. For a distributor like Lee Supply Corp., one of the biggest challenges of the digital transition has been data collection that would allow for more accurate product information, better consumer insights and customizable product recommendations.

“You don’t want your customers to have to call the branch to ask questions if we could just provide answers right there on the page,” Campbell explained.

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Campbell’s company was one of the many B2B distributors shifting toward e-commerce before the pandemic, but even then, finding ways to collect comprehensive data has been challenging. Lee Supply Corp. opted not to use an outside service for data collection because, as Campbell says, “when you have hundreds of thousands of SKUs, you’re not hitting everything.” Instead, the company developed its methods internally.

With analytic insights, Lee Supply Corp. has been able to track what users are buying and searching for on its e-commerce platform, which has allowed it to recommend the right products to the right buyers. It’s also given the company greater visibility over its product information management, meaning better accuracy for product images, descriptions and specifications. On Lee Supply Corp.’s website, for example, recommendations appear directly beneath the product image — just like Amazon.

Alongside data analytics, B2B distributors have turned to new tools and technology to make the transition to digital smoother. One such innovation has been platforms like Billtrust, which facilitate online invoices. Another is the bar code scanner, which Campbell says has been one of his company’s largest drivers for user adoption.

“Whereas your outside salesperson might go into their customer’s warehouse and spend three hours going through their stock to place an order to restock their shelves, with a bar code scanner, we print our own bar codes,” he said.

The death of the face-to-face deal

There’s some bad news for salespeople who are fond of the in-person deals of old. B2B has moved online, and it’s likely to stay there. E-commerce is like a drug, and the B2B industry has gotten a taste of it — now, it can’t get enough.

“That genie is not going back in the bottle,” Rose said. “Now it’s just going to be more and more and more important, and the industry is talking about it a lot.”

The same demand for ease and convenience that’s swept the retail ecosystem has overtaken the B2B space as well. Businesspeople are people too, and many hate the long car rides and tedious marketing calls as much as the next person. According to Rose, it’s the “cornerstone” that’s driving B2B e-commerce, and all that’s left to do is use technology to replace the practices of years past.

“Now it’s a matter of the technology — the product information management systems, the personalization, the recommendations, the optimizing of SEO — and making sure that the suppliers have the right tools to keep on driving adoption of their e-commerce sites.”

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Jack Daleo

Jack is a staff writer for FreightWaves and Modern Shipper covering topics like last mile delivery and e-commerce fulfillment. He studied at Northwestern University, majoring in journalism with a certificate in integrated marketing communications. Previously, Jack has written for Backpacker Magazine and enjoys travel, the outdoors, and all things basketball.