May 2, 2014, 10:55 AM

Seeing is believing—and selling

What B2B customers see on an e-commerce site—and in complementary print catalogs and other forms of online marketing—can make all the difference in whether they buy.

Lead Photo

The Hubert Co., in business since just after World War II, has for more than a decade used its e-commerce site in tandem with paper catalogs and the phone to help its customers choose among the thousands of products it sells to commercial and institutional kitchens and food merchandisers. The company distributes more than 40,000 SKUs, ranging from commercial ovens and refrigeration units for restaurants and university cafeterias to display racks that prop up steaks, fruit and pastries in food stores.

Handling all the information and images for those products isn't easy. With constantly changing product lines, descriptions and prices, Hubert has struggled to manage all the product descriptions, images and pricing for its products to help its customers and sales reps find the right items customers need and want to buy.

Add to the mix the fact that Hubert also offers specialized web sites for large customers—with their own contract pricing, packaging and other services—and sites in multiple languages and currencies for a growing number of international customers, and maintaining fresh information for all customers is indeed a chore. "It's a constant challenge," says vice president of marketing Mark Woodrow.

And there's more. The fact that many Hubert customers still shop mostly via print catalogs while others prefer its e-commerce site only increases the challenge of managing all that product information in both online and offline versions.

But the distributor has cobbled together several technology systems to keep its product information and images fresh and engaging across its print catalog, e-commerce site and various forms of online marketing, including e-mail campaigns and Internet search. How Hubert does it can serve as a helpful example to the many other B2B e-commerce companies struggling to keep information consistent and current across channels. How well a company responds can determine how well it keeps customers happy and sales growing. The right mix of technology from vendors or developed in-house can help.

Industry analysts say the cost of running a web site on a B2B e-commerce technology platform can vary widely, based on such criteria as sales volume, number of SKUs, and the extent of integration with accounting, inventory management and other software. B2B e-commerce software alone can start as low as $25,000 to $30,000, analysts say, with additional costs for integration and other services typically bringing the total for mid-sized companies into a range of $75,000 to $250,000. Unusually complex deployments can run up to $1 million.

The payoff for doing things right, Woodrow says, is that as Hubert draws more customers into self-service buying through both its e-commerce site and print catalogs, they buy more and are more loyal. Woodrow says customers who order from both channels spend more than 2.5 times what customers using only one channel spend.

What's more, that provides Hubert's customer service reps with more time to help customers through complicated purchases. "Some customers only shop through our web site, some only through our catalog," Woodrow says. "Our best customers use both. When we look at their lifetime customer value, we get a considerable bump."

He adds that 60% of customers shop both online and through the print catalog, with the remaining 40% evenly divided between customers who shop exclusively in one channel or the other.

B2B e-commerce sites often are complex because they must offer different prices and products depending on the customer. That requires the sites to build sturdy links among several technology systems, says Gene Alvarez, vice president and e-commerce analyst at technology research and advisory firm Gartner Inc.

A web content management system, or CMS, enables a manager of an e-commerce site, whether B2B or retail, to add and delete product images, pricing and descriptions for use on web pages and in various online marketing channels. It also enables a site manager to control the placement of non-product content on web pages, such as Buy buttons, navigation menus and signage for store locators. A CMS application typically includes the use of Cascading Style Sheets, or CSS, to format such characteristics of page elements as size and font before an element like a Buy button is positioned on a page through the CMS.

But B2B sites typically need to take things further with complementary technology that ensures accurate and updated product information, and that lets buyers share product information and images with their coworkers and superiors before completing a purchase, Alvarez and other experts say. In some cases, a buyer may also want the ability to "punch out" product content from a seller's web site to his own procurement systems, enabling the buyer to automatically generate purchase orders and update his accounting applications.

A crucial piece of the puzzle is a product information management system, commonly called PIM, that ensures the images, descriptions and pricing associated with each product are current and accurate. It does that by integrating with a company's back-end business software, including inventory and order management systems, to keep web content current with the latest product data and inventory availability. A product information management system can operate as a separate application integrated with a CMS, or operate as a built-in part of the CMS itself.

Although PIM systems also are important in retail e-commerce—particularly for large merchants with extensive and quickly changing inventories that must be constantly updated—they're even more important in B2B e-commerce, where a seller might have hundreds or thousands of contract customers who log in to see products and pricing tailored to their contract terms.

"Product information management stands out for B2B, where sellers often need to support personalized online product catalogs for their customers," Alvarez says.

At Thule Inc., the U.S. arm of the Sweden-based Thule Group, which manufactures high-end products like ski and bike racks that can lock onto cars, a Sitecore Corp. content management is integrated with Thule's back-end Oracle Corp. business software, including order management and product databases. This integration lets Thule provide accurate product content on a B2B e-commerce site, which was built using the InsiteCommerce program from Insite Software. That integration essentially serves the same purpose as a PIM system, says Suresh Devanan, president and CEO of Nish Tech Inc., a web development and digital marketing agency Thule retained to oversee the site's November 2012 launch.

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