While consumers spend in increasing amounts online, many of their employers are spending even more. In 2013, U.S. companies and government agencies will purchase $559 billion worth of goods and services online, Forrester Research Inc. predicts in its first estimate of the b2b e-commerce market released last month.
If Forrester is right, b2b e-commerce sales next year likely will be more than double the online purchases by consumers. E-retail sales totaled $194 billion in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, and 15% growth in 2012 and 2013 would put b2c online sales at about $260 billion next year.
But as they move more of their business online, manufacturers and distributors face significant challenges, says Andy Hoar, author of the report, "Key Trends in B2B eCommerce for 2013."
One is building web sites as appealing to the purchasing agents as the consumer-facing web sites that those buyers shop themselves. "The b2c customer experience has put pressure on b2b e-commerce sites to up their game," Hoar writes in the report.
Business-facing companies are also finding it tough to recruit qualified e-commerce personnel, and their scarcity means e-commerce executives command high salaries, Hoar says. Nonetheless, he says, "The smart companies grab someone from the b2c world and train him on their business. That's easier to do than to take someone who knows the business and train him on e-commerce."
What's more, b2b companies are running into a competitor familiar to e-retailers that sell to consumers: Amazon.com Inc., which unveiled this year its Amazon Supply site that sells such products as tools, sheet metal and cleaning supplies. Amazon will be a significant competitor, Hoar says, in areas like office supplies that require little configuration or product knowledge.