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Suchit Bachalli

Online commerce has reshaped how merchants of all kinds sell their goods. While the internet’s impact on consumer-facing retailers has been well documented, with coverage of ongoing store closures and the rise of direct-to-consumer brands, ecommerce has radically altered the B2B space as well.

With giants like Amazon challenging the space via its Amazon Business marketplace, the opportunity in business-to-business ecommerce is evident. B2B wholesalers and distributors are well aware, and they’re taking the appropriate steps, according to a recent Unilog survey, 72% of these sellers have an ecommerce website. Even better, 80% say that ecommerce is growing.

Those are positive signs, but there are signals that they may not last. According to the same survey, 22% of those who have a site say they don’t have a good ecommerce strategy, signaling that they may be flying blind as big competitors muscle into the online space. If B2B sellers hope to continue growing their ecommerce business, it’s absolutely crucial that they enter the market with detailed, informed ecommerce strategies. To do so, businesses should ask themselves the following five questions about their ecommerce operations.

1. Are you looking to shift customers online, or capture new business?

While a surprisingly large number of our survey respondents said they don’t have an ecommerce strategy, those that do seem to be going in one of two directions. We saw that 37% of distributors and wholesalers are looking to shift their offline buyers to their ecommerce storefronts, while 31% are looking to drive incremental revenue. Both choices are doable, but it may be best to start out focusing on one strategy. For many distributors, shifting current buyers online makes the most sense, as they can achieve immediate cost savings and operational efficiencies. Once they’ve become comfortable with establishing the ecommerce business, they can move on to incremental growth

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2. How can I extend my value proposition to the online environment?

Amazon has become a household name in the consumer world because it goes a mile wide, offering something for everyone. Distributors’ main value proposition is that they can go a mile deep, providing unmatched expertise in their specific categories. Distributors can advise their buyers on which parts they need to replace, and recommend complementary parts. They can further leverage that expertise by adding educational how-to videos to their site, blog or product pages. By exploring these kinds of tutorials, they can translate the value they provide in real life to the online world.

3. Am I a friend or foe of Amazon?

We’ve shared that some distributors don’t have an ecommerce strategy, while others are pursuing either channel shift or incremental revenue. The remaining 11% are integrating directly with marketplaces, using existing platforms, like Amazon Business, to get their ecommerce component off the ground. Distributors and wholesalers must decide if they want to partner with the ecommerce giant or resist its gravitational pull. If you have a clear answer to that question, then you have a better sense of which way to take your strategy.

4. How do I better integrate online and offline buying for customers?

Offline sales and ecommerce aren’t mutually exclusive channels. Many online sellers are currently focused on omnichannel solutions that allow buyers to start their orders online and complete them with a phone call, or vice versa. Distributors need to think about how they want to integrate these two channels into a seamless experience to make things easier for their customers. It might be as simple as a phone call confirming an online order, or the option to buy online and pick up the order at the front counter of a physical distribution center.

5. What opportunities are there to monetize my ecommerce site?

Earlier, I asked distributors to decide if they were friend or foe of Amazon. Even if they go the foe route, they can borrow a page from Amazon’s book and sell advertising space on their ecommerce site, allowing manufacturer partners to promote their goods. In all likelihood, distributors are familiar with co-op advertising and already have promotional plans in place with certain manufacturers. These can easily translate from catalog space to website real estate, adding another revenue stream to the ecommerce operation.

With tech giants eyeing the B2B space, now is not the time for distributors to simply check the ecommerce box and hope things work out. They need to be proactive in making sure that their ecommerce stores are positioned to capture new business, in addition to serving customers that they’ve worked with for years. Some buyers may still prefer to call in their orders, but the speed and the ease of the web are growing in appeal. B2B sellers need to put themselves in position to handle channel shift, capture incremental business, and more importantly, compete on the same level of some of the bigger online sellers pushing into the market.

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Suchit Bachalli is CEO of Unilog, a provider of e-commerce solutions for midmarket B2B companies. Follow him on Twitter @suchit_bachalli and on LinkedIn

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