July 7, 2014, 8:59 AM

How to compete with Amazon in B2B e-commerce

As B2B e-commerce companies face increasing competition, MarketLive founder and CEO Ken Burke offers tips on how to convert new shoppers into buyers—and keep them returning to buy again.

By now anyone engaged in business-to-business e-commerce knows that Amazon.com Inc. threatens to disrupt the wholesale and distribution business the same way it did the book business first, and just about every other consumer retail sector since.

AmazonSupply, launched just two years ago with 500,000 items, now boasts more than 2.2 million products, from centrifuges to cleaning supplies. Corporate buyers comfortable with their personal shopping experiences at Amazon.com are finding themselves attracted to the similar features at its fast-growing sister B2B site, AmazonSupply.com: inexpensive or free shipping, efficient ordering, astute recommendations and abundant reviews.

B2B vendors know they have to up their game to stay ahead of this ferocious new competitor, and many are planning upgrades to their core e-commerce technology platforms in the next 18 months to stay competitive. But as daunting as the challenge may seem, Amazon does have an Achilles' heel.

The online retail giant's core strength as a mass merchant is also its greatest weakness. By selling nearly everything under the sun and attempting to serve both consumer and B2B audiences, Amazon by necessity must present merchandise in its vast catalog nearly identically to both types of customers.

For small- to mid-sized B2B vendors, this presents an opportunity to stand out by highlighting what makes their offerings unique.

Amazon sells products; the rest of us have the opportunity to sell brand experiences. Those who find ways to offer value beyond discounts and free shipping will forge direct relationships that foster long-term customer loyalty and sales.

How? Through content and customization.

Building deep and unique content into an e-commerce site helps convert new shoppers into buyers. And creating customized paths paving the way for their return boosts those all-important repeat orders. Here are some ways to accomplish both.

Content. Web content is a cornerstone of a compelling B2B research and purchase experience. By providing content that satisfies the research needs of the information-hungry corporate buyer, B2B merchants earn the engagement and trust that lead to sales.

Content also gives vendors the opportunity to differentiate themselves by surpassing Amazon’s capabilities. Breaking free from Amazon’s efficient but limiting template format allows specialty B2B merchants to offer deeper product information catering to their specific audiences.

Much as infomercials elaborate on every aspect of a product, telling the story through a variety of techniques—demonstration videos, testimonials, reviews of features and more—so should site content offer both general information and the granular details that proactively address corporate buyers’ questions.

After covering the product basics, such as descriptions and specifications, multiple images with zoom functionality, and requisite availability, discounts and shipping information, vendors should take content to the next level with information that’s unique and helpful.

Research tools. Amazon's one-size-fits-all template can only accommodate so much specialized information. But other B2B merchants are free to go beyond product dimensions and weight to create tools tailored to the needs of their target buyers.

Lists, comparison charts, sizing recommendations and information on product care and usage are all tools that help shoppers make purchase decisions, while simultaneously conveying the online seller’s  in-depth knowledge of the products.

US Foods Culinary Equipment and Supplies, for example, provides restaurant professionals with a dynamic product-comparison tool that highlights specific attributes of products, such as Energy Star certification and dimensions. The comparison chart is printable, and individual products can be saved to a favorites list for future reference.

Video demonstrations. B2B merchants should produce videos to help corporate buyers compare products, demonstrate how items work and show their size and ease of use.

Not only can videos enrich the product research experience, they’re a great way to distinguish merchant sites from the competition. Despite video's popularity, the format is conspicuously absent from both Amazon.com and AmazonSupply.com.

Customer reviews. While Amazon.com has amassed millions of product reviews, AmazonSupply so far doesn’t have the same kind of critical mass—an opportunity B2B merchants can capitalize on by offering reviews featuring industry-specific criteria. Merchants should encourage reviews from verified buyers across marketing channels, including post-purchase e-mail, product packaging, and via Facebook.

Customer service. Amazon may be efficient, but customers rely largely on impersonal self-service options for handling customer service queries and challenges. As a clearinghouse for thousands of marketplace sellers, return policies, guarantees, fit guides and the availability of manuals and other how-to information vary wildly from category to category and sometimes even from item to item.

By contrast, the control specialty B2B vendors exercise over product quality, policies, and inventory should be promoted as a distinct advantage. Merchants should make service a centerpiece of their offerings, and explicitly tie brand identity to the ability to meet and exceed customer expectations for service.

To meet and exceed Amazon when it comes to comprehensive customer service content, B2B merchants should anticipate buyers' service questions and provide easy access to all the information they might need. Delivery costs and timelines, available payment methods, bulk and recurring purchase options, return policies, guarantees and warranties all need to be at buyers' fingertips online. Helping shoppers quickly answer questions that come up during the purchasing process shows respect for buyers'time, reduces product returns and call center overhead, and increases consumer confidence.

Customization. Beefing up your content will help you win new buyers, but earning their repeat business in this hyper-competitive environment requires customized and strategic ways to encourage them to return as repeat customers.

One way to create opportunities for existing customers to re-engage is with post-purchase e-mails.

Unlike the unsolicited e-mail blasts of the past, e-mails following up on transactions are sought out by customers. Use these well-viewed messages as a vehicle to invite customers to stay in touch via e-mail updates and social media. Other uses include promoting content, such as videos that demonstrate how to use the products customers have just bought, and providing customer service contact details.

And when customers do come back, merchants should make purchasing it as smooth as possible. Let them skip content that’s not relevant to them by devising shortcuts to re-ordering, such as custom landing pages for triggered e-mail campaigns. They're your frequent fliers now—show them the members' lounge.

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