Part two of this three-part article focuses on the necessity for a strong e-commerce platform.

The complexity of implementing a B2B e-commerce platform that is sophisticated, functional and user-friendly can often make jan/san distributors feel they are up against an impossible task.

In the past, the feelings were warranted. B2B companies were often tasked with developing proprietary e-commerce programs in order to compete, a highly expensive endeavor, and just one of the many reasons distributors opted out.

DeStefano says buying into e-commerce is no longer optional. Although he advises distributors to take a “crawl, walk, run” approach to the process, he says it’s important for jan/san distributors to recognize that customers expect them to evolve with the times. That means not only embracing e-commerce for their own sake, but doing it well enough so that customers return to their sites again and again.

“The challenge that a lot of distributors face is they think they can just throw up a website with e-commerce solutions, but it needs to operate a certain way,” says DeStefano. “You can’t get away with it if it’s clunky. There’s been an ‘Amazon-ing’ of customer expectations. It has to be as user-friendly and intuitive as the consumer-focused e-commerce sites they already purchase from.”
 
Fortunately, implementing e-commerce is more affordable and seamless than ever before. Gene Marks, a small business expert and president of the Marks Group in Philadelphia, says distributors can take advantage of mainstream website providers that cater to small companies, or turn to their existing software vendors, to get their feet wet.

Marks says many distributors are already using industry standard software programs, such as ERP, on their websites. Many ERP software vendors offer e-commerce modules that integrate online shopping tools with existing ERP functions.

“The tools will be easier to use, but there is still an expectation for information,” says Marks, adding that distributors should enhance their e-commerce platform with technical product data and other educational materials. “It’s key to making a buying decision online. Distributors have to be ready to provide that.”

King called connecting e-commerce capabilities to ERP a key initiative.

“ERP is the lifeblood of your organization,” he says. “It makes your customers’ jobs easier. Along with the shopping cart, it allows customers to create orders, look up invoices and see where the [delivery] truck is.”
 
It’s also a quick way for distributors to demonstrate return on investment. According to Forrester, omnichannel customers spend more than single-channel, offline-only customers. They are also more likely to become repeat and long-term customers. Distributors can enhance their e-commerce successes by personalizing the shopping experience. Strategies such as bundling, upselling or recommending related products can all boost sales in the long run.

“Once you’ve got all of that built, you have to be prepared to spend online,” says Marks. “E-commerce is only half the battle. You have to have search and mobile advertising spend.”