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Crash & Burn: Why So Many Wholesale and B2B eCommerce Projects Go Wrong

There are very many reasons B2B eCommerce projects collapse and die - often before a solution ever goes live. Here are seven we've seen over and over and over again.

Mark Reilly (CTO) Written by Mark Reilly (CTO) 23 Apr 2018 in B2B eCommerce

(Top Photo by Alex Geerts on Unsplash)

When it comes to delivering an eCommerce solution for wholesalers and other B2B businesses, the complexity can be the thing that sends agencies or developers running for cover.

In order to deliver a successful wholesale or B2B eCommerce project, a developer or development agency must take into account a degree of logic difficulty that simply doesn't exist in smaller eCommerce systems.

Over the past four years our team at Aphix Software has worked with hundreds of wholesale and B2B companies to recreate their entire offline business model online.

Not 80 or 90 per cent of the way there, like some off-the-shelf or open source software solutions might get you, even with heavy customisation.

We've come across many reasons B2B eCommerce projects collapse and die — in many cases even before a solution ever gets to go live. Here are seven that keep coming up, irrespective of industry sector.

Reason 1: The Complexity of B2B Pricing Structures

Pricing is arguably the most sensitive thing in the B2B world.

For most B2B arrangements, the price Customer A pays for a product is very likely going to be very different than the price Customer B pays for the same product.

In delivering online ordering, mobile app ordering functionality and full eCommerce systems for hundreds of B2B and wholesale companies over the past few years, we’ve seen all kinds of different pricing structures based on all kinds of factors. The structures can be based on a range of things, such as customer-specific discount arrangements, customer-specific price lists or quantity breaks.

And guess what? Almost every one of those hundreds of customers have had a slightly different setup!

If your eCommerce platform can't fully replicate those business rules online, then you can't truly claim to be able to sell business to business online.

You’re not going to take pricing structures that have been in place for 10 years or more, price agreements you've had with your very best customers, and chuck that all out the window, are you?

That sort of complexity is something most web development companies just take a while to grasp. 

Reason 2: The Importance of Reliable Stock Information at Critical Times

Along with pricing, stock is the most sensitive thing you can have in a B2B eCommerce environment. From business to business there may be different ways in which you want to display stock levels to your customers.

Some businesses might just want to display messages like “In stock”, “Out of stock”, or “Low stock”.

Others will want to show the actual, live stock availability numbers to trade customers so that when they log on to the site they get to see the actual stock numbers — what's available right now from the warehouse.

There’s a very valid reason for displaying accurate, real-time information to the browsing customer. They might want to buy 100 of a particular product. Indeed, the most important factor in their buying decision might be the fact that they can get those 100 items sent out in the next shipment.

When they place that order, they need to know that when they're buying it they will actually get fulfillment of that stock — because they need to deliver it to their own customer as soon as the possibly can.

It’s just not the same as a regular cash customer coming on who makes a small order and might expect to wait three or four weeks.

So having that real-time connection to stock information is critical for B2B businesses to flourish online. That is not available in all systems, where a 24-hour sync might need to take place before stock levels are updated. One of the cornerstones of the Aphix cloud platform for wholesalers is a real-time connection back in the ERP system so you get real-time stock information - instantly and accurately.

Reason 3: Integration Hell

Let’s assume you’ve found a way to show the stock in the correct way, and to show the prices in the correct way, and that you can take orders on it.

Next question: where does all that information come from?

Typically for wholesalers, that information is stored in a central ERP (enterprise resource planning) system.

So any digital system worth its salt will have to integrate fully with that.

And that is where so many B2B eCommerce projects come crashing to a sudden stop.

Integrating with all the disparate systems required is not easy.

There are multiple ERP systems, all of which work slightly differently. And there are multiple off-the-shelf or open source eCommerce systems, all of which also work slightly differently.

To achieve the end goal of two-way integration, it will often mean a developer trying to figure out some hodgepodge way of making the two systems talk to each other.

Typically, though, what happens on so many occasions is that the integration does not work reliably, and a decision must be taken to have somebody in the company responsible for a manual process of getting data from the ERP system (stock, orders, customers and pricing) across to the eCommerce system.

That might work in the short term — but it’s not a system, and that point of weakness will cause problems sooner or later. And usually sooner.

Reason 4: How B2B Customers Shop

There are a number of things which are just not a typical requirement for normal B2C eCommerce, the type of eCommerce provided by the vast majority of small stores or Shopify sites.

Importing a spreadsheet

For example, a piece of functionality routinely required by wholesalers and B2B eCommerce is to import a spreadsheet to complete an order.

The user flow is that a customer can log on to a wholesaler’s eCommerce site, navigate to the cart and instead of picking products one by one, just uploading a spreadsheet of product codes and quantities required.

That spreadsheet might have been quickly generated by the customer’s retail point of sale system — so it’s imperative that a wholesaler eCommerce system can deal with it.

That requirement can be a real challenge for a developer who’s accustomed to retail eCommerce but for whom such functionality requires some advanced custom code.

Then there’s all the testing required in order to ensure the system doesn’t trip up when it meets strange characters — a stray comma could bring an unproven solution crashing to its knees! 

Favourites lists

Many trade customers will have a set or limited number of products that they order over and over again from their suppliers. Finding an easy way of making this happen online is important for any wholesale or B2B eCommerce solution.

Imagine the headspin of logging in once a month and navigating through thousands of products and variations across an entire catalogue to find the same things you ordered last month.

Wouldn’t a re-order functionality or favourites list be good?

But coding that sort of thing from scratch opens up a lot of difficulty for a developer who might be much more accustomed to standard eCommerce setups, where such functionality is just not required because that buying behaviour is extremely unusual in the B2C space.

Reason 5: B2B Catalogue Size and Complexity

Normally when developers or agencies go about setting up an online store, the vision that most people have is that of a small- to medium-sized shop. A range of perhaps less than 1000 products is fairly typical for most eCommerce offerings.

For wholesalers and distributors, though, the catalogues are massive.

And depending on the industry, the way customers navigate through that catalog can be very different.

One wholesaler on the Aphix cloud platform, for example, has 400,000 products and 1.6 million keywords. Those products are not really categorised in what might be seen as a normal way — so most of their customers have a list of different keywords or alternative product codes for what they’re looking for.

The end-user behaviour is that they'll punch in a search for a term that they typically use to describe a product or product line. They will expect to find their product almost instantly, then place an order. 

These customers are not casually browsing — they have a job to do, and they expect the system to help them do that job quickly, whatever their preferred method of navigating the catalogue might be.

That user behaviour is so far away from standard eCommerce site functionality that it can — and does! — bring so many B2B and wholesale eCommerce projects crashing down almost before they've got off the ground.

That level of sophistication — with either search or navigation — is just not something that happens easily out of the box with, for example, Magento or Shopify. It usually ends up being a major obstacle that the average agency or developer will really struggle to find a way past.

At Aphix our process includes a lot of time talking with our customers about their requirements to satisfy the user behaviour of their customers. Only then can we create an eCommerce system that satisfies everyone.

Reason 6: Underestimating Your Own Complexity

Occasionally a wholesaler will make a decision to upgrade their digital ordering facility, or commission one if they’re starting from scratch.

But it’s not uncommon — despite the fact that they’re embedded in their business — for them to under-appreciate the size of the task they’re looking to complete.

They might not know exactly what they should be asking. They might just seek out an online ordering portal or run-of-the-mill eCommerce solution.

Without detailed specifications — which should include all the complexities of the business logic that the online system will need to replicate — then the risk is that a developer might hear “ordering system” and think that it was a fairly straightforward eCommerce solution.

When, as we know by now, eCommerce and digital ordering systems for wholesalers and B2B companies are anything but straightforward.

Reason 7: The Custom Magento Approach (and its Three Thorny Problems)

Whereas the likes of Shopify — excellent though it is for small eCommerce businesses — is typically just not a runner for large-scale wholesale or B2B businesses, it’s not uncommon for open source systems such as Magento to be the foundation of a wholesale digital ordering and eCommerce solution.

But in our experience this is liable to cause a wide range of problems.

Magento is a complex piece of software, and the first thing you will need is a Magento specialist who can bend the system to your own (possibly unique!) business requirements.

Assuming you find that specialist, the second thing you will run into head-on is the cost — specialists who know their way round Magento, and can customise it so that all your business logic is working correctly — generally command substantial fees.

Not only that, with this approach, when all your business logic is replicated and eventually you get up and running (which doesn’t always happen) you're then left with the third issue: your Magento installation will need to be maintained and updated.

Given the amount of customisation required to get your business logic into the system in the first place, if you just use the regular Magento update tool there is a significant risk that your bright and mission-critical eCommerce site is going to be a white screen.

All this is ignoring the list of plugins your developer might have installed to carry out various functions.

All of which will need to be maintained.

All of which increase the costs involved of keeping the system up and running.

The Alternative Approach

As part of what we do at Aphix Software to help B2B companies and wholesalers sell smarter, we bring our customers through the entire journey of their implementation. Having completed hundreds of implementations over the past four years, our process is refined.

Nor do we expect our customers to have an internal team who's going to be up to speed on all aspects of cloud technology. If you have zero technical skills, we'll walk you through it step by step.

If, on the other hand, you have plenty of tech experience, we can show you everything you'd like to know about how our cloud web, mobile and eCommerce platform hangs together.

The core of what our customers want to achieve is to give their customers a more convenient way to order.

And that’s the core of what we do: give wholesalers’ customer a more convenient way to order, over web and mobile.

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