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Seven B2B eCommerce Trends Wholesalers, Manufacturers and Distributors Cannot Ignore for 2018

Welcome to 2018! We're still in the middle of sustained growth in B2B eCommerce right across the world. Here are 7 trends we see in B2B eCommerce for the year ahead.

Graham O'Rourke (CEO) Written by Graham O'Rourke (CEO) 12 Jan 2018.

Welcome to a bright new year!

Every January brings reflection on the year we’ve had and renewed focus on the areas that we need to progress in the next 12 months.

In the world of B2B eCommerce, each passing year also brings us closer to the tipping point as forecast by Forrester Research in that landmark report of April 2015, which predicted that US B2B eCommerce sales alone would top the $1 trillion mark for the first time by 2019.

That report was revised in the summer of 2017, with a slightly less bullish prediction (the predictions for growth from 2017-2021 were down around 3% than that predicted a little over two years previously), but at annual growth rates in excess of 7%, there’s no doubt that the world of B2B eCommerce remains an industry in the midst of sustained aggressive growth - and that $1 trillion breakthrough across the big pond is still expected next year.

And if those figures from Forrester apply to B2B eCommerce in the US, all the evidence suggests that this part of the world is no different. (At Aphix we specialise in serving digital ordering, eCommerce and mobile apps for B2B companies in Ireland and the UK, with expansion plans for the rest of the EU and further afield very clear in our thoughts.)

So if we are indeed closing in on a tipping point for B2B eCommerce, when the norm across the board will be maintaining and improving upon robust digital systems rather than replacing or even bandaiding legacy online ordering models, what are the specific trends that we see ahead of us for 2018?

Here are our thoughts on seven trends and topics that are either fully upon us or are coming down the tracks with unstoppable force, and which we believe will be a major influence on the thoughts and plans of B2B companies with digital expansion plans in the UK, Ireland and the rest of the world in 2018.

1. The continued rise of Product Information Management (PIM)

PIM, or Product Information Management, represents a system of managing all of the detailed and complex information required to market and sell products through distribution channels.

Centralised product data systems, or in layman’s terms a single and central point of product information, can then be the source to power everywhere the information is required, from websites, eCommerce sites and digital catalogues, print catalogues, ERP systems, and electronic data feeds for affiliate or trading partners.

A quick look at Google Trends shows the general global growth in searches for “product information management” over the past five years. It’s a crude and slightly unscientific method of showing the general interest in a particular topic, but as Google is the world’s greatest data source, it’s definitely worth considering.

What, if anything, can we extrapolate from this general surge in interest for Product Information Management?

It appears obvious, firstly, that this is a symptom of the increased fragmentation of information points and data sources with the irresistible onset of connected modes of business over the Internet.

In short, complex business has been made even more complex with the arrival of different ways of conducting that business across digital channels, including owned WebShops, affiliate selling via Amazon, eBay, Google, social media and others, the multiplicity of payment systems and APIs which connect everything together.

Given all that complexity, built on top of the already complex business which wholesale and B2B companies do so well - managing, organising and distributing massive volumes of inventory quickly and efficiently - it is unsurprising that such businesses are seeking ways to better manage all data and information in one single central system.

Aphix Software provides a PIM service through its Software-as-a-Service B2B eCommerce platform, powering websites, mobile apps and connecting in real time with ERP systems to ensure wholesale business can expand their offering seamlessly in an online setting - scaling the bottom line without scaling the overall resource investment.

As always, the opportunity is enclosed in the complexity of the problem. Get product information management right, and more doors open than ever before, wherever your market is, all over the world. Get it wrong, and the only certainty is that someone else in your sphere will get it right.

2.  The Rise of Specialism in every area — including B2B eCommerce

Almost 10 years ago, in his seminal book on the Internet, What Would Google Do?, the digital evangelist Jeff Jarvis wrote that the Internet was “a mass of niches”. Unlike at any other time in the history of humanity, individuals all over the world could be grouped and connected by interest, virtually but in real time.

This was, let us remember, long before the phenomenal ascent of social media built these masses of niches into unbreakable infrastructures - the “walled garden” effect that has had a major impact on such things as the US Presidential election, as well as almost everything else in the new normal of the early 21st century.

Leaving aside global politics - it’s not exactly our area - there’s no doubt that this “mass of niches” effect has been witnessed across the world of B2B eCommerce.  

All over the world, specialists have stolen ground on generalists. Powering everything is the group labelled “The Four Horsemen” by many analysts: Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon.

While some might describe those four companies as generalists - their market, in all cases, is the whole world, and they overlap and compete and even complement each other in a very real sense in countless ways - they are also each specialists in one trillion-dollar item:

  • Google = Information

  • Amazon = Commerce

  • Apple = Communications

  • Facebook = People

Beneath them, and in many ways powered by them, is a virtually unlimited number of companies specialising in their own particular area. In virtually all cases, specialism brings its own value-add. Why go to someone who knows a little about a lot when you can get to the specialist, the expert, the go-to guy? A quarter of a century ago, the go-to guy might have been impossible to find, given limits of geography and time. But geography and time no longer represent an obstacle in the normal of an Internet-driven world, so specialisms are not only possible, they are absolutely necessary.

And the thing is: specialists both power the generalists (Tesco, for example, will hold supply contracts with any number of specialists) and possess the potential to reach a new direct to consumer market of their own.

As well as the importance of specialisms in product and market niches, there is a continuing move towards specialism in technologies.

While the likes of Shopify or Magento, to name two comparable but contrasting large-scale eCommerce software providers, make a compelling offering to very many businesses, it is increasingly clear that a one-size-fits-all approach is just not suitable for specialist, complex business models.

At Aphix, we’ve heard from our customers on so occasions how off-the-shelf software solutions “might get you 80% there”.

The crux of the matter?

That final 20% is essential to your business.

An 80% solution makes everything totally unworkable, and if it even gets off the ground it will inevitably lead to a rash of new problems, some of which will be anticipated but many totally new and unexpected.

If you’re a B2B wholesaler or distributor, the likelihood is that you’re a specialist in a hugely complex business. Why would you take the risk of overlaying a general solution on top?

We might even say: Specialise or Die.

3. Integration between systems. Welcome to Real Time Everything!

The days of batch updates on a once-per-24-hours schedule, if they’re not behind us already, are well on their way to being completely obsolete.

For better or worse - and, we would argue, it’s completely for the better! - the expected norm now is for customers is to have up to date information available right here, right now.

It’s a case of how they want it, when they want it.

And this is true at all levels, from the stay-at-home mum scheduling a grocery delivery online to the retail buying group head buyer processing six-figure orders on a weekly or even daily basis.

This is one outcome of the influence of Amazon over the past 20 years on all our habits and norms.

Because Amazon says there are 7 in stock ad if we order today we will receive delivery by next Thursday, and because Amazon’s tentacles have wound their way into all our habits and expectations, everyone is now judged by similar standards of maximum efficiency.

One of the great and daunting things about the Internet is that as businesses no longer are we compared to our neighbour down the road; instead we are compared against the best of the best, wherever they are in the world.

In the sphere of B2B eCommerce for wholesale and distribution companies, that means having real time information available, however, wherever and whenever it’s required.

That means by your existing trade customers on their phone, your sales reps in the field and casual browsers who find their way to your website via Google.

Power everything - including stock and pricing, in some cases across multiple product variations - with real time data and you have a great opportunity to succeed and flourish during 2018 and beyond.

Stick to an occasional information update or estimates, and customers will vote with their feet. Or in the increasingly digital world, with their mouse-clicks and screen-taps.

4. After the app bubble, the new normal finally arrives

We’re now into the second decade since Steve Jobs walked onto a stage at Macworld 2007 and changed everything.

It’s easy to forget the pace of the change that has overwhelmed the way we do everything. (The iPad came in mid-2010.)

B2B companies are perhaps best placed to bear witness to the rule of general market forces, and that has been as applicable to mobile and tablet apps as anywhere else; it has not been uncommon in recent years to hear stories of expensive app development projects launch, crash, burn and disappear into dust.

What might be cool might not be essential, and being essential is what separates the wheat from the chaff in every marketplace.

Nevertheless, while the initial global app frenzy has peaked and softened, the world is undoubtedly settling into this new normal and smartphone and tablet utilities are essential to hundreds of millions of people worldwide - in health, life, business and everywhere else.

Highly functional, highly valuable phone and tablet apps within wholesale and B2B might not have transformed everything just yet, but there are ample signs that the trickle will quickly turn into a flood.

Certainly, with mobile data coverage improving steadily across the globe, and mobile processor power also building quickly with each new product launch, the opportunity exists to arm staff with the type of handheld functionality, usability and real-time information that the old PalmPilot device could only dream of.

Mobile and tablet apps are a core element of the B2B eCommerce platform. To talk to our team about how our apps suite can power your sales team or give your customers an even better ordering experience, contact us today.

5. Reviews are becoming just as important in B2B as they are in B2C

Product reviews have long been a staple of the B2C buying experience.

The clickable 5-star system provided at the top of every product page by Amazon provides an immediate route for a prospective purchaser to navigate instantaneously to what other people are saying about a particular product.

Reviews are a core feature of Facebook and Google’s business offerings, giving customers the power of immediate and public feedback on virtually everything, and Apple has also integrated reviews as a central plank of its iTunes discovery algorithm.

In short, the Four Horsemen have seen that customer reviews give the social proof that is so powerful in transforming a prospective buyer into a real buyer.

And if it’s good enough for the Big Four, it should be good enough for every B2B company on the planet, right?

Traditionally, though, B2B product listings have been colder and much more functional. A catalogue of details is all well and good, but the addition of customer reviews gives even the most functional product a layer of interpersonal warmth that can only build its connection to the person mulling over their buying decision on the other end of the Internet connection.

There are other added benefits, too.

For instance, reviews also add a welcome layer of user-generated content to product listings, which can contribute handsomely to making products more attractive to the Google search robots.

And if, as is always possible, a review is particularly negative, it opens up an avenue for customer service that all the best companies will embrace, giving the perfect chance for your customer team to transform a dissatisfied customer into a brand advocate almost as quickly as someone can say “Five Stars!”

6. General commotion over the General Data Protection Regulations

It’s the piece of legislation that has been years in the making, and it will impact on every member of the population in the European Union in a matter of months.

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) comes into force on May 25th, 2018.

The legislation itself is about 70-odd pages, but it has already sparked an entire industry of specialist data management companies, as well as an analysis from one Belgian university that is mooted to run to well over 2000 pages.

Part of the reason for the clamour is the penalties promised. Failure to comply could result in fines equating to either €20,000 or 5% of global turnover, whichever is the greater. That latter figure is the one that has multi-billion-dollar unicorn companies running for cover.

The only thing that is certain is that the regulations will affect companies in unknown ways. It is probably impossible to prepare for all eventualities, but failure to prepare for any is definitely not advised.

It’s not certain that a strategy of “break law first, beg forgiveness later” will be enough to stave off sanctions, even in the bedding-in phase that is certain to follow from June 2018 onwards.

In effect, most companies will have to change everything about the way they collect, store and use personal data in any form.

One stringent change makes it necessary for companies to implement a system whereby any individual can ask for and receive a file of their personal data.

No-one knows exactly how this will pan out, but as one news magazine sagely reported in its 2018 forecasts, GDPR is comparable to the Y2K phenomenon of 1999 in almost every way but one - this one won’t disappear without trace when the date comes and goes.

7. Dynamic personalisation to improve B2B UX (user experience)

Displaying different content dynamically based on user identification is another digital experience that has become an accepted feature of B2C eCommerce much more quickly than B2B.

Its importance in that sphere is undeniable - everything from product listing pages tailored to your buying history to Amazon’s “people who bought this also bought…” contributes to better user experience and higher conversion rates.

And, of course, healthier bottom lines.

Personalisation has started to make significant inroads in the B2B space too, albeit at a much slower pace, perhaps in part due to the complexity of the business models and customer communications required in the entire B2B space across wholesalers, distributors and manufacturers.

The Aphix cloud platform for B2B and wholesale provides a series of personalisation features, including customer-generated favourites and quick re-order functionality, giving wholesale customers many of the user-specific benefits so common to B2C, with all the ordering power of an enterprise B2B eCommerce platform.

Like to see the Aphix platform in action - including our dynamic personalisation features? Talk to our sales team today!