Business-to-business (B2B) e-commerce describes digital transactions involving businesses as both the buyer and seller. While it may not get the same attention as business-to-consumer (B2C) e-commerce, the market for B2B e-commerce is much larger. In 2019, B2B e-commerce was valued at $12.2 trillion, about six times greater than its B2C counterpart.
Because B2B e-commerce involves high order values and bulk purchases, it is much more nuanced than a regular consumer shopping experience. In this guide, you’ll learn all there is to know about B2B e-commerce, how it works, how it differs from B2C, and how digital sales channels are shaping its future.
Here is what we will cover in this extensive piece about B2B commerce and how e-commerce streamlines B2B sales:
B2B e-commerce is a transactional process where a business sells goods to another business online, often through an e-commerce website. Also referred to as B2B digital commerce, this electronic method of conducting transactions simplifies procurement for buyers, especially for replenishment orders. It also allows sellers to shift the focus of salespeople to product educators and enablers of new solutions.
When commerce is conducted both online and offline in B2B environments, it is simply referred to as B2B commerce. When it happens inside an online procurement portal or other online space, it is referred to as b2b e-commerce. According to this survey, 71% of B2B buyers prefer online procurement over traditional commerce.
B2B transactions occur in the supply chain as businesses buy parts, materials, and equipment to build their own product or sell as finished goods. Companies also purchase items for internal consumption such as paper and printers from B2B sellers like Staples. When procurement happens through online portals such as Staples Advantage, this is B2B e-commerce in action.
The common parties involved in the B2B supply chain include Manufacturers, Distributors, Wholesalers, and Retailers. How a product moves between these parties depends on the distribution channel.
With advancements in e-commerce technology, distribution channels are shrinking. There is less need for middlemen as e-commerce makes products readily accessible for a large audience. Now, manufacturers can list products directly on their own site or third-party marketplace instead of relying on a distributor. This is more feasible than ever with one of the many B2B e-commerce platforms.
When it comes to B2B, electronic commerce happens in a variety of ways. Direct to business and B2B marketplaces are two of the most common ways B2B e-commerce happens.
Direct to business e-commerce involves the manufacturer selling directly to retailers, wholesalers, and other businesses on their website. Selling through B2B marketplaces involves the manufacturer selling to buyers through a general marketplace like Amazon or a specialty marketplace like Staples (for office furniture and equipment).
Given the catalog depth of major B2C marketplaces like Amazon, you may think that B2B buyers could order the goods for their business as they would for personal products. This approach can provide a degree of convenience, but there are distinct advantages to purchasing directly from a B2B vendor or a dedicated B2B marketplace.
Convenience for low consideration products is essential. But B2B buyers also need access to flexible product options and dedicated support for more nuanced purchases. When buying from a retail marketplace, you do not have access to the extensive documentation you find when buying directly from a supplier.
Support is also limited as Amazon stands between any contact between the seller and end-consumer, treating buyers as their customers, not sellers. Engaging with a B2B vendor directly through their online portal benefits both buyer and seller as they can build strong, long-lasting relationships.
Vendors can assign dedicated service reps to each customer account to provide a more personalized experience. By negotiating pricing and entering into contracts, buyers can get better prices than paying retail.
Purchasing from a B2B company also provides flexible payment options vital to many businesses’ operations. When you buy from Amazon or eBay, paying an invoice later isn’t an option. You pay upfront and are unable to verify the quality and condition of the goods beforehand.
Also, businesses can’t just buy from anyone, making vendor vetting a critical part of the B2B purchase process. When companies take the time to research and find the most trustworthy suppliers instead of using unvetted third-party sellers, they can forge relationships on which the business can rely.
Given the growth of e-commerce, it is a common belief that today’s B2B buyers now want a B2C-like experience. That belief, however, is misguided. While B2B buyers certainly want many of the features present in B2C, they still want the attention to detail and customization offered through traditional methods.
No matter how much B2B e-commerce grows, requests for quotes, purchase orders, and negotiated pricing aren’t leaving. B2B commerce is thus more complex as sellers need to satisfy both ends of the spectrum.
Despite the steady adoption of many B2C-inspired features, B2C and B2B commerce are still fundamentally different at their core. Here are the most significant differences:
The first difference between B2C and B2B commerce is the products themselves. Products in B2B are more complex. For B2B, advanced product attributes are more than just a nice feature; they are essential.
Unlike most B2C items, a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for B2B customers. That is because B2B buyers have unique needs that require products with many variants or custom configurations.
Some B2B products aren’t sold to an end-consumer but instead used as components to make another product. B2B buyers need more extensive product details for these items, such as the item’s specifications, alternate parts, service manuals, accessories, and warranty information.
Such information must be available, especially when customized and bundled options are available. With all that information, B2B product pages are much more detailed than B2C.
In B2C commerce, customers are in the market for products that can be classified as “wants” and “needs.” Wants may not serve some essential purpose but are sought after for the consumer to fulfill some form of psychological desire. The consumer usually won’t purchase these products until there is an emotional compulsion to do so.
On the other hand, B2B buyers are more rational in their decision-making process and only buy products that serve some form of need. Decision-makers are held accountable for and can face the consequences of a poor choice of products. Thus, impulse buying in B2B does not exist.
Overall, the buying process in B2B is more complex and requires a systematic approach. It can take a business several weeks from researching to issuing a purchase order, especially as it involves over half a dozen decision-makers.
The person responsible for making the final purchase decision is often not the end-user of the product. In this sense, parties in the B2B buying process can split between “users” and “choosers.” Sellers have to know how to appeal to both groups, further complicating the sales process.
Customer life cycles in B2B commerce are much longer than those in B2C. In B2C, customers often make a one-off purchase from a seller, then proceed to not make another purchase for some time or never return at all.
B2B customers, however, are focused more on building long-term relationships. They want to find a reliable vendor who offers the goods they need reasonably and continue doing business with them. B2B buying involves acquiring replenishable products more often than B2C. Thus, easily reordering items is a top priority and leads to buyers sticking with the same vendors.
There are some inherent differences between the online storefronts of B2B and B2C e-commerce businesses. Businesses gear the frontend design of B2C websites to stimulate the emotions of their customers. Thus, creating a visually stunning display or unique branded experience is crucial.
On the flip side, because B2B customers are much more logical and data-driven, the frontend display needs to provide relevant and accurate information that users can access with ease.
In comparison to B2B payment options, those in B2C are less complex. The majority of B2C consumers pay using a credit or debit card. Alternative payment methods like Paypal and Apple Pay are gaining popularity, but these methods tend to use the card as the end source of funds.
B2B consumers have more options, such as ACH transfers, wire transfers, lines of credit, or checks. Payments don’t necessarily occur on an e-commerce portal, as many buyers still choose to pay for goods through traditional invoices.
However, transactions occurring on e-commerce platforms still need to provide the option for purchase orders, payment on trade credit, along with order approval options. As most B2B relationships involve exclusive pricing arrangements, businesses must build B2B e-commerce platforms that handle unique pricing for each customer.
B2B procurement consists of the entire process of finding and sourcing goods from a vendor. The traditional workflow has evolved with online sales channels, but the core process remains the same.
Let’s break down how this process works for today’s B2B buyers:
The B2B procurement workflow begins with the recognition of the need for a particular good. That good could supply the office, be a component for a manufactured item, or be resold to an end-consumer.
Once a need is recognized, stakeholders determine the specifics for the items and search where to obtain them. In the past, this meant reaching out to a network of suppliers or attending trade shows. But with the internet, B2B buyers can conduct significant research online before reaching out to the vendor.
When the stakeholders clarify the details, an employee creates a purchase requisition, a formal document to request the needed materials. The document helps inform the department manager or purchasing officer of the need to begin the purchasing process.
Once the purchasing department receives the requisition form, they will review the document. They consider whether the requested products are needed, if the cost is appropriate, and the proposal does not violate any existing agreements. When the purchasing department approves the requisition, they then have the authority to create a purchase order.
The purchase order indicates what the company is requesting from the supplier and includes the following:
In large companies, the procurement or purchasing department usually issues purchase orders. For smaller companies, an operations manager, finance manager, or even the business owner will.
If the company creates the purchase order without first creating a requisition form, the purchasing department will need to approve the PO before sending it to the vendor.
Upon receipt of the order, the vendor decides if they have the ability and desire to fulfill the order’s requirements. When the vendor agrees, the purchase order becomes a legally binding contract. The vendor will then prepare the order and deliver the goods to the specified location.
When the goods arrive, the receiving staff checks the attached documents (PO number, delivery note, etc.) and acknowledges receipt of the order. They will then inspect the goods, validating the quantity and quality of the goods. The staff can reject and send back any defective items.
After the buyer accepts the delivered goods, the seller issues an invoice requesting payment. Before paying the invoice, the buyer (usually the accounts payable department) will confirm that the details on the invoice match those on the purchase order and that the goods have been received and accepted.
The exact nature of this process and its duration can vary depending on a variety of different factors, including:
E-commerce has changed the procurement workflow for B2B commerce, enabling both buyers and sellers to operate with greater efficiency. Before companies could create online catalogs for customers, B2B sellers would need to send sales reps directly to a potential customer with a physical catalog.
These catalogs were massive as they contained all products available. Helping customers find the most suitable product was cumbersome. It also limited how much control the buyer had over the entire process as they were completely reliant on salespersons and could make very little product discovery on their own.
With B2B e-commerce, customers can access a vendor’s catalog on-demand and browse as they see fit. Modern search functions and personalization engines make it easier for buyers to surface the products they need without flipping through pages.
When a customer curates the items for purchase, they can order online at their own convenience. Customers can still use purchase orders and invoices, but now they can also use an online portal as in a typical B2C transaction.
For B2B sellers, the reduced manual ordering gives sales and service staff more time to focus on customer service, building relationships, and surfacing new and relevant products to customers. Companies can utilize automated order management software like fabric OMS to avoid any mistakes.
When it comes to e-commerce, B2B customers have come to expect the same autonomy that has been a staple of B2C e-commerce. B2B platforms must be flexible while providing all the features necessary for customers to manage their accounts and complete the buying process independently.
Let’s examine the essential functions customers expect from a modern B2B e-commerce website:
Today’s B2B buyers desire a B2C level of autonomy when shopping online. B2B sellers need to adopt flexible e-commerce platforms to provide a full range of self-service functionality to their customers.
Some of the key features and information users should be able to access on their own include:
Because B2B transactions often involve more than one decision-maker, vendors should enable buyers to define various user roles including:
B2B e-commerce may remove part of the human element from the buying process but personalization is still essential. Buyers need the ability to quickly find the exact items that suit their needs, which can be challenging with the massive catalogs used by most B2B sellers.
B2B sellers can enhance product discovery and streamline the purchasing process by creating a personalized catalog display for each customer. Instead of having to sift through countless irrelevant products, a buyer can look through a curated list of items that are related to their interests and previous purchases.
B2B buyers need flexible payment options to accommodate the complexity of their orders. Besides paying with a card, sellers should give customers the ability to pay via ACH transfer, check, trade credit, and wire transfer.
While many buyers will place orders directly on a vendor’s online portal, others still prefer the traditional approach. This means that vendors must also give buyers the option to place purchase orders which will be paid through subsequent invoices.
Relationship building is a crucial part of B2B e-commerce. Most buyers don’t make one-off purchases from a vendor but rather look for a company they can partner with for the long term. This tends to lead to buyers and sellers negotiating contracts to establish terms in advance.
During these negotiations, it is best practice for the B2B seller to offer the buyer custom pricing unique to their arrangement. In exchange for promising long-term business, the buyer will receive favorable prices on the goods that they purchase. The contract pricing will depend on factors like how often they will make orders and the size of their orders. More frequent buyers will receive better terms.
B2B product detail pages (PDPs) must be enriched with extensive details about the product to enable a buyer to know with absolute certainty that an item will meet their needs. Certain B2B products are used as components to make another product instead of being sold to an end-consumer. Other products need to support custom configurations as many buyers will require the products for unique use cases.
B2B e-commerce companies should include the following attributes on their product detail pages:
B2B companies customize communications, offers, and more to match the needs and preferences of each customer. Whereas B2C, which often uses personalization to build an emotional connection, personalization in B2B improves a buyer’s job by providing access to relevant information.
Below are the areas where personalization plays a significant role in B2B commerce:
The buyer’s ability to quickly find the specific products that meet their needs is essential. B2B product catalogs tend to be larger and more complex than B2C catalogs, presenting a challenge to B2B sellers who navigate them more easily than their customers.
Giving buyers an online catalog they can use means finding a way to overcome multiple identifiers like SKUs, part numbers, UPC codes, and other data that can make finding relevant products a challenge. With personalization, B2B sellers can create a unique product display for every customer.
For example, a seller could create custom mini catalogs based on specific interests or different role types. Personalizing B2B catalogs also helps sales teams and customer service reps to assist customers more efficiently with a fine selection of products.
Because time is often the primary influencer of a B2B purchase, the ability to streamline the order process is critical. Personalizing order lists can help buyers place orders more efficiently by providing easy access to relevant and previously purchased products.
Sales teams require complete transparency into a customer’s order history to provide a personalized experience. It can be tricky as buyers’ preferences can vary, even when acquiring the same items. They could place the order through a sales rep on one occasion, then through the vendor’s website on another.
Cross-selling in B2B commerce typically involves offering add-ons, accessories, or other essential components instead of simply showing complementary products. Merchandising is highly personalized so that every touchpoint involves presenting all the goods and services needed for the buyer to perform the job at hand, even if the buyer is unaware of those needs when searching.
Unlike B2C, where all customers receive a fixed price, pricing in B2B commerce is flexible and varies based on the customer, the quantity purchased, or the contract agreement.
Contract pricing is still the norm in B2B commerce. It gives buyers the best prices and sellers loyal customers. B2B companies negotiate contract pricing and terms based on each customer’s particular needs.
How often they will make orders, how large their orders are, and who will pay for shipping all play a part in the negotiated contract price. A customer who places weekly orders will see a lower cost than one who only orders once a month.
Customers who don’t enter a contract can still receive personalized pricing. Many B2B companies will offer custom quotes for one-off orders or exclusive per-unit pricing for bulk purchases.
Take advantage of services like fabric Subscriptions, where sellers can automate repeat purchases. Customers can choose a timeline for replenishment at checkout, and sellers can offer discounted pricing based on the customer’s subscription.
B2B commerce will continue to evolve as customers increase their expectations for a seamless buying journey. With e-commerce services like fabric, B2B companies can meet this expectation by providing everything desired in the modern buying experience.
Our full range of e-commerce capabilities includes everything from frontend web design to order and catalog management.
Storefront gives marketers the ability to create an e-commerce page without needing to know code. You can save designs as reusable components, making it easy to add consistent branding across your site. With this functionality, you can make changes to your site in a matter of minutes.
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OMS creates a real-time connection between your e-commerce inventory and warehouses to ensure stock levels are accurate across sales channels. The software can process orders from any channel and supports a variety of payment methods.
A set of headless APIs exposes all our services. This distributed architecture allows you to innovate faster and improves flexibility. Not bound by a predefined experience, you can personalize every detail of the buying journey while offering seamless browsing and ordering in B2C.