February 4, 2013, 10:36 AM

A new way of doing business

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At the same time, of course, b2b online sellers also need to provide features that go beyond the typical online b2c experience. Many b2b buyers negotiate contracts that provide them with a tailored set of pricing terms, for instance, and they may need to first request a price quote and route the quotation to several managers, before placing an order. A b2b e-commerce site also needs to mesh with customers' order-approval workflow.

Special requests

B2b buyers also may want to place sizable orders for items not readily available on a supplier's site. While Noble provides about 1.4 million SKUs from more than 1,000 suppliers on NobleGov.com, its site for the U.S. Defense Department and other government agencies, there are still times when a customer needs something the site doesn't carry. In response, Noble designed on its checkout page a "Request an Item" window that prompts a shopper to enter information about the product he seeks, including a description, product number and name of manufacturer.

The web site, which is built on eBay Inc.'s Magento Enterprise e-commerce platform, was customized to route such requests to the most qualified person on Noble's procurement staff, who searches for a supplier. The inquiring customer gets an e-mail confirmation of her request from the procurement staffer, followed by an alert within days detailing the item's availability, price and expected delivery date. The mostly automated process, which was developed with Noble's Magento systems integrator CorraTech, expedites what would be a much longer process if the customer had to first request the item through a sales representative. "It allows us to meet the needs of customers more quickly, and retain more sales from customers who instead might go to another web site," Baldwin says.

CorraTech specializes in developing e-commerce sites using technology from either Magento for mid-size clients or hybris Software for larger ones. Although Magento comes with some b2b e-commerce functionality like contract pricing built into its technology, it also lets companies customize their web sites with technology extensions developed by outside developers to meet additional needs, Michael Harvey, CorraTech's chief operating officer, says. Noble uses tiered pricing within Magento that allows it to provide contract pricing for individual customer groups. Working with CorraTech, Noble automated the process of placing new buyers into their proper contract group based on their e-mail address. New buyers from government agencies with ".gov" and other letters in their e-mail address identifying their agency, for example, can automatically see products and pricing approved for their buying group.

Magento also provides an extension from technology developer Cart2Quote that lets a buyer on a b2b site request a pricing quote for a particular product order not already covered under a contract, negotiate a final price, then click to buy if buyer and seller agree on terms. The Cart2Quote pricing quote module runs from $399 to $799; installing the Magento Enterprise platform starts at just over $14,000.

Capitol Scientific, which runs its e-commerce site on a technology platform hosted on the web by NetSuite Inc., worked with web development firm 360 Cloud Solutions LLC, a certified NetSuite technology partner, to build a custom pricing application that lets each customer log on to see product pricing based on its contract terms, saving the time of sorting through products marked at general list prices.

For customers who request new price quotes on carted products but then abandon Capitol's web site before receiving a price quote, Capitol is working with NetSuite technology partner Audaxium Inc. to develop an application integrated with NetSuite's customer relationship management system that will automatically send repeated e-mails as necessary after the first hour, after three days, then after a week. Each e-mail will be personalized based on the product a customer had placed in the cart, with the final message typically offering a special promotion, Van Waes says.

User-friendly—and fast

As b2b companies seek out technology vendors to support their e-commerce strategies, they face the challenge of getting new applications to work with their existing technologies. That was the case at J.O. Galloup Co., a Battle Creek, Mich.-based unit of Kendall Electric Inc. that sells industrial pipes, valves and related fittings to utility companies and automakers in the Midwest.

Several years ago Galloup launched a b2c site on the free Magento Community e-commerce platform, selling small items like thermometers and gauges to learn the basics of operating a shopper-friendly site. It then tested a b2b site, but among other problems, found it couldn't integrate well with Galloup's back-end SAP financial and inventory management software, says Gary Merritt, director of marketing for Galloup. As a result, as the site tried to pull up specific pricing figures according to each customer's contract terms, pages loaded painfully slowly, taking up to 15 seconds.

So when Galloup decided to build a new b2b site, it wanted to make sure it had both a b2c look and feel while also integrating well with SAP software. Galloup chose Insite Software, whose e-commerce technology clients include manufacturers, distributors and retailers.

The new b2b site, which launched last year, avoids the problem of slowly loading pages and offers a user-friendly interface, including large images of products, site search and images of related items in the shopping cart, Merritt says. It also connects with the SAP software in ways that provide important purchasing features that many customers want, he adds.

A Galloup customer creating a new purchase order in his own company's software system, for example, can electronically send the purchase order to the Galloup b2b site's shopping cart, then receive the purchase order back with pricing and shipping details to route through his company's approval process. "That's part of what prompted us to work with Insite," Merritt says. "Our former e-commerce software couldn't pull that off." He adds that e-commerce accounts for a small percentage of total sales, but that Galloup expects that percentage to grow as more customers get accustomed to using the new site.

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