B2B Ecommerce

The Wholesale Distributor’s Guide to Launching an Ecommerce Channel

/ 11 min read

The Wholesale Distributor’s Guide to Launching an Ecommerce Channel

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The digital economy is disrupting the world as we know it.

While B2B companies have been insulated from the disruption, they won’t be for long.

Nearly half of B2B researchers are millennials, according to a recent Think with Google report.

As B2B buyers trend younger, the online experience is of increasing importance.

For evidence that there is a growing expectation of B2B purchases being supported online, look no further than Amazon.

In less than four years, Amazon is on the top 10 of distributors and is growing at a faster pace than their retail business.

Clearly, an opportunity exists right now for distribution companies to provide a strong digital experience for their customers.

Done well, this can pay for itself quickly and can protect you from losing market share to others who provide an easier path to purchase.

The digital economy is reshaping our world.

Ignore it at your own peril.

Challenges Faced by Distributors

If you are like many distributors I speak to, you are aware of this shift but are held back by obstacles to overcome with unclear paths to resolution.

There are several pieces to the puzzle that you need to get right.

1. B2B Business complexities.

There are usually many reasons B2B companies think ecommerce cannot work for them.

Yes, there are challenges, but there many more possible solutions than roadblocks.

Here are a few common concerns I hear from B2B businesses in regards to ecommerce:

  • You have customers with contract pricing, how will you handle that?
  • What about the customers who have special terms?
  • What about the items that you only provide to certain customers?

Each of these can be easily solved for the right ecommerce technology.

These are not roadblocks; they are considerations on an RFP and to ask of your technology vendors.

2. Team.

Beyond the technology itself, you may be wondering:

Who will support it?

Everyone on your team already has more work than they can handle.

  • Who has time for another initiative?
  • And what skills will this person need to have?
  • How much time will this take for your team to support?

This is where proper change management comes in.

Launching an ecommerce channel is a net new project for your business, and you will need to reset expectations accordingly.

But, it is not impossible to do – nor will it mean an increase in workload.

Digital Disruption is Hard. Here's How to Handle the Change Mangement.

When you’re a B2B company in a traditional industry and you don’t sell the world’s most intriguing products, the very idea of selling online is often met with resistance.

In many cases, internal stakeholders don’t believe customers even want to buy from them online, so the time, expense, and complexity of launching an ecommerce site can seem both daunting and a waste of resources.

But none of that is true.

Read More.

3. Culture of change.

We all resist change.

  • Salespeople are threatened by a tool that could replace them.
  • IT is concerned about security and their responsibility in the advent the site goes down or is compromised.
  • Others are skeptical that this will have a return on investment.

Even if you get every other planning step right, your culture will need to shift for the project to be a success.

Your team will need to decide to make the shift to becoming a digital business and the leadership will need to champion that effort with their words and action.

4. B2B purchasing.

B2B buyers don’t buy exactly like B2C buyers.

This is where the “consumerization of B2B” oversimplifies the challenges B2B sellers face.

For instance:

  • Some of your customers require a punchout solution.
  • Others pay via purchase order.
  • New customers you may require to pay via credit card.
  • You may have a group of customers that require manager approval before an order can be placed.

Can you handle all of this via ecommerce?

The answer is yes.

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Steps for Distributors Building Ecommerce

While the challenges can seem daunting, the payoff is worthwhile. Here is a step-by-step approach that will set you up for success.

1. Develop Your Project Requirements.

The planning of your project is one of the most important steps.

Who is the target audience for your ecommerce site: your existing customer base, new customers, or both?

Here is a checklist for developing your requirements:

  1. What competition exists for you online? If you search on the names of the products you sell, whose websites come up? Go to the websites of your traditional competitors, do they sell online? Search for your products on Amazon or Amazon Business, what do you find? What is your unique value proposition compared to your competition?
  2. What products will you initially sell online? If you don’t already have an eCommerce site, my advice is to think of a subset of your products that you can start with an expand on over time. If you try and put your entire product catalog online, getting your data in the right shape and the needed product photography can often lead to project delays. Better to get up and running with a set of products you can learn from and expand over time. What products are your highest margin or would make your sales teams life easier if they didn’t have to be bothered with placing the orders?
  3. How big is your product catalog? How will users easily find the right product? Do customers need to narrow their choices by different product attributes (i.e. width, color, brand, shape, length, shape, etc.).
  4. How will you handle sales tax? How do you handle sales tax offline? How may that change when you setup your eCommerce site? You may want to consider services like Avalara or TaxJar that enable you to calculate sales tax in real-time in checkout.
  5. How many orders do you expect to have placed via ecommerce in the first year? What will the fulfillment process look like? Will you integrate your eCommerce to your ERP to minimize manual data entry and speed up fulfillment?
  6. Do you already take credit cards in your business? If so, what payment processor do you use? Will some customers be able to pay using credit terms? How are credit limits approved and managed internally? Will you need to support punchouts? Will managers need to approve orders?

Figuring out the answers to all of these questions will help you to personalize your RFP that you submit to technology vendors in order to ensure the technology you chose has as much built-in as possible to support your needs.

Stop over-building. Open SaaS is here.

Adapt your business to changing consumer buying habits and an ever-more competitive industry.

Open SaaS gets you the flexibility to you need to stand out, the data orchestration you need for operational efficiency and the low total cost of ownership that lets’ you reallocate dollars to marketing spend, not technology debt.

The first step to a platform migration is an RFP. Our free template includes more than 100 questions to send to all platforms you are considering, including:

  • Hosting & Security
  • Design & Development
  • Marketing and Expanding to Omnichannel

Get the template. Save yourself time. And begin future-proofing your technology stack.

Get your free RFP template now.

2. Identify potential obstacles.

Every company has a slightly different way of doing business.

There will likely be certain ways you operate today that are not a straightforward match for ecommerce.

My agency experiences this all the time with new B2B customers and I can’t think of a time we couldn’t find a solution to their challenges.

The key is to identify them up front so the team understands what they are and can address them in the solution that is planned.

Here are a few I have heard before:

  • Account creation: We have an approval process that requires internal review before a customer can place an order.
  • Order total is unknown: We will calculate shipping after the order is placed and therefore we won’t know the order total when they are going through checkout.
  • Regulations: Are there government industry regulations that affect how your products are purchased? For example, certain chemicals cannot be shipped to a specific state (i.e. California). If this is an issue for you, this should be listed in your requirements so it can be addressed during your site implementation.

Again, each of these challenges have solutions other distributors and manufacturers brands have figured out.

The ecommerce technology on the market is incredibly impressive and flexible enough to meet these needs.

3. Develop a vision of success.

Begin to think through what your new site will enable customers to do that they cannot do today.

How will it make their lives easier?

Create some measurable targets for what success looks like:

  • What are your revenue targets for year 1? For year 3?
  • Do you want to increase your speed of fulfillment? For instance, 95% same-day shipping.
  • Do you want to decrease the amount of time your sales reps spend on taking small orders?

The answers to this will depend on your current company overall revenue and what level of priority you are giving this initiative.

4. Promote a culture that will support change.

Before you can do this, you need to be sure you are ready to support change.

You should be excited about this initiative.

If you aren’t, talk with people who have had successful ecommerce implementations.

  • Read books or listen to speakers about businesses that have grown through digital commerce. Get excited about the potential to support your company in making this shift that will protect the future of the business.
  • Share with your team what you are excited about. Talk with them about what benefits they will see (less work to take an order). Talk with them about the benefits for your customers. Explain the benefit to the company as a whole as well as the cost of doing nothing.
  • For your salespeople to support this initiative, ensure there is no penalty for customers placing orders online. I would recommend your sales reps getting the same commission for orders coming from the website for their accounts as they would if they took the order offline. It is still a relationship they maintain. This helps everyone to be on the same team.

And finally, remember to recognize people who are creatively solving problems and going above and beyond to support this initiative.

Celebrate small wins as your team works toward becoming a digital business.

Plan a celebration for the day your new site launches.

5. Build Your Ecommerce Team.

There are several different roles in the successful implementation of ecommerce.

Some will be internal and others will be external.

Determine who will serve in these roles and if you don’t have people, consider an outside agency or consultant to support you.

  • Content creator: Development of content strategy and the content itself.
  • Designer: This person will develop wireframes/mockups. They should be experienced with design for the web and for mobile. If you plan on keeping your B2B site’s web design simple, you can leverage pre-built themes and minimize your design requirements.
  • Front End Developer: This person will be skilled at HTML/CSS and Javascript that will influence the user experience.
  • Back End Developer: This person will be skilled at API calls to integrate with other systems as well as development that is not end-user facing. Often, you can use an agency for this role.
  • ERP Expert: You should have a resource who is knowledgeable on your ERP/fulfillment system to ensure that the requirements address your operational data needs.
  • Project Manager / Scrum Master: Project management is an important role in the successful outcome of your project. BigCommerce, for instance, supplies you with an ecommerce implementation Project Manager when you are on their enterprise plan.
  • Digital Marketing: This includes SEO, paid search and email marketing. Invest in email marketing and a base level of SEO at a minimum. Depending on your audience and goals, paid search can yield a strong ROI, if done well. Ensure you have someone managing these programs that has done this before and is clear on how to review your analytics to measure your ROI.

If this is your first step into ecommerce, ensure you have some people on your team who have done this before.

At a minimum, you want a project manager, a developer, and a digital marketer who all have implemented an ecommerce site before.

Remember, some of these roles can be outsourced to your partner agency.

As such, many of these positions will likely be external to your organization that you hire via a solutions implementer (SI).

As you talk to SIs, understand that they all have their own technology biases.

This will be important for you to understand as you select your technology.

Identify who on your ecommerce team will come from your internal team and who you will be engaging externally.

Even if you have internal developers, you may want to have them support the site following the development and allowing the SI to do the initial implementation to get you up and running.

6. Select Your Technology.

As you review your technology choices, ask yourself the following:

  • What will setting up your site cost? Are there pre-built integrations that will save you money?
  • How easy is it for you to maintain?
  • What will an upgrade cost you?
  • Is hosting included?
  • Will you need a separate site for your content site? If so, is there a way to integrate that with your ecommerce?
  • Does it have the B2B features you are looking for? Take into consideration the latest B2B ecommerce industry trends.
  • What ongoing development is being done on the platform to ensure you stay up-to-date with changes in the marketplace?

The BigCommerce Difference

BigCommerce has a strong value proposition as a cost-effective platform with several pre-built integrations.

BigCommerce offers a WordPress integration (currently in BETA, but actively in use by customers). BigCommerce offers B2B features like draft orders and price lists.

Integrations with Punchout2Go and Apruve provide extensive B2B purchase process support.

Plan to take some time with selecting your technology. You will need to educate yourself on the many aspects of this decision.

Don’t pick a platform because:

  • It’s the only one you have heard of.
  • Your current web designer already knows how to work with it.
  • It is free.
  • It comes included with your ERP.

Do pick a platform because:

  • It meets your requirements.
  • It is an industry recognized leader and a platform for your growth.
  • Your total cost of ownership is lower.

Stop over-building. Open SaaS is here.

Adapt your business to changing consumer buying habits and an ever-more competitive industry.

Open SaaS gets you the flexibility to you need to stand out, the data orchestration you need for operational efficiency and the low total cost of ownership that lets’ you reallocate dollars to marketing spend, not technology debt.

The first step to a platform migration is an RFP. Our free template includes more than 100 questions to send to all platforms you are considering, including:

  • Hosting & Security
  • Design & Development
  • Marketing and Expanding to Omnichannel

Get the template. Save yourself time. And begin future-proofing your technology stack.

Get your free RFP template now.

The Importance of User Experience and Product Content

Providing customers with their desired user experience is not a simple task.

It is more than offering your product for sale on your website.

You need to think about who your user is, what problem they have when they come to your site, and how you can help them solve that problem.

  • If it is a customer looking to buy a specific tool, what are the common reasons they are buying that tool.
  • Can you offer a YouTube video that helps them with the equipment they are buying the tool to fix?
  • Are there other products they will likely need along with that tool?

Consider how you will display related products, either on the product page or in the shopping cart (or both).

You can easily be overwhelmed by the work necessary to think through the best user experience and designing the right content for your users.

Don’t let perfect be the enemy of done.

Get your site out there and then improve on it over time.

Getting Your Organization Set to Serve Your Customers

Becoming a digital business is about more than setting up an ecommerce site.

It is about supporting customers in getting the answers they need via the channels that are the easiest for them to use.

  • Make sure your customer service team checks emails frequently and responds quickly to customer inquiries.
  • Train your internal team on using your website. Your sales reps should demonstrate to customers how the eCommerce site will make their lives easier.
  • Plan communication to your existing customer base to introduce them to your new site. You may want to get started with webinars so you walk customers through the new functionality, or you can create a quick video that shows how easy it is to use.
  • Consider setting up live chat on your ecommerce site. Many of our customers have found this to be a useful way to engage prospective customers, who may not want to pick up a phone, in a dialogue.

Digital businesses are also about continuous improvement.

You will get feedback from customers on things that are not the way they expect.

Make note of it.

  • Study your analytics to see where users are running into obstacles placing an order.
  • Review your search statistics to learn what users are searching for and not finding.
  • Customers will get on live chat to tell you when something isn’t behaving the way they expect. Help them to place an order, but pass the info along.

Have a budget to plan for ongoing improvements.

Your customers will value seeing that you are investing in improving the experience for them.

Executive Summary

B2B ecommerce is not something that can be ignored.

Companies who don’t implement online ordering are putting themselves at risk.

Many organizations fail to move forward as they are overwhelmed by the complexity of their business rules, their lack of resources, the required culture shift, and the daunting purchasing process.

Take it step-by-step and find experts to help you along the way.

  1. Define your requirements.
  2. List out the obstacles that may trip you up.
  3. Visualize what success looks like.
  4. Build a culture that will support change.
  5. Form your eCommerce team.
  6. Choose your technology.

Think through how you can provide information that solves your customers problems.

Get your team ready to respond to communication quickly and to have an attitude of continuous improvement.

And, once your new site is live, celebrate!

Your team has created an experience that makes customers lives easier and will support your company’s future growth.

Want more insights like this?

We’re on a mission to provide businesses like yours marketing and sales tips, tricks and industry leading knowledge to build the next house-hold name brand. Don’t miss a post. Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

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    Lori McDonald

    Lori is the President and CEO at Brilliance Business Solutions, a B2B ecommerce agency and BigCommerce partner. She graduated from Purdue University with a Bachelor’s degree in Computer-Electrical Engineering. Her status as a recognized industry expert has resulted in regular speaking engagements at business conferences. Lori is a regular contributor to Practical Ecommerce on the topic of B2B ecommerce.

    View all posts by Lori McDonald
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