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What Is B2B Ecommerce? A Complete Guide

Learn all about how B2B ecommerce can transform your business and grow revenue.

The rise of B2B commerce

When people think of ecommerce, they typically imagine a consumer shopping for products online from the comfort of their own home, on a mobile device or a laptop. But there’s a whole other side to ecommerce that involves large, complex orders, custom tech integrations, and unique buyer/seller relationships. Enter: business-to-business ecommerce (also known as B2B ecommerce).

Before the digital transformation of commerce, businesses would sell goods and services to other companies mostly through in-person sales and catalog orders. A lot has changed since then. Today, business buyers expect the same kinds of shopping experiences they’ve become accustomed to in their personal lives: easy, intuitive, and digital.

As business buyers’ expectations continue to rise, B2B commerce is becoming even more advanced. In fact, ecommerce remains a key investment opportunity for B2B companies. Between 2020 and 2022, global same-site B2B ecommerce sales increased 95%. Similarly, a majority of leaders in the ecommerce space believe that digital sales will drive over half of all business revenue within the next two years. Ultimately, businesses that can streamline their operations, save on costs, and develop stronger and more sustainable processes in the face of market uncertainty will be well positioned in the B2B ecommerce space. Because of this, it’s critical for companies to understand why cost-effective ecommerce strategies are so important in preparing for their brand’s future.

Table of Contents:

What is B2B ecommerce?

Business-to-business ecommerce is the process of selling products between two businesses via an online channel. By digitizing sales and offering self-service ordering and reordering for business buyers, you can reach more customers and reduce service costs. Plus, you’ll significantly shorten the sales cycle and give time back to your reps to focus on more strategic initiatives. Here’s how it works.

In a B2B ecommerce model, goods and services are sold to other manufacturers or wholesalers. Consider the automotive business. A parts manufacturer creates individual car components, such as an engine, fuel pump, or seat belts, and those parts are sold to auto manufacturers, rather than individuals, for assembly. Instead of sending your sales reps to meet with manufacturers to take orders, B2B commerce digitizes the process and speeds things along.

B2B ecommerce strategies aim to deliver a seamless multichannel relationship between business and buyers. This also gives sales and customer service reps a holistic view of each business, so they can provide a more personalized, convenient buying experience in each and every interaction.

B2B vs. B2C ecommerce: What’s the difference?

We’ve already defined B2B ecommerce as involving transactions between two or more businesses. B2C ecommerce, by contrast, covers transactions between businesses and individual end consumers. With B2B ecommerce, we’re not just talking about a few items in an online cart. B2B transactions regularly include hundreds of items that can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. With that much ordering potential, B2B ecommerce requires its own set of technology systems that can consistently and efficiently support bulk purchases.

Another big difference between B2C and B2B commerce is pricing. B2B transactions often require negotiated, account-specific pricing and terms that are usually determined by a sales rep on behalf of the customer. Ordering quantities can also range from just a few items to long lists of products, which make B2B purchases even more difficult to manage without the right systems in place.

These added complexity of B2B ecommerce means business owners need an ecommerce platform with the right tools to manage such orders. These solutions should allow companies to easily create online store platforms unique to each buyer. Not only does this strategy allow for a more personalized purchasing experience, it also creates cost-efficient processes that save on manpower in the long term.

The different types of B2B ecommerce

Not every B2B business model is the same. There are many different types of B2B companies and they serve a wide range of industries, each with their own unique set of needs and challenges. Let's explore some common types of B2B ecommerce:

B2B2C (Business-to-Business-to-Consumer): B2B2C ecommerce involves businesses selling their products or services to other businesses that, in turn, sell them to end consumers. This type of ecommerce often involves partnerships between manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers, allowing for a seamless distribution channel from the initial producer to the final consumer.

Wholesale: Wholesale ecommerce focuses on selling products in bulk quantities to retailers, other businesses, or even individual consumers who require larger quantities. Think businesses like Sysco or Unilever. Wholesale businesses typically offer discounted prices based on volume or account-based pricing, making it an essential part of the B2B commerce landscape.

Since large, complex purchase orders are so common in wholesale, these B2B sellers need the right systems in place to manage inventory, pricing, and shipping in cost-effective ways. It’s critical that wholesale ecommerce teams have complete visibility into accounts, sales, and service details, and that customer-facing teams can offer top-notch support. Fully equipped with insights into customers’ needs and behaviors, these specialists can serve as trusted advisors and cultivate exceptional experiences on a sustainable scale.

Distributors: Distributor-based ecommerce involves businesses that act as intermediaries between manufacturers or wholesalers and retailers. Distributors play a crucial role in the supply chain, ensuring efficient product distribution, managing inventory, and providing logistics services to ensure products reach their intended destinations.

Ultimately, distributors make sure that products get to where they need to go. This means that the systems they use to update orders, track shipping, and manage inventory are critical. Ecommerce platforms that offer these capabilities from one unified database can minimize shipping errors and save on costly supply-chain problems that commonly plague these types of businesses.

Manufacturers: Manufacturers often engage in B2B ecommerce to sell their products directly to other businesses, such as wholesalers, retailers, or even other manufacturers who may require specific components or materials for their production processes. By selling directly, manufacturers can bypass intermediaries, streamline the sales process, and establish closer relationships with their customers.

For manufacturers, the right B2B ecommerce platform will help streamline ordering, add account-based pricing, and split shipments — from one unified system. For example, Ovation Medical deployed a robust digital commerce platform that automated and streamlined repeat business operations and sales processes. As a result, the productivity of sales reps doubled, with reps managing up to 400 accounts. Increased productivity meant that the costs to retain and acquire new customers could be minimized. As another bonus, reps also had more time to seek out and secure new customers to help drive revenue.

Each type of B2B ecommerce has its unique characteristics and considerations. Businesses should evaluate their industry, target audience, and specific business model to determine which type of B2B ecommerce aligns best with their goals and requirements.

Stages of a B2B business — and how ecommerce drives continuous growth

B2B businesses go through various stages of growth and development, and their specific needs will change as they progress through each phase. Understanding these stages can help companies navigate their journey and implement effective strategies as they scale and grow. By 2024, B2B leaders expect that more than half of their revenue will come from digital channels, so it’s critical to develop winning ecommerce strategies no matter what stage of the journey you’re in.

Startup: The startup stage is characterized by the initial establishment of a B2B business. Startups focus on market research, product development, and building a customer base. At this stage, it's crucial to define a clear value proposition, identify target customers, and develop a strong brand presence. At a time when 80% of customers say the experience a company provides is as important as its product or services, it’s crucial for B2B companies in the startup phase to create a modern, differentiated online purchasing experience that will scale with them as they grow. This means easy ordering and reordering, personalized buying experiences, and intuitive self-service.

Growth: The growth stage marks the expansion of a B2B business. Companies experience an increase in sales, customer base, and market share. During this stage, businesses should focus on scaling operations, optimizing processes, and expanding their product/service offerings. Marketing and sales strategies play a vital role in driving growth and acquiring new customers. During high-growth periods, businesses should ensure that their ecommerce platform can handle heavy traffic and that their order portals can support large, increasingly complex orders and reorders.

Expansion: The expansion stage involves entering new markets, expanding geographically, or diversifying product lines. B2B businesses aim to capture a larger market share and establish themselves as industry leaders. Strategic partnerships, acquisitions, and investments may be pursued to fuel expansion.

At this stage, you can tap into historical data to uncover insights that will help you make the right moves. For example, you can tap into product searches and aggregate customer feedback to determine which new products would sell best if you added them to your catalog. If you’re considering expanding into new geographies, you can dig into web tracking data to learn where people browse your site or analyze traffic volume and trends on any non-transactional sites you may already have in other countries.

As you expand, it’s critical to prioritize innovation, customer retention, and competitive differentiation.

Maturity: The maturity stage represents a stable and established B2B business. Companies have a well-defined market presence, a loyal customer base, and consistent revenue streams. In this stage, businesses focus on optimizing operations, maintaining customer relationships, and exploring new avenues for growth and profitability. Continuous adaptation to market trends and emerging technologies is essential to stay competitive, so a flexible B2B ecommerce platform is key.

Throughout each stage, B2B businesses should prioritize customer-centricity, adapt to changing market dynamics, and leverage technology and data to drive efficiency and growth.

What are the benefits of B2B ecommerce?

Business-to-business ecommerce offers lots of opportunities to save costs and build lasting customer relationships. A connected B2B customer experience allows companies to create touchpoints across departments and engage buyers at every step in the online and in-person customer journey.

One of the biggest benefits of B2B ecommerce is the self-service buying options that give customers the freedom to not only place orders, but also manage them from initial purchase to final delivery. Digital ordering frees up your reps’ time so they can focus on building deeper relationships with customers instead of executing mundane manual tasks, like sorting and submitting purchase orders.

Overcoming the complexities of B2B ecommerce allows you to streamline the process for both reps and customers. Simplifying online buying with features specifically designed for B2B — including fast reorders, account hierarchies, contract pricing, custom catalogs, and more — means a better experience for everyone involved.

B2B ecommerce can also lower service costs. By equipping customers with self-service tools and guided experiences, you can reallocate both time and money to capitalize on other opportunities or solve critical pain points for your business.

B2B ecommerce marketing strategies

Effective B2B marketing strategies are crucial for driving visibility, attracting qualified leads, and converting them into loyal customers in the B2B commerce space. Here are some key marketing strategies to consider:

Search Engine Optimization (SEO): A large majority of business buyers start their purchasing journeys with a Google search. That means it’s critical to optimize your website and product pages to improve organic search visibility. Be strategic about the content on every page. Conduct keyword research, create high-quality content, and optimize on-page elements like titles, meta descriptions, and headings. Focus on targeting keywords relevant to your products, industry, and customer pain points.

Content Marketing: Develop valuable and informative content, such as blog posts, white papers, case studies, and guides, to establish thought leadership, attract target audience, and generate leads. B2B ecommerce content marketing helps you differentiate your brand, bring traffic to your digital storefront, and drive engagement on every channel.

Email Marketing: An email list is a powerful tool for B2B ecommerce. If used correctly, you can build and nurture valuable relationships with prospects and customers. Use AI in email marketing to send personalized and targeted campaigns that educate, inform, and promote your products or services. Segment your email list based on customer behavior, preferences, or demographics to deliver relevant content and offers.

Social Media Marketing: Leverage social media platforms to increase brand visibility, engage with your audience, and drive traffic to your website. As digital natives make up a larger share of the workforce, social media marketing for B2B businesses will become increasingly important. In fact, 55% of B2B companies now invest in social media. Now more than ever, it’s critical to create and share compelling content, participate in industry discussions, and utilize social advertising options to reach your target audience effectively.

Paid Advertising: Utilize paid advertising channels, such as Google Ads, social media ads, or display advertising to increase brand visibility, drive targeted traffic, and generate leads. Set clear goals, define your target audience, and optimize your ad campaigns to maximize ROI and conversions.

Personalization and Account-Based Marketing (ABM): Implement personalized marketing strategies to tailor your messaging and offerings to individual customers or target accounts. Leverage customer data and insights to create personalized experiences, recommend relevant products, and nurture long-term relationships.

Customer Reviews and Testimonials: Reviews factor into customers’ buying decisions. Encourage satisfied customers to leave reviews and testimonials about their experience with your products or services. Positive reviews can build trust and credibility, influencing potential customers in their decision-making process.

Data-Driven Marketing and Analytics: Use ecommerce reporting tools to track and measure the performance of your marketing campaigns. Analyze key metrics such as website traffic, conversions, customer behavior, and ROI to identify areas of improvement and optimize your marketing strategies accordingly.

Remember, effective B2B ecommerce marketing requires a deep understanding of your target audience, their pain points, and the unique value proposition your business offers. Continually monitor and adapt your marketing strategies based on data-driven insights and market trends to stay ahead of the competition.

Emerging B2B ecommerce trends

Staying informed about the latest trends in B2B ecommerce is essential to remain competitive and meet evolving customer expectations. Here are some noteworthy trends shaping the B2B ecommerce landscape:

Personalization and AI: Commerce AI tools and machine learning (ML) technologies allow you to quickly deliver more personalized experiences, product recommendations, and targeted marketing campaigns. AI-powered chatbots and virtual assistants also enhance customer support, streamline the buying process, and lower operational costs.

Data-Driven Insights: Good business decisions are powered by quality data. Most companies already collect data, but harmonizing it and putting it all to good use will truly differentiate your B2B ecommerce experience. Ecommerce reporting tools give you a better understanding of your customers at scale, and aid in your marketing, personalization, and automation efforts.

Omni-Channel Experience: B2B buyers expect an intuitive and consistent experience across multiple channels, including websites, mobile apps, social media, and in-person interactions. Buyers should be able to begin a product search on your website, continue browsing on mobile, and purchase anywhere they choose — seamlessly. Implementing an omni-channel approach ensures that customers can engage with your brand wherever and whenever they prefer.

Mobile Commerce: As digital natives — who prefer to use primarily mobile technology opens in a new window— make up an increasing amount of the workforce, B2B mobile commerce will become more important. B2B mobile commerce allows you to reach audiences anywhere, anytime. Staying accessible to your customers creates efficiencies and improves customer interactions.

Subscription-Based Models: Transactional, one-time sales make it difficult to retain customer loyalty, but two words can turn it all around: predictable revenue. The subscription business model can help B2B companies significantly boost sales, gain loyalty and recurring revenue, and create operational efficiency. Offering subscription options for products or services provides recurring revenue streams and fosters long-term customer relationships.

Sustainable and Ethical Commerce: Choosing ethical, sustainable business partners and suppliers is a major way to prioritize business values, and B2B buyers are increasingly conscious of sustainability and ethical practices. Businesses that prioritize environmental responsibility, ethical sourcing, and social impact initiatives can differentiate themselves and appeal to socially responsible buyers. By keeping up with these trends and incorporating relevant strategies and technologies into your B2B ecommerce approach, you can enhance customer experiences, drive growth, and stay ahead of the competition.

B2B ecommerce examples

Need some inspiration? Here are a few real-life examples of successful B2B ecommerce implementations that highlight best practices, innovative approaches, and big wins:

A major pharmaceutical distributor reduced average order time by 90%.

Business-to-business ecommerce involves a lot of moving parts, but a highly regulated, high-stakes industry like healthcare adds even more complexity. When pharmaceutical distributor McKesson embarked on its digital transformation, the team knew it was critical to invest in a B2B ecommerce solution that integrated with sales, service, and fulfillment operations. This would help the brand provide better customer outcomes and unlock richer business insights.

McKessonopens in a new window opens in a new windowdispenses more than 150 million prescription items every year at its LloydsPharmacy outlets and supports 80,000 patients with its LloydsPharmacy Clinical Homecare services. McKesson also operates the U.K.’s largest pharmaceutical wholesaler, All About Health (AAH). After implementing B2B webshops, McKesson saw a 90% reduction in average order time for pharmacies.

Take it from Ranjit Gill, IT Director for McKesson: “We used to distribute printed catalogs, which meant product listings were already out of date even before pharmacists placed an order … [Now], product availability can be adjusted in real time. Pharmacists can also view their purchase history, auto-fill their baskets, and take advantage of special deals.”

An energy systems manufacturer created a B2B storefront that mimics the B2C shopping experience.

Does your business have a large catalog filled with technical, complex products? No problem. Your buyer experience can (and should) still be just as great as a consumer shopping experience. By taking a minimum viable product (MVP) approach to its B2B commerce implementation, GE Renewable Energy overhauled its site and enhanced the user experience — in just 10 weeks.

The team implemented self-service capabilities that allow customers to search by keyword and part number. Users can now easily drill down through multiple category hierarchies and ad hoc facets, check product availability, identify obsolete parts and their replacements, request a quote, place orders, and check order status.

Livia Miyabara, Marketing and Strategy Leader at GE Parts and Repairs, explains how the brand’s new B2B ecommerce implementation has improved the experience — for buyers and employees alike. “Customers don’t need to wait for a human being to process their orders, driving faster response and return to service, which is a priority when our customers want to avoid a stopped turbine and continue producing renewable energy. The automation also frees up employees to focus on helping users find the right part and answering questions or providing additional details about a product.”

A global distributor kept the pace with B2B ecommerce — even when demand surged 670%.

AMMEX provides personal protective equipment to businesses all around the globe. As a major distributor of health, hygiene, and safety products, demand accelerated quickly during the COVID-19 pandemic. When web traffic spiked and market demand for disposable gloves surged 670%, the company needed a way to seamlessly scale orders, fast. With the connected B2B ecommerce, the team was able to quickly revamp its B2B sales experience in just 10 weeks.

Today, close to 90% of customers are ordering through AMMEX’s digital commerce site, an increase of 30%. For sales, just removing manual order entry has resulted in increased productivity, allowing reps to shift their time to higher-impact tasks like building richer relationships with customers. These are just a few real-world examples of how the right B2B commerce strategy can help you move quickly, exceed customer expectations, and differentiate your business.

How to get started with B2B ecommerce

B2B organizations need a strong ecommerce strategy in place to stay ahead in an increasingly digital-first world.With face-to-face selling on the decline, the right B2B ecommerce plan and platform can lower costs and help businesses get products to buyers faster.

These three steps can help you launch a B2B ecommerce storefront quickly and successfully:

1. Align objectives to new customer needs.

The first step in launching a B2B ecommerce strategy is to identify the biggest customer pain points. Most buyers expect companies to implement new technologies that curate better experiences. What steps does your business need to take to accomplish that?

Once you’ve identified your goal, perform a “business as usual” audit and a separate review of the past two months. What’s been successful and what hasn’t? Where are the gaps between sales reps and customers? Are there additional points for engagement? Where do you see procedural hiccups that cause excess spend or lost revenue opportunities?

Answering these questions can help you assess your B2B ecommerce strategy and course-correct to ensure your interactions are driving the most ROI possible.

2. Start small and use incentives.

Companies usually see the most success in achieving sustainable revenue streams when they start small with a phased approach and focus on one set of customers or business units at a time. Pinpointing a smaller segment of buyers within a new B2B ecommerce strategy allows for testing and optimization before scaling across the entire business.

Incentivizing implementation partners to use your existing tools and capabilities can also help your business reduce costs when building your B2B ecommerce strategy. Actual results measuring the adoption of features and real customer feedback can help your company determine what’s most important to your audiences.

3. Track key performance indicators (KPIs), but don’t ignore qualitative insights.

Successful B2B ecommerce encompasses much more than your standard vanity metrics. Qualitative measures like speed and agility are just as important in determining your company’s productivity and efficiency, so make sure to think beyond typical KPIs when setting goals for your storefront. Some metrics to consider include:

  • Budget. Track spending as you go and avoid budgetary surprises to help your efforts come in under budget and remain cost-effective.
  • Opportunity costs. Think about resources you can save by implementing a B2B ecommerce strategy. Good examples of these are data entry and other manual tasks.
  • Customer service requests. A decrease in customer service requests can indicate that your self-service options and guided experiences are working.

How to choose the right B2B ecommerce platform

The backbone of any successful B2B ecommerce strategy is a connected ecommerce platform. B2B purchases can become complex quickly, and unfortunately, many businesses are still using outdated technology to manage their modern requests and increasingly digitally savvy customer bases.

Email, phone, and fax are no longer the only platforms for placing orders, checking order history, or collecting basic customer information. Without cutting-edge technology, managing post-order processes can lead to lost time for sales reps, partners, and customers alike. It can also cause costly processing errors and the unnecessary duplication of work.

Choosing the right ecommerce platform can feel daunting, but there are some key features you want to consider as you compare options:

Scale: Business-to-business ecommerce can involve orders ranging from 10 items to 10,000 or more. Your ecommerce platform should have the tools in place to help your business scale successfully and sustainably. The right platform can help you launch custom and branded storefronts in a cost-effective way, so you can handle any size order with ease and efficiency.

Single Source of Truth Organizations: Today typically use over 1,000 applications, but 70% are disconnected from one another and the core business. Simply put: that’s a lot of data that ends up siloed across your business. Your B2B ecommerce platform should unify all of your data in one place and seamlessly integrate apps, data, and processes to give you a 360-degree view of your customer.

Flexibility: The business landscape is constantly changing, and your ecommerce platform should help you adapt as needed to keep up with customer demands. The right solution will help you thrive in ​​changing markets by giving you the tools to create new business models on demand and make changes on the fly.

Partner Ecosystem: Deploying a B2B ecommerce strategy is no easy feat and requires support across the customer journey to be successful. A connected ecosystem of implementation partners is key to making sure your teams and customers have the tools they need. A reliable partner can help your business save on long-term costs and create a customized, scalable tech solution for your unique needs.

Your next steps to B2B ecommerce success

Getting started with B2B ecommerce is easier and faster than you may think. With Commerce Cloud, you can launch a digital storefront quickly, sell on any channel, make order management more efficient, and embed commerce in sales, service, and marketing workflows.