November 4, 2013, 2:26 PM

B2B leaps onto the web

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At Belkin, the company releases a number of new products each year, and it needs to be able to release them at the same time across multiple countries—a process supported by the hybris software system. The system lets Belkin's product managers modify product descriptions without having to get assistance from an information technology department. "Product management and marketing managers can enrich product data without involving I.T. or front-end web site developers," Johnston says.

"Customers want personalization and specialization in web content," she adds. "If they're a consumer, they want to feel like they're on a consumer site, and if they're a business they want to feel like they're on a business site." In the future, business customers who log onto their account will see options for ordering in bulk and reordering prior orders, for example, while consumers will see products presented on product pages typical of a consumer shopping site.

The cost to deploy hybris as licensed software starts at a one-time fee of about $200,000; the Internet-based on-demand versions starts at between $10,000 and $20,000 per month, according to Cliff Conneighton, senior vice president of marketing at hybris.

Another company adapting to consumer-­ oriented web sales is Terry Bicycle, known for introducing bicycles and bike seats designed for women. Launched in 1985 as a wholesaler to retail bike shops the company has sold directly to consumers for 18 years, first through paper catalogs and then via e-commerce. Juggling online business and consumer customers was a struggle until the company migrated two years ago to the Internet-hosted SuiteCommerce e-commerce technology platform from NetSuite Inc., which integrates Terry Bicycle's inventory and financial management applications with its customer-facing e-commerce technology.

Managing inventory and sales for both business and consumer customers was particularly complicated because of the way peak seasons overlap for the two sides of the business, says CEO Elisabeth Robert. Because its wholesale customers need to plan their merchandise assortments months ahead of sales, Terry Bicycle typically books pre-season orders for about 65% of its B2B business. It processes orders from business customers between July 1 and Oct. 15 for shipments that don't go out until the following January through May.

But its consumer business also picks up early each year as consumers plan for warm weather recreation. Those orders, placed mostly on the web and by phone, pick up after the retailer begins mailing catalogs in January. That leaves Terry Bicycle with the challenge of keeping the right amount of inventory in stock to satisfy both its B2B and consumer markets, without overstocking products that might outlast the peak selling season.

Today, Terry Bicycle still uses spreadsheets to help manage order records, but it can now more easily export that data into the NetSuite platform to keep inventory records updated and properly allocated to each selling channel, Robert says. NetSuite maintains both the B2B and consumer inventory records in a single database, which gets updated as orders come in from either channel. Terry Bicycle can then log into the NetSuite system to more easily reallocate inventory stocks to its B2B contract customers, or to orders placed through its e-commerce site and call center.

NetSuite also provides a single technology platform for Terry Bicycle's two e-commerce sites— for consumers, and for its B2B customers—which are both tied into the same inventory database.

"We can adjust and reallocate inventory, and move what we need to one channel or the other," Robert says. "I can't tell you how critical that is; it has allowed us to be much more cash flow-optimized."

SpaEquip, which also uses NetSuite for its e-commerce site and its inventory and financial management systems, has found the platform particularly useful for managing the contract pricing it offers exclusively to business customers while also offering competitive pricing on its e-commerce site's consumer pages. Along with direct sales to major hotel chains and independent spa facilities, SpaEquip has been increasing direct-to-consumer sales of products ranging from hydrotherapy tubs costing thousands of dollars to bottles of skin-care lotion selling for less than $10.

Increasing competition in recent years, driven partly by more of its B2B rivals selling directly to consumers, has forced SpaEquip to drop its retail consumer prices. But its previous e-commerce system, which SpaEquip had built in-house, didn't make that easy to do. It didn't have a central database for managing product descriptions and pricing, which made it difficult and time-consuming to manage different pricing levels for business customers and consumers. As a result, its consumer retail prices at times were lower than its contract prices for business clients. "As competition grew, we had to increase our online retail discounts, but then some business customers got upset when they found their prices weren't as good as the public prices for consumers," says SpaEquip founder and president Ed Johnson.

In the NetSuite system, SpaEquip works with a basic price in a central database for each of the thousands of products it sells, and then applies separate discounts within its product management system to set the final price for each business customer and the retail price for consumers. The NetSuite system is designed to set these prices automatically based on the discounts SpaEquip sets. To double check that each B2B customer's price level is set properly, SpaEquip occasionally prints out lists of business customers to compare their contract pricing with the current retail price.

Not all NetSuite clients use its full suite of customer-facing e-commerce and back-end management software. Tacoma Screw Products, for example, relies on Epicor Software Corp. software for managing and updating inventory records and product pricing, and showing on the web what's available and at what price. It also works with EasyAsk, a certified NetSuite technology partner, to deploy a site search and navigation application that lets customers search for industrial parts by multiple characteristics, such as by diameter and length when searching for screws and other fasteners. Tacoma worked with web design and system integration firm NXTurn LLC to customize the NetSuite platform, such as with an online feature that lets business customers route a purchase order through a work flow system to get approvals from authorized managers.

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