Has B2B ecommerce finally come of age?

If 2020 was all about being tactical to survive, how can B2B organisations apply these learnings to their 2021–2022 strategy? In this interview, Shane Redding explains why she thinks ecommerce will be a key strategic theme for many.

Last year, the cliché went: ‘if you weren’t digitally transitioning before, then you certainly are now.’ Specifically, how did B2B ecommerce evolve last year? 

Many businesses were forced to rethink their channels last year, especially those relying on stores and face-to-face sales teams. Some smaller, agile businesses were quick to exploit the opportunity of selling on third-party marketplaces, such as eBay and Amazon, not only to serve their existing B2B customers, but to reach new markets for their products. 

So, plastic sheeting manufacturers, who had large commercial contracts, were suddenly selling to the local hairdressers and restaurants. Personal protective equipment (PPE) was another category to boom – from companies previously specialising in selling to the NHS, to the wider business (and consumer) market. Existing third-party marketplaces have been a quick and convenient way for many smaller B2B companies to access ecommerce, but many larger enterprises were also forced to evaluate if they could use them to dispose of excess stock. 

There is one B2B ecommerce site that already dominates – Chinese juggernaut Alibaba, which is one of the biggest B2B and B2C ecommerce companies in the world. It sells products in 40 different industries in total. It also serves more than 18 million buyers and sellers in 240 countries and territories. There was much discussion around how Covid-19 accelerated digital strategy and, whilst few organisations set up a fully transactional ecommerce site from scratch in 2020, many did widen their payment methods, accepting credit card payments for larger items, even if it was not via the corporate website. Other agile businesses realised that it was difficult with a dispersed virtual workforce to get the necessary financial sign-off to set up large commercial contracts, so set up new secure DocuSign processes to help their customers. 

And how will ecommerce continue to evolve in 2021 and beyond? Was 2020 an anomaly, or will these trends continue? 

I believe there will be a huge focus on efficiency and effectiveness this year, and that ecommerce will be prioritised by many businesses who have previously said it wouldn’t work for them. It will no longer be an anomaly, but become the norm. Why? Put simply, our customers want it, and as soon as your competitors offer it, then it becomes irrelevant to say it’s not necessary. Amazon is investing heavily in promoting its Amazon business offering and, in the UK, we are lucky to have a wealth of expertise, from agencies to consultants, to help you successfully trade. 

For many, this is a better option than building their own ecommerce platform, as it provides the reach that only huge marketing budgets could otherwise achieve. Ecommerce in B2B may be redefined in the future as much more than the one-click Amazon website model. It may live up to its true definition of ‘commercial transactions conducted electronically on the internet’ as we see the IoT impacting and moving to ‘always on’ ordering/resupply of B2B consumables one machine to another, whether that’s printer cartridges, tyres for your HGV fleet, or concrete for you're just-in time building site.