Many years after getting excited about online ordering, followed by mobile apps, we’ve reached the age of hyper-convenient experiences, where technology is less about the cool, new innovations we can bring to life and more about how we can use digital tools to take the most hassle-free path to completing purchases and other tasks.

Arno Ham

Each year, the trends we identify in e-commerce are indicative of how the world around us is evolving. Technology continues to add convenience to our lives, to streamline once-manual tasks, and to give us new ways to communicate, learn, shop, and interact.

While some technologies take time to infiltrate our routines, others become staples in every home in the blink of an eye. Enterprises like Google have become such an essential part of how we use the web that “to Google” has become synonymous with, and even replaced, the phrase “to search online.” Amazon has cornered the market so successfully that they capitalize on more than 50% of all online product searchesAnd the common thread among these success stories is simple.

2019 will be a testament to just how ready B2B businesses are to go the extra mile to remain competitive.

As a society, we’re putting up with fewer experiences—digital or otherwise—that don’t serve a key purpose or add value to our lives, and the trends we’re poised to see this year reflect that mindset. This year, more than ever, we will expect e-commerce experiences to follow suit: to be simple, intuitive, convenient and fast.

Here’s how these expectations will shape the top six 2019 B2B e-commerce trends:

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1. Younger Buyers Will Mean Digital-First B2B Commerce

The B2B world is being rocked by the sheer volume of millennials entering (and managing decision-making) in the industry. Now more than ever, we are seeing B2B buyers getting younger. Three-quarters of millennials are involved in—or even running—the decision-making process for B2B purchases for their organizations. This translates to a much larger percentage of online purchases, and to buyers who expect these transactions to be as convenient and reliable as the rest of their digitally enhanced lives.

Millennials are digital natives, and their reliance on and preference for digital channels is disrupting B2B commerce as we know it. Now, having a B2B web store isn’t enough. Even a B2B web store that you’ve invested in upgrading on multiple occasions may also not be enough —if you’re not offering what the new age of B2B buyers wants.

As many as 83% of millennial B2B buyers expect e-commerce to keep them more informed about product choices than ever before. Almost 60% would stop doing business with a B2B vendor based solely on a mobile experience that’s difficult to use. Another 79% expect B2B sellers to use e-commerce technology and insights to create personalized buyer journeys. To prepare for and deliver on expectations for this fresher audience, e-commerce must become king; your sales team, offline channels, and other tools and resources must simply serve as additional support to enhance the new, reigning channel of choice in B2B.

2. The Rise of Voice Search Will Skyrocket

We’ve been eyeing voice search and voice-enabled technology for some time now, waiting for the moment when it becomes the new go-to way to search and place orders. That time is now.

We’re living in a new phase of digitally enabled evolution, and voice is becoming a major component of this next step. These days, we live and work with technology engrained in the way we do things: our mobile phones are rarely out of sight or out of our hands; our corporate jobs revolve around a desktop; many of us are already dependent on voice-enabled home assistants (like Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home) to play music, set reminders, send messages, or even place re-orders for low-in-stock items. What this means is that we’ve already done the legwork; the stage is set for voice functionality to really take hold. We’ve now reached a point in the digitization of our lives where the rise of voice search and voice ordering is not just likely—it’s inevitable.

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While it’s more likely to take off first in B2C, B2B will follow quickly (despite the B2B industry’s long-held reputation as an innovation laggard that often falls far behind B2C counterparts). By the end of 2019, it’s likely that we will see the first major wave of voice-enabled ordering in B2B. We’re likely to see voice ordering take off on the channels and devices that make adoption most valuable, like on mobile devices or as a convenient, hands-free functionality in vehicles. Voice technology usage until now has grown because it has enabled us to make our existing tasks easier, but it will truly take over when, in 2019, it begins to fundamentally change how we do things.

3. AI and Machine Learning Won’t Yet Have Their Moment

The commonalities among the e-commerce trends we’ll see this year all point to one correlation: the technologies we choose to use will all establish a clear and valuable use case. Those without a practical value-add will remain among the gimmicky innovations to which we’re still taking a wait-and-see approach. The most notable among the technologies in the “not yet” phase is machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI).

The adoption of AI and machine learning is growing, albeit slowly. But in 2019, we will not yet see enough practical opportunities for it to fill gaps and become an e-commerce must-have (at least not until farther on the horizon).

According to Gartner, AI-derived business value is expected to reach $3.9 trillion in 2022, thanks to AI’s sizeable impact on customer experience, cost reduction and new revenue growth. Use cases in the long-term include not only automation of processes, but also using machine learning to optimize e-commerce for better conversions, better search functionality, and more (i.e. using AI to suggest better search terms, understand customer service requests regardless of how the question is phrased, or predict orders based on order history and browsing behavior).

The AI conversation isn’t just hype; AI is here and it’s beginning its ascent to the top of e-commerce organizations’ minds. It will simply need some time to get there.

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4. B2B Will Begin to Embrace Online Marketplaces

As digital demands continue to change and markets get more competitive, businesses are merging or working together to more easily serve their customers. This means we’ll see a larger number of online marketplaces like Amazon and eBay, but also a larger number of brands selling online beyond their own web store. But these mergers and relationships with resellers also come with complications; they may mean a new e-commerce front-end or new brand name, which requires you to manage and integrate logistical processes on the back-end. Right now, before online marketplaces really begin to encroach on dedicated web stores’ territory, it’s time to be aware of and be prepared for what it will take to actively embrace online marketplaces in B2B.

By next year, online marketplaces are expected to account for 40% of the global online retail market. In B2B, that impact is already being seen especially in procurement.  Gartner estimates that 75% of B2B procurement spending will happen via an online marketplace within the next five years, and the simplicity of doing business this way is likely to “create a butterfly effect on the e-commerce trend.”

While there’s a long way to go before we get from where we are now to where will be, there’s already added pressure on B2B organizations to do more.

The competitive pressure against other brands and marketplaces today is already forcing businesses to take a more holistic approach to success; they have to think not just about their digital presence, but also digital performance, service, design, integration, and more. We can no longer isolate the most important thing needed to do well in e-commerce or as a business. Organizations will have to step up their game and prepare for a new wave of collaboration as online marketplaces become the new normal.

5. B2B Will Focus on Lightning-Fast Order Fulfillment

Once upon a time, it used to be acceptable to place an order online and expect to wait a week, or longer, to receive your product. Now, thanks to businesses like Amazon raising the bar for consumers’ delivery expectations, next-day shipping is preferred (and often even required) before your customer will complete a purchase.

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With this expectation as the bare minimum, 2019 will see a sharp growth in businesses investing in more efficient and more reliable order fulfillment. And it won’t be about next-day shipping anymore. We’ll be talking about making delivery within the hour possible. In B2B, for example, if your customer needs a specific product on a job site, they want to turn to a business that will go above and beyond to make these kinds of things happen. This means enabling fulfillment that’s as fast as possible or understanding that the customer will likely then buy from a competitor who can.

Retaining your customers with better fulfillment processes is a no-brainer, and 2019 will be a testament to just how ready B2B businesses are to go the extra mile to remain competitive.

6. We’ll Start Saying Goodbye to the App Store 

Ten years ago, we were excited about the possibilities that came along with being able to order online for the first time. Five years later, mobile started to take over: leading the way for the rise of responsive websites and dedicated mobile apps. Now, we’ve reached the age of hyper-convenient experiences, where technology is less about the cool, new innovations we can bring to life and more about how we can use digital tools to take the most hassle-free path to task completion. Alongside the rise of convenient omnichannel experiences has comes the rise of progressive web apps, and in 2019, they’ll begin to render mobile app experiences as we know them obsolete.

Why? Progressive web apps already offer better performance, extensive offline capabilities, and a more streamlined, frictionless customer journey than dedicated mobile apps. As they become more commonplace this year, a customer browsing your web store will be able to use your site as an app instantly; they won’t have to worry about finding it in the app store, downloading and installing it, accepting the terms and conditions, and running the application —all before they can make a purchase.

With progressive web apps in 2019, we will eliminate the obstacles in the buyer journey for customers who browse and purchase across multiple channels, and we will begin to treat cross-channel purchasing like one cohesive flow, rather than distinct behaviors that we need to connect and unify. In short, we’ll see more B2B businesses thinking more end-to-end when it comes to digital, and ultimately eliminating siloed approaches altogether.

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Arno Ham is chief product officer at Sana Commerce, a provider of e-commerce software, where he has led B2B e-commerce technology projects for such companies as Heineken, AkzoNobel and PostNL. Follow him on Twitter @arnoham and on LinkedIn.

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