The B2B Ecommerce Trends Report: Millennial Buyers, Payment Options and a Maturing Market
A report from Forrester Research in 2017 estimated business-to-business (B2B) ecommerce transactions would reach $1.2 trillion by 2021.
This accounts for more than 13% of all B2B sales within the United States (up from the $889 billion in sales by the end of last year).
Frost & Sullivan provided an even more bullish view, with expectations that B2B ecommerce will hit $6.6 trillion by 2020.
Despite being slow to adopt ecommerce, B2B brands are increasingly looking to digital means to boost sales – a move driven by the success of Amazon Business and the changing B2B buyer demographic.
The B2B Buyer is Changing
In 2015, Google found that close to half of B2B buyers are millennials, nearly double the number from 2012.
As the “typical” B2B buyer changes, a business’ sales process should too.
Where a Gen X buyer may prefer the handheld experience that a sales rep can provide, millennials expect that same personalized experience through streamlined, digital channels.
That leaves merchants to decipher the modern B2B buyer’s needs, without much available guidance.
The Time is Now for B2B
How are merchants adjusting their business models to accommodate ecommerce?
How are they aligning with the new expectations for B2B sales?
BigCommerce conducted a survey of more than 500 international merchants – each relying on other businesses (B2B) for at least part of their revenue – to find out.
Though their B2B strategies vary, the group underscores a key truth:
Ecommerce is no longer nebulous for B2B but a driving force. Merchants need to take advantage of that growing opportunity or risk being left behind.
Here is what we found about current B2B online sales channels:
- 41% of B2B retailers expect B2B online sales to grow more than 25% in 2018.
- Reputation matters significantly for B2B retailers at both the awareness and consideration stage.
- B2B retailers have been online longer than the industry gives them credit for: at least 2 years and for most, upward of 5 years.
- Payment options are a vital part of the B2B ecommerce sales process, with checks and POs still heavily used. Mobile wallets are on the rise.
Take a deeper look at the data.
B2B Ecommerce Payments Trends
Little over 23% of B2B retailers with an ecommerce channel still accept fax orders.
That number is much lower in comparison to the 3 most popular payment arenas:
- Website: 80%.
- Email: 77%.
- Phone: 72%.
On the rise are mobile apps and marketplaces like Amazon, a clear sign B2B retailers are quickly moving from nascent ecommerce channel experimentation to full omnichannel sales approaches.
Credit cards still reign supreme for the online channel (94%), though checks, terms, and purchase orders remain vital for B2B buyers (51%, 53%, 50%, respectively).
On the rise are mobile wallets like Amazon Pay and Apple Pay (26%).
In the “other” category, third-party financing and ACH were the most commonly cited.
In all, B2B retailers are not as new to online sales as the ecommerce industry makes them out to be.
Most B2B retailers (78%) have been selling online for at least 2-5 years, or longer.
Those brands which are not yet selling through a dedicated website are overwhelmingly planning to in the next 24 months.
B2B Customer Acquisition Trends
B2B retailers, like B2C retailers, use a variety of acquisition channels.
Word of mouth and referrals are particularly important to the B2B segment, however, 63% of respondents finding prospects through recommendation.
Surprisingly, social media also plays an important role – highlighting again the shift in B2B buyer behavior and its move toward a more B2C behavior path.
On the “other” category, the primary channels specified were cold calling and sales rep outreach.
Once prospects are on site, B2B sellers saw vendor reputation and price as the lead drivers to conversion at 53% and 47%, respectively.
Ease of online purchase, loyalty, and inventory mix were also ranked highly (39%, 43%, 35% respectively).
Ease of purchase for B2B retailers is often where B2B ecommerce managers and B2C ecommerce managers have varying levels of experience.
B2B businesses need some or all of the following to hit their “ease of online purchase” goals:
- Credit limits
- Price list
- Purchase orders
- Quick order forms
- Purchasing approvals
- Bulk pricing
To make sure that their websites are properly converting all B2B buying prospects that land on site, B2B buyers focus primarily on easy site navigation (71%).
Additional payment and pricing options take the next 3 top spots:
- Bulk ordering options: 45%
- Various payment options: 47%
- Custom quotes: 40%
Product information also ranks highly (37%) – likely helping to drive organic traffic as well as educate prospects during the consideration stage.
B2B Retail Online Sales Expectations in 2018
Forty-one percent of B2B retailers in this survey expect B2B online sales to increase more than 25% by the end of the year. Only 10% expect sales to remain flat.
With so much growth opportunity expressed from the analysts as well as sellers themselves, we want to know: what’s holding some brands back?
There are 4 main concerns from B2B retailers about their online channels:
1. Price transparency (33%).
Manufacturers and wholesalers have recently seen margins squeezed – and larger competitors can eat up the small guys once they know their pricing. You see that fear represented here, as many merchants expressed hesitations about listing B2B pricing online.
2. Inability to meet higher demand (17%).
When a good thing – lots of sales! – turns into a bad thing, merchants worry that they won’t have the capacity or resources to produce enough to meet the increasing demand.
3. Personalizing the experience (33%).
This is a time resource issue. B2B buyers want and need personalized onsite experiences, prices and portals to accommodate the additional complexities that accompany their sales process. These can be easily created – and then scaled – but setting them up does take time on the part of the B2B brand.
4. Maintaining multiple sites (37%).
Tools like ERPs and PIMs can readily solve for this, but B2B retailers do need to have at least one person dedicated to the ecommerce channel to make it work.
Top 7 B2B Ecommerce Trends of 2018
Now that you know the data, let’s talk about the trends and how you can implement them.
Here are the top lessons and B2B trends taken from multi-million dollar B2B businesses now using ecommerce to drive net new customer acquisition, decrease manual backoff input and work, retain happier customers than ever before, and ultimately grow their business for the next wave in their company’s lifecycle.
- Companies are focusing on new customer acquisition + user experience.
- Upgrading B2B ecommerce software to meet customer needs.
- A focus on product information and how it is displayed.
- Companies are learning from Amazon to improve customer experience.
- Integration of systems for multi-channel selling.
- Stay ahead of the competition by keeping your ears on the ground.
- Companies are embracing B2B mobile commerce.
Let’s dive in.
1. Focus on new customer acquisition.
Online selling for B2B merchants didn’t used to be a core part of B2B business and sales strategy.
Instead, sites were simply “portals” that were intended to replace customer service reps with online technology, orr they served solely as catalogs (if the brands had sites at all).
Any version of a B2B ecommerce site historically has served only existing customers, allowing them to place reorders by using an established term account.
Now B2B players want to acquire new customers and their ecommerce site is a great place for that. Online search tools enable new customers to research, find, and place an order easier than ever before.
Today, 74% of B2B buyers report researching at least half of their work purchases online.
With more B2B buyers going online to research and buy products, merchants must be where their customers are. Bringing in these new customers becomes a focal point of B2B online selling and the purpose of an ecommerce site.
Let’s look at a few examples.
For some B2B brands, earning net new customers means taking a part of their business directly to consumers.
This is what is known as “going direct.”
It opens a new revenue stream for your business, selling the same products at individual prices rather than bulk to B2B buyers.
This is how Knobs Co has done it. The company created a B2C focused site that allows B2B buyers to sign in and get additional benefits like price discounts, white glove service, and more.
For FlexFire LEDs, the name of the net new customer acquisition game is SEO, and focusing on this has enabled this B2B brand to attract the business of Disney, Apple, Ford, and more. They do it by providing extensive educational material on their products and proving to Google and future customers that they are a subject matter expert.
You don’t need a blog to do this. You just need evergreen, smart information, ideally using graphics and video in addition to text to explain your product, who it is right for, how to use it, etc.
Check out the image below to see how FlexFire LEDs does this on their learning pages.
2. Upgrade B2B ecommerce software to meet customer needs.
To accommodate a new online strategy, B2B sellers are looking to upgrade their ecommerce software for these online-savvy buyers.
In the past, B2B buyers often used a third-party plug-in to their ERP to enable online selling. Now, B2B sellers are turning to consumer-based technology.
57% of B2B executives said their top technology need for investment was an ecommerce platform, making it the highest reported need.
To provide a better experience, business-to-business sellers need updated B2B ecommerce software centered around their specific customer requirements like price levels and term accounts.
They’re also looking for their online sites to allow customers to manage their own account to perform tasks like applying for a credit account, making payments, and reviewing order history.
B2B sellers are dedicating more of their technology budget to ecommerce-related investments.
Let’s look at a couple of examples.
John McCann, the founder of Spectrum Audio, migrated his site from Magento to BigCommerce years ago – and then set out to build the one functionality he thought was missing: a quoting tool.
This allows high-volume customers to get an immediate quote from the business for their bulk orders – helping to speed up the process from prospect (self identified) to customer.
Today, John now also runs Quote Ninja, a BigCommerce-specific technology app used by hundreds of B2B brands to win new customers, grow sales, and solve for a B2B quirk not often found or needed in the B2C ecommerce world.
Check out the GIF below to see how it works.
Vypin’s products help truck and freight companies understand the temperature of the items they are carrying across the country.
This is vitally important for their own business – as it is for their customers, who require regulated temperatures for the transport of certain products.
Vypin allows these companies to rent the device using a recurring order system much like that used by B2C brands BirchBox or Stitch Fix to enable ongoing recurring monthly revenue, and keep their B2B customers updated and hassle-free the whole time.
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3. Rethink your product information and how it is displayed.
It wasn’t too long ago that most B2B buyers still researched and bought from B2B companies via paper catalogs, fax machines, and landline phones.
Online selling has largely changed that.
Back in 2013, 69% of B2B sellers said they expect to stop printing a catalog within five years.
Today, we can see that change in how B2B executives manage their catalogs. Print catalogs will not go away entirely, but they will get smaller.
B2B buyers are turning to more interactive online tools to share and distribute their catalogs. This makes it easier for them to expand their relationships and work directly with more retailers and suppliers.
Let’s look at some examples.
Want a catalog? Great – Restaurantware will send you one.
If you want to shop right now in the same way you would on a B2C site, Restaurantware has you covered. The company sells goods to restaurants around the world and has a massive catalog as well as customization options for their online buyers.
This complicates a selling cycle online where large amounts of SKUs can be difficult to manage and customizations are hard to track.
That’s why they sought out a platform that would enable both – and integrate to backend systems to make sure everything happened seamlessly. Now their online store is no mere catalog. It is interactive. It is organized. It allows for a customer-chosen product discovery journey.
And it works – no matter what you want.
Dupont has set its site up a bit more traditionally for the B2B segment than Restaurantware, but the same challenges of product organization and discovery are being solved.
Using a side navigation product bar (also known as faceted search), Dupont allows visitors to dive deeper into their resources and offerings. They keep the homepage set up for marketing and promotion to introduce the brand and all the good ongoing work they do.
4. Learn from Amazon.
Just like B2C, Amazon has set the standard for the online B2B customer experience. Many B2B buyers rate their experience against Amazon as a benchmark.
However, 63% of B2B e-business professionals say that their experience is worse than Amazon’s.
Many believe that what’s holding them back from a better “Amazon-like” experience is their current B2B ecommerce technology.
B2B sellers will look to SaaS-based B2B ecommerce platforms like BigCommerce to deliver an omnichannel experience across every customer touchpoint.
Gartner predicts that by 2018, 70% of ecommerce will move from B2C and B2B models to models that focus on the individual customer experience.
B2B buyers have specific needs and sellers must meet them.
Let’s look at a few examples.
Bulk Bookstore is a version of what Amazon once was – an online bookstore.
Taking pages out of Amazon’s own playbook, search functionality on the site plays a huge role in product discoverability. This allows customers to jump in, know what they want, and find it quickly.
A catalog search CTA is clearly visible above the fold as well to help browsers find what they may want.
Since Bulk Bookstore is selling to a B2B audience looking for bulk orders, it features a dynamic search bar that allows customers to type in just about anything and get the result they want in a blink of the eye.
Nelson Education does similar work to Bulk Bookstore – selling specifically to educators through its online site.
You can see site search is still a significant CTA (using ISBN, title, author, etc.), as is providing a fun B2C-like shopping experience for teachers.
Atlas RFID doesn’t rely as heavily on search to help users find what they want. Instead, they categorize items into buckets, allowing customers to click and drill down based on their own preferences.
All buckets are visible throughout the process as you get more and more granular, allowing customers to easily see their options and toggle back and forth between them.
Customers can even choose multiple products to compare directly side-by-side. Amazon doesn’t even do that.
5. Integrate your systems for multi-channel selling.
While the B2B ecommerce sector is growing, sellers have a relatively small market to choose their technology from.
B2B requirements are tough to meet and not every platform does it well enough.
B2B sellers can purchase large, expensive ecommerce platforms that require expensive customizations and a whole team to run the site. Others will turn to multiple vendors to get the job done.
Some B2B sellers are choosing third-party applications to work alongside their ecommerce platforms in order to manage order fulfillment, inventory synchronization, or financial transactions.
However, when going down this path, an integration provider is needed to tie those multiple systems together to efficiently manage your business.
Fifty-seven percent of B2B executives stated that ecommerce integration was another top technology need. They defined ecommerce integration as integrating backend technology for managing operations like inventory and customer orders with their ecommerce platform.
B2B site examples used earlier in this article have used integrator agencies like Americaneagle and Jasper to solve for complex ERP and back-office needs.
But not every site needs an integrator partner. Let’s look at an example.
Folding Chairs and Tables sells – you guessed it – chairs and tables to B2B businesses. In the fall of 2016, when BigCommerce launched the ability for brands to push items over to Amazon, the team decided to give it a try.
The company bundled a popular set together and pushed just that one item over to Amazon. Within hours they were selling by the hundreds, and within days they had to pull the listing down and focus on restocking.
Today, the brand sells both on their own online channel and Amazon, and has transformed their business 3x in the span of a single year.
That’s multi-channel efficiency.
6. Stay ahead of the competition by keeping your ears on the ground.
The growth of B2B ecommerce is evident, and trends like these show how B2B sellers are evolving their online strategies.
Getting your B2B ecommerce strategy right requires an extraordinary amount of time, planning, and investment.
You must understand your customers, choose your systems and process strategically, and train your organization for these major changes. Those who don’t do this risk being left behind by the competition.
7. Embrace B2B mobile commerce.
Here’s some recent B2B research and data from Google and BCG released last year that indicates the importance of a seamless mobile experience for B2B customers:
- 80% of B2B buyers are using mobile at work.
- 60% of B2B buyers report that mobile played a significant role in a recent purchase.
- 70% of B2B buyers increased mobile usage significantly over the past two to three years.
- 60% of B2B buyers expect to continue to increase their mobile usage.
- 50% of B2B queries today are made on smartphones. BCG expects that figure to grow to 70% by 2020.
Mobile drives, or influences, an average of over 40% of revenue in leading B2B organizations.
What does this data suggest?
- You should read Google’s research reports more often
- That beyond getting your B2B business online, it needs to be mobile-friendly first.
Let’s talk more about that…
BCG visualizes Doom Loop thinking like this:
Overall, this type of thinking is what has kept many B2B brands from launching online to begin with.
It comes down to this:
- Fear of lack of experience in a new channel or medium
- Paralyzation based on fear about a new channel or medium
- Loss of revenue due to laggard activity
You don’t want to be in that boat. After all, BCG’s research also found that brands who are quick to adopt mobile see increased revenue through the channel in comparison to those who wait to catch up.
This might be the last B2B ecommerce trend on our list, but it is arguably the most important.
Some brands, like Atlanta Lightbulbs, have even gone so far to create an app for their B2B buyers.
This allows those buyers to log in and see their specific pricing and checkout using a vaulted credit card – all in a matter of minutes. This is how you embrace B2B mobile commerce.
“We’ve used an app from the BigCommerce marketplace called AppMixture that enabled us to build our own shopping app,” says Doug Root, CEO at Atlanta Light Bulbs. “Our customers love it!”
“We’re able to give it to our commercial customers, too, set them up, put their favorite products in their phone, and then say, “Here, bam! All you’ve got to do is order on your phone, and you’re ready to go.”
“Orders just roll in on the BigCommerce platform. It all talks back and forth wonderfully.”
And they aren’t the only ones.
15% of B2B retailers reported having and using an existing app for their customers.
Another 36% reported launching initiatives to have a mobile app in the next 24 months.
Why? Because a mobile app enables faster-recurring orders based on the business account as well as can sync with your sales team for on-the-go sales that sync with your systems.
Overall, 41% of B2B retailers expect to grow their online channel by more than 25% this year.
Payment options and site UX remain the two most important factors for conversion on a B2B site, and reputation in the market remains important both in the awareness and the consideration phase.
B2B Ecommerce Statistics:
- 41% expect B2B online sales to grow more than 25% in 2018
- 80% accept payments on their website
- 77% accept payments over email
- 72% accept payments over phone
- 23% accept payments via fax
- 94% accept transactions through credit card
- 51% accept transactions through checks
- 53% accept transactions through terms
- 50% accepting transactions through POs
- 26% accept transactions through digital wallets like Amazon Pay and Apple Pay
- 48% have been selling online for more than 5 years
- 78% have been selling online for more than 2 years
- 63% say word of mouth referrals are one of the top ways new prospects hear of them
- 53% say reputation is important to closing the deal
- 47% say price is important to closing the deal
- 71% say easy site navigation is highly important in converting customers once they land on site
- 47% say various payment options are important to converting customers
- 33% say price transparency is a top fear for not selling online more aggressively
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