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B2C vs B2B E-commerce (a.k.a. The Multi-Trillion-Pound Opportunity for Businesses!)

Global B2B E-commerce figures show that business to business online trading is a behemoth ... and one that's getting bigger every single day. Here's what businesses can do now to take full advantage of this trillion-euro opportunity.

Graham O'Rourke (CEO) Written by Graham O'Rourke (CEO) 22 Mar 2018 in B2C eCommerce

Figures from studies by Forrester Research predict that the B2B E-commerce industry in the United States will break the $1 trillion barrier as soon as 2020 - and figures from the UK, Ireland and the rest of the world back up the assertion that B2B e-Commerce is a behemoth that's getting bigger every single day.

It is, in a 2017 study by market research firm Statista, the global B2B E-commerce market is now a $7.7 TRILLION industry. With e-Commerce globally (B2B and B2C) growing exponentially, the scale of the opportunity for businesses is clear.

And yet, for very many players in the B2B space - comprising wholesalers, distributors, manufacturers and companies across all sectors who sell to other businesses at scale - there is a sense of slow progress or even opportunity lost.

B2B E-commerce is growing at a rate of twice that of B2C E-commerce, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the growth would be even more rapid if more companies prioritised investment in improving the user buying experience online.

Buying decisions are made at B2B companies countless times every day by people who routinely get much better user experiences when they’re sitting at their home computer at the weekend.

B2B online buying experiences are, for the most part, shockingly substandard when compared with the automated, personalised, machine-learned experience of B2C.

So what can businesses do now to take full advantage of this trillion-euro opportunity?

1. First things first: What are the main differences between B2B and B2C E-commerce?

The bald truth is that B2B E-commerce has way more in common with B2C E-commerce than many would suspect.

It is, after all, a purchase of a product or products made online by a business or entity that sells that product or products.

Where B2B differs from B2C is summed up in these two ways:

  1. B2B buyers are shopping as a professional responsibility, often multiple times per day, whereas typical E-commerce purchases are of the personal, and therefore rarely mission-critical, variety

  2. B2B E-commerce requires a much greater level of complexity than B2C E-commerce under the hood

2. Pro vs Consumer Shoppers

A poor user / buyer experience in both B2C and B2B E-commerce environments is a major nuisance for the buyer.

But let’s look at it in slightly more depth.

A substandard customer experience will usually end up in the same end result for both cases. In both B2C and B2B e-Commerce, the customer will seek another supplier who will offer a top-class user experience.

The only difference might be the timeframe involved. A B2C buyer can and will make a snap decision instantly. A B2B buyer will know that the decision to move to an alternative provider is a bigger decision. But rest assured that the decision will be made if the experience continues to disappoint expectations.

What does that mean to the bottom line?

In B2C, that could be one lost customer in a sea of new, retained and lapsed customers.

In B2B, however, that one lost customer could be a million-euro or million-pound account.

When it comes to catering for professional shoppers, are you prepared take the risk?

3. The complexity of B2B E-commerce

For too long, the complexity of B2B E-commerce and digital ordering requirements has been put forward as a blocker for B2B companies to really invest in E-commerce technology.

Many B2Bs are powered by a combination of backoffice ERP software and accounting systems and fulfilment processes and tracking technology and account-tailored pricing models. With all those moving parts, they struggled to take the first step of introducing that complexity into an E-commerce environment.

Many of them did eventually get round to taking that step, but when they did, guess what happened? In so many cases providers and technology suppliers were so accustomed to the relative simplicity of smaller-scale B2C E-commerce requirements that they often struggled to get past the challenge of devising a system that adequately catered for that complexity.

So either the B2B company was convinced its own complexity would be a blocker or the developer’s lack of understanding of that complexity made it a blocker!

But things have changed, and there are some exceptional options for B2B companies who need to introduce E-commerce but may be fearful at the level of complexity their business involves. This is the opportunity. Tackling that challenge effectively, and delivering a world-class customer experience online, through E-commerce and digital ordering tools and mobile apps, opens the doors to potentially massive growth for B2Bs, wholesalers, distributors and manufacturers everywhere.

One comment we often hear at Aphix from prospective customers is: Are you sure you understand how complex our business is?

Our answer, invariably, is: Yes. We know. We’ve done it before, successfully, for hundreds of happy customers across the UK and Ireland.

4. B2Bs can learn from the mistakes of B2Cs

It’s true!

B2C E-commerce has been around for more than two decades now.

Can you recall the feeling of entering a brave new world you experienced when you checked out for the first time on Amazon?

In 2020 will celebrate its 25th anniversary! Compared to that, B2B E-commerce is still a toddler.

But here’s the thing.

The first iteration of was not very functional or attractive or efficient or user-friendly. Those four labels could equally be applied to so many B2B E-commerce offerings today.

Amazon went all-in on honing and refining the user experience on its site. Other massive B2C E-commerce sites followed in their footsteps.

The likes of Amazon now, or tools such as Shopify that deliver E-commerce for smaller B2C businesses, make the B2C user experience extremely attractive, often beautiful, with sleek buttons, user accounts, product variations, precise stock levels, personalisation, recommendations, related products, site search and cart memorisation.

It’s fair to say that many B2B companies fall well below that standard. But what took Amazon, Shopify and others 20+ years to hone and perfect can be done by B2B companies in a fraction of the time.

The core message is: everything, everything, absolutely everything should make the customer experience easier. Do that, and the orders will come rolling in, quickly followed by repeat orders from satisfied customers!

Nor does it stop at the on-site experience.

The field of digital marketing is developing all the time, but among the most expert digital marketers are B2C E-commerce marketers.

There are endless resources online showcasing the strategies and tactics B2C marketers use across Google AdWords, Bing Ads, email marketing, display and social media advertising.

That information is just waiting for B2B marketers to put to good use.

5. The Rapid Onset of B2B Personalisation

Personalisation is one of the recurring themes in both conversations with our customers and in our development team’s product roadmap.

There’s just no getting away from it - personalisation is huge.

Personalisation is so central to a B2C experience now that we barely even notice anymore. To take Amazon as an obvious example again, I get a completely different experience to you and to everyone else.

Everything on there is tailored exactly for me, and that makes so much sense.

And there’s an important point to note.

B2B buyers have always had more personalisation than B2C buyers. Traditionally in B2C, everyone walks into the shopfront the same way, and finds what they came for. That’s how the likes of bricks and mortar giants such as Tesco or Marks & Spencers operate.

But B2B, in traditional models, get something different. They get a personal sales rep who visits them occasionally. They get an account contact or account manager who will help them with any orders.

B2B companies totally expect personalisation.

And the good news is that personalisation is coming to B2B E-commerce quickly.

It’s playing catch-up on B2C E-commerce, clearly, but it’s catching up fast.

And when it comes a central arm of the B2B online buying experience - as it is in the Aphix platform, with further personalisation developments being rolled out all the time - that, I expect, will be a tipping point for a B2B E-commerce growth spike.

To just highlight a few examples we've been working on in recent weeks and months:

  • We've been working to utilise data analytics on customer buying patterns, which will allow our customers to present specific products and promotions at seasonal times — and all this will be achieved automatically, based on data and machine learning
  • Tag- and behaviour-based customer journeys, so that customers are presented with an experience that is much more relevant to their industry or needs. In offline parlance, this helps to bring them directly to the part of the E-commerce webshop they really want to get to, rather than accompany them to door of the shop and leave them to find their own way!
  • Several of our customers have asked us to work on a way to use machine learning and personalisation to dynamically showcase products and categories based on the behaviour of other customers in their industry or niche
  • Some customers respond better to promotions, others prefer cash discounts. Based on user behaviour and machine learning based on that behaviour, the Aphix cloud E-commerce platform determines which customers prefer which offers — and remembers that for their next visit.

When it comes to B2B E-commerce personalisation, all this and more is just the start of it. Especially when your business partners with Aphix and becomes part of our E-commerce platform and ecosystem, benefiting from our tried and tested implementation process across dozens of industries and hundreds of customer sites.

If you'd like to see the Aphix cloud platform, developed specifically to allow business-to-business companies sell smarter, we'd love to hear from you.