(This post was originally published on August 17th, 2016. It has been updated for accuracy and completeness.)
According to Forrester, US B2B eCommerce is expected to reach $1.8 trillion and account for 17% of all B2B sales in the US by 2023. B2B eCommerce is on pace to be twice the size of B2C eCommerce.
However, many B2B sellers are still in their infancy for building out strategic online channels. So far most have been slow to adopt eCommerce best practices. If there’s one thing to learn from B2C selling, it’s how crucial it is to choose the right platform to power your online business.
This article aims to show B2B merchants the role eCommerce technology plays in building a user-friendly online experience and how to evaluate which B2B eCommerce platform is best for your business.
Why Your B2B eCommerce Platform Is Important
B2B eCommerce has been around for over 20 years. However, their online experiences tend to not be up to today’s standards set by B2C. B2B merchants have been slow to refocus the purpose of their webstore. Many B2B sites were first thought to replace customer service reps for interacting with existing customers. Today, B2B eCommerce sites are strategic channels for acquiring new customers and driving revenue.
With the new strategy in mind, B2B merchants have a lot to learn from the B2C industry. B2B buyers expect similar shopping experiences as they would on consumer sites. They start product research online with generic queries, use mobile touchpoints like smartphone and tablets, and expected detailed product content. Overall, they’re looking for a straightforward, user-friendly experience in which they can mostly serve themselves.
It’s more than just having the best products and lowest prices. Buyers are looking for the best experience online. To power that experience you want, B2B sellers must choose the right eCommerce platform. And you’re going to need something more powerful than just a plug-in to your ERP.
How to Choose Your B2B eCommerce Platform
There are all types of platforms to choose from to run your B2B site. They all have their own advantages and disadvantages. As you compare platforms though, here are some important areas you must consider:
B2B online selling has its own unique challenges different than B2C. B2B merchants deal with longer buying cycles, needed purchase approval, budget availability, large order quantities, recurring orders, and more. Your platform must meet complex needs that B2B sellers deal with daily.
2. Responsive Design
B2B buyers also shop across different devices such as smartphones and tablets. Your web content should render properly across multiple devices sizes to make it easy to research products, check prices, and make purchases.
Learn more about the challenges of mobile B2B eCommerce.
Buyers want to be able to find information and solve problem themselves. Your eCommerce experience should give them the ability to do that. Customers should have access to shipping information, order tracking, quote approvals, and any other features that help them manage their account themselves.
4. Customer Specific Pricing
A unique need of B2B eCommerce is being able to offer customer-specific pricing and product catalogs. Unlike B2C, your price can vary by who the customer is. Your platform should give you the ability to list different prices for each of your customers.
5. Payment Options
B2B buyers purchase differently from B2C customers. Business typically buy larger orders and on a recurring basis. Your platform needs to have flexible payment options like paying one or several invoices, or partial payment.
6. Product Catalog Management
Product information management is one of the biggest challenges for B2B merchants. Your product content can easily get out of hand and disorganize when you’re dealing with dozens of product catalogs in all different formats from your suppliers. It’s challenging to normalize this data and make it ready for product listings on your website. Be sure to vet how your eCommerce platform handles complex product catalog needs. In some cases, you might need to invest in a Product Information Management (PIM) in addition to your eCommerce platform.
B2B eCommerce Platform Types
When evaluating eCommerce software, you’ll often come across terms such as open source, SaaS or cloud-based. It’s important to know the difference between these platform types as it affects your functionality, total cost of ownership, and how you interact with your platform’s technology.
SaaS vs Open Source eCommerce Platforms
Here’s a quick overview of each platform type:
Software as a Service (SaaS) is a software licensing and delivery model in which software is licensed on a subscription basis. SaaS software is also referred to as web-based or hosted software since it’s hosted and maintained in the cloud by a third-party. Your subscription allows you access to the software via a web browser.
Open source eCommerce
Open source software is licensed to users and allows them to view, change, and distribute its source code for your own purpose. In this way, open source software is developed in a public and collaborative way. It allows for heavy customization by end users.
Read a more in-depth comparison of SaaS vs open source eCommerce software.
Each platform’s architecture will affect your eCommerce software in these main areas:
1. Out-of-the-box Functionality
Since SaaS eCommerce software is hosted and maintained by the provider, they will provide the most out-of-the-box eCommerce functionality. This a better option if you’re trying eCommerce for the first time, need a quick launch time, or don’t have your own IT team. You can utilize pre-built themes and won’t need to start your site from scratch.
On the flip side, you could be limited to the functionality available. These platforms can fall short for B2B merchants who need complex or customized functionality to meet their B2B requirements.
An open source eCommerce platform gives you access to modify the platform’s code. This gives your in-house or agency developers endless creative freedom when designing and configuring your B2B website.
However, working with open source eCommerce platforms can mean implementation times of 3 – 7 months before you get up and running. Creative freedom means you’ll be building your site from scratch and you’ll need to make several decisions before launching.
With hosted or SaaS-based eCommerce platforms, the software provider takes care of maintaining the platform you’re on. They’ll make automatic updates and upgrades. If something crashes, it’s their responsibility to fix it. Your subscription rate covers both your access to the software and the providers ongoing maintenance of it.
For open source platforms, you have complete ownership over your software. This includes procuring and maintaining the servers that host your webstore. It’s your responsibility to monitor and fix with any issues you have with broken software.
Deciding on which type is best is a matter of how much control you want versus the added responsibilities.
4. Security and PCI Compliance
Webstore security, including PCI compliance, is a must for eCommerce sellers. It ensures that you’re safeguarding your customers’ info, including payment card information.
Depending on your platform type, this could be included in your responsibilities. Most cloud-based platforms include overall security and PCI compliance since they will secure the data is on their servers. For open source solutions, the B2B seller is in charge of making sure that all requirements for PCI compliance and other security concerns are met.
Be sure to ask the eCommerce provider how site security PCI compliance works.
Lastly, each platform’s costs add up differently.
For open source eCommerce platforms, you’ll be able to download the software for free, but you’ll need to set up and pay for licensing, hosting, security, and any design work by an agency or someone similar. These projects can have larger upfront investments in order to get started.
For fully-hosted, cloud-based SaaS, you typically pay a monthly fee that covers hosting, security, maintenance, and support (which could help lower costs). You might still utilize an agency to help with design work.
Understand what services you’re paying for and how it affects your investment.
B2B merchants should also consider how your eCommerce platform will integrate with your other systems such as your ERP, POS, PIM or supplier databases. Integration connects your systems so you can sync data and automate processes such as order fulfillment, inventory synchronization, product catalog syndication and more.
Without integration, you’ll be stuck manually entering online orders, inventory counts, and more between your systems. This can slow down your processes and is prone to errors.
When searching for a new platform consider how it will work with your ER or other backend systems. Can it easily handle information that comes for your suppliers? Some eCommerce platforms are easier to integrate than others. A cloud-based platform with a strong API will be easier to integrate than a legacy or proprietary (unique to you) website.
Ask your eCommerce provider about integration upfront. You don’t want to install a whole new eCommerce platform to find out that you can’t integrate it with your ERP after the project is done. It’ll be a waste of your time and money.
Learn more about how to tell if your business needs eCommerce automation.
Other eCommerce Platform Approaches
- In-House – It’s always an option to build your site completely in-house. While homegrown sites give you complete control and ownership, they can be cumbersome and costly to maintain. In-house IT projects can easily lose sight of requirements, project timelines, and budget.
- Headless Commerce – While the idea of headless software is not new, headless commerce is becoming a more pragmatic strategy for the average merchant. Headless commerce decouples the front-end and back-end technology for your website.In other words, the presentation layer that handles your content and product is separated from the technology that allows customers to checkout and pay. In the evolving eCommerce industry, headless commerce might be the best way to adapt to your content when new trends come along like social, video and voice shopping.
Choosing a B2B eCommerce Platform
Choosing the right eCommerce platform for your business takes time and research. It’s an investment in in the long-term growth of your business. Looking at the high-level ways to compare platforms should start your research in the right direction.
Keep reading more about B2B eCommerce best practices: