June 30, 2014, 4:08 PM

Big opportunity, big challenge

Business-to-business e-commerce presents a huge opportunity for sellers, but it isn't easy.

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"B2B e-commerce has no finish line—it's an ongoing process," Andy Hoar, a B2B e-commerce analyst at Forrester Research Inc., said last month at IRCE. With business customers increasingly expecting to buy on user-friendly e-commerce sites, B2B retailers must constantly develop better ways to let customers quickly find and buy what they need. "The most important metric is, 'Are we innovating effectively?'" he said.

Other IRCE speakers addressed how to build customer relationships and boost sales.

Girisha Chandraraj, vice president of e-commerce at United Stationers, a wholesale distributor of business supplies, said his company has worked on site design and navigation to help B2B customers more easily and quickly find all that they need. "We want customers to see no reason to go to another site," he said.

Lance Trebesch, CEO of custom ticket printer TicketPrinting.com, gave examples of B2B e-commerce sites, such as HomeDepot.com's Pro Store section, that provide a good balance of product listings and images that lets buyers browse quickly among large numbers of items among multiple product categories, then click into category pages and individual product pages to view more details. The Pro Store also offers buyers applications like construction job planning tools for estimating the cost of materials.

Eric McGregor, e-commerce manager at fastener and tool distributor Tacoma Screw Products, showed how his company relaunched its web site to make shopping faster and more useful. For example, its old site featured limited information and product images shown only in line drawings. In contrast, the new site displays sharp photographic images that show product details, and site navigation that lets customers narrow their product search by such attributes as the finish and thread type of screw fasteners.

GoPro, a manufacturer and marketer of cameras designed to be mounted on such items as surfboards, has built out its mobile commerce strategy to make shopping as easy on mobile devices as it is on desktops for B2B customers, chief technology officer Stephen Baumer said. Customers can use mobile devices to fill out the same type of order form used on desktops, while also checking contract terms, price quotes and past purchases, he said.

Sarah Thompson, manager of e-commerce at Seventh Generation, an eco-friendly products manufacturer, said her company is now selling direct to consumers as well as to retailers—a strategy that brings Seventh Generation valuable insights into consumer demand. The approach has also required Seventh Generation to work with a logistics partner, OHL, to build out a fulfillment network designed for expedient shipping throughout the United States.

Social media is also important in B2B e-commerce, said Keith Haig, head of global digital marketing at 3M Co. 3M has found that its online conversion rates increase as much as fivefold when reviews appear on the company's e-commerce site 3MESPE.com, which sells some 2,000 products to dental offices. "Reviews build trust with customers," he said.

As he and other speakers explained, it's important to engage B2B customers with the right content to complete a sale.

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