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Unlocking the Future
of e-Commerce:

Lessons for Plumbing

As supply chain disruptions and the slow movement of cash have threatened both buyers’ and suppliers’ financial health, e-commerce has opened up new windows of opportunity for B2B organizations to pursue consumer-like digital experiences that customers are increasingly demanding. In fact, not only has an optimized e-commerce strategy become a key competitive differentiator in B2B’s relatively new digital-first landscape, but it has proven to be absolutely critical in overcoming many of the challenges that have arisen in the last couple of years.

The urgency to embrace digitization has certainly been recognized by plumbing distributors, 87% of which say they have deployed an e-commerce solution and 93% of which report that the majority of their purchases occur via mobile app, according to recent research commissioned by Billtrust. And while these numbers are encouraging, simply having an e-commerce presence today doesn’t guarantee success. In order to optimize their digital storefronts, organizations must understand the trends that have catapulted e-commerce into the B2B spotlight, as well as how they impacted the views and expectations of the modern B2B buyer.

What’s causing the flood of e-commerce activity?

The U.S. B2B e-commerce market is preparing for a milestone year. For the first time in 2022, sales will cross the $1 trillion mark, according to a study from Insider Intelligence, before catapulting to $1.8 trillion next year according to Forrester. These figures represent colossal growth for an industry, which prior to the pandemic, was not expected to reach even the first milestone for a number of years.

While this shift to online was happening at a steady pace prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the crisis certainly—and significantly—accelerated it. In fact, Billtrust data shows that its e-commerce customers’ B2B web sales increased by more than 463% during the pandemic’s first year, while average order amount nearly tripled. Further, more than 90% of service providers across industries report an uptick in e-commerce use since the onset of COVID-19.

Another factor contributing to the rise of B2B e-commerce is the “Amazon Effect.” Continuously raising the bar for what it means to provide a remarkable customer experience (CX), Amazon has inspired new ways of doing business across almost every area of our lives. In doing so, it’s also conditioned expectations for things like speed, personalization and convenience. This is particularly true among today’s younger generations who’ve grown up in an environment where virtually everything is just a click away.

As these generations have made their way into the business world—with a substantial proportion nabbing key jobs in the trades—they’ve brought these expectations along with them and begun to apply them to their roles. In fact, Amazon’s own research finds that nearly three-quarters of business buyers today are millennials, meaning it’s hardly a surprise that these digital natives are ushering in a new era for B2B sales.

The above shifts have led to a massive opportunity for plumbing distributors to leverage a digital-first experience that meets the expectations and demands of today’s buyer and decision makers. So just what are these needs and expectations? Let’s take a closer look.

Unclogging the online buying experience

Not surprisingly, 65% of plumbing buyers said that an e-commerce solution is very important to them in choosing a supplier. But buyers aren’t settling for just any digital storefront. More than half of plumbing buyers investigate three to four different providers before making a purchase. So, what exactly are buyers searching for?

While price may seem like the obvious deciding factor, it actually didn’t scratch the top three when Billtrust asked plumbing buyers what their most critical needs are when choosing an e-commerce solution to purchase. Instead, they reported that the following criteria are most important to them:

1. Shipping speed

This one may seem obvious, and the truth is that fast shipping is a must-have e-commerce platform feature. This is because the “Amazon Effect” is driving demand for speedy delivery, meaning there’s an expectation that uncommon parts or supplies should be available the same or next day. Even when they need supplies in short notice, 53% of plumbing buyers said they prefer to shop online rather than in person.

For these reasons, deploying an effective and efficient shipping strategy is now one of the most crucial phases in customer relations. After all, it’s the priority of every business to keep the customer happy. And having almost instant access to supplies can be the difference between an on-time job completion and a bad review.

Of course, this presents a great challenge for suppliers who are still dealing with fulfillment issues due to supply chain shortages. Which is why it’s extremely important that they deploy the right integrations such as inventory management, logistics and ERP systems. (But more on that later!).

2. Ease of ordering

Mobile is more important than ever in B2B. In plumbing, distributors report that 53% of all orders originate through the mobile version of their e-commerce platform. Simply put, every B2B e-commerce solution needs a native mobile app that provides the same B2B capabilities as its desktop version.

Similarly, buyers expect to be greeted with the same flexibility and simplicity that they enjoy on most B2C e-commerce sites. This means being able to easily find and order what they need when they need it. A platform that offers the ease of intelligent search is therefore non-negotiable when it comes to optimizing your e-commerce presence. Intelligent search allows you to truly understand what is being looked for and help customers find it even faster.

This includes things like allowing customers to search by their own product codes and terminology to find things more easily on your site. This, along with alternate product recommendations, frequently bought together and similar products, ensures a frictionless journey.

Other functionalities such as barcode scanning can also remove friction from the purchasing and reordering process by allowing customers to use any camera-enabled device to quickly and accurately scan and reorder the product they need in seconds while substantially cutting their own inventory stocking process time.

3. Product availability and inventory transparency

Beyond “availability,” the ability to understand the quantity or depth of supply is an emerging requirement among B2B buyers. In fact, 58% of plumbing suppliers say that the most common barrier to e-commerce adoption is trust in the system being accurate. This presents an opportunity for e-commerce providers to offer useful integrations with inventory management, logistics or ERP systems.

A deep ERP integration is vital for distributors and manufacturers to maintain a scalable e-commerce platform that supports seamless product, account and order management. In reality, it’s never been more crucial to success as wholesalers strive to serve both traditional and digital channels equally. This is something businesses often struggle with, leading to mistakes that threaten to impede the buyer’s journey such as inconsistent pricing and inventory, missing specs and miscategorized data.

While the needs of the modern business buyer continue to shift, one thing that will remain constant is their desire for a seamless online buying experience. This is, of course, upping the pressure on suppliers to deliver a digital experience that meets a very specific set of criteria. But it has also given them an opportunity that’s traditionally very hard to come by. That is the opportunity to fend off competition in an incredibly busy market and solidify their brand as a premium business partner that can delight customers on a number of levels. This is perhaps the greatest reward for their efforts after operating within incredibly challenging circumstances these past few years.

The key to success going forward

The emergence of e-commerce as a primary driver of business for distributors has changed the nature of B2B sales. Maintaining relationships through in-person and other traditional sales interactions are less important today than crafting seamless, digital experiences for customers. But this doesn’t mean the power of the supplier-buyer relationship is obsolete. What it does mean, however, is that these relationships have evolved.

Today, a strong relationship is largely based on how well a supplier meets their buyers’ digital needs and expectations, including their ability to deliver upon those aforementioned performance factors that ultimately make it easier for buyers to do their jobs. In fact, 60% of service providers say that the supplier’s e-commerce experience is “very important” to their relationship with the supplier.

The reality is, the consumerization of B2B is in full flow, and the acceleration of e-commerce adoption is perhaps the most telling sign. Already, 67% of B2B buyers report switching to vendors that offer a “more consumer-like” experience. With Billtrust’s study indicating that these decision-makers’ expectations for B2B e-commerce experiences that closely resemble those they enjoy in their personal lives is rising, it’s clear there’s a massive opportunity for suppliers to win business and boost ROI by tailoring their offerings accordingly.