As they prepare for an extended market disruption cause by the coronavirus, manufacturers and distributors are figuring how to keep their ecommerce operations adding value to their customer relationships.

B2B sellers are settling in for the long haul while coping with the impact of coronavirus on all aspects of their ecommerce business.

But how B2B manufacturers, distributors and other B2B sellers are managing their operations during the fast-spreading coronavirus outbreak is changing daily—and sometimes hourly.

Demand is strong, and we are keeping pace.
Brian Fricano, CEO
Sustainable Supply Co.
MikeConnors-Bulbs-com

Mike Connors, CEO, Bulbs.com

For many companies such as Bulbs.com, which has operated a B2B ecommerce site for 21 years and sells about 85% of all products online, the buying behavior of its customers is driving how it’s reacting to the coronavirus. “Staying on top of various scenarios and developing plans to address this coronavirus is based on consistency of voice and actions for our customers and employees,” says Bulbs CEO Mike Connors. We are also identifying ecommerce and operational adjustments that have been brought on by the current situation.” Bulbs.com sells such products as light bulbs, fixtures and related lighting products to companies in the real estate management, hospitality, foodservice and related industries.

Reacting buyer demand

At Sustainable Supply Co., an online distributor of “green” or “eco-friendly” building materials, cleaning supplies, and maintenance, repair and operations products, the company is reacting to the coronavirus based on such factors as supplier relationships, available inventory—and buyer demand.

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Sustainable Supply, which operates SustainableSupply.com generates annual B2B ecommerce sales of about $25 million, carries a full inventory of about 1 million products in categories that include restroom, cleaning, safety, tool and hardware, motors, plumbing and Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC). But about 40,000 to 50,000 products for janitorial and cleaning supplies, among others, used for hygiene and sanitation are the products most in demand, says CEO Brian Fricano.

The company has available products for many in-demand categories. But the supply of about 100 products such as hand sanitizer is running “dangerously low,” Fricano says.

“Our janitorial supply business on SustainableSupply.com has exploded and it is indeed turning into an all out war for supplies,” he says. “Dealers and consumers are trying to snatch up every last piece of inventory—we’ve sold a year’s worth of toilet paper in past three days.

Big suppliers of hand sanitizer and related products such as GoJo Industries, which manufactures Purell, a brand of instant hand sanitizer made of ethyl alcohol, and The Clorox Co., maker of bleach, cleaning products and many other related brands, are telling Sustainable Supply and other B2B sellers that they are prioritizing which outlets get available inventory first, such as hospitals and other healthcare facilities, he says.

‘Those who need it first’

“We have some big manufacturers that are telling us it may be July before we can get full delivery,” Fricano says. “They tell us they are distributing now to those that need it first.”

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Sustainable Supply CEO

Brian Fricano, CEO, Sustainable Supply Co. 

For March, ecommerce sales for SustainableSupply.com are running ahead of projections, Fricano says. That’s a trend other B2B and B2C ecommerce sellers are seeing as well, according to new research from Digital Commerce 360.

A new survey of 304 online retail executives by Digital Commerce 360 finds that 30% of web merchants expect their ecommerce sales to increase “somewhat” because of demand for products generated by coronavirus while 8% expect to experience a significant jump in ecommerce sales.

For Sustainable Supply, meeting buyer demand is becoming even more fluid as the coronavirus shift priorities. For example, the immediate demand for available product was from B2B customers wanting to replenish or stockpile products such as hand sanitizer.

Now demand is shifting for a variety of supplies such as sinks and soap dispensers as more companies and organizations rush to build out more handwashing stations.

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Sustainable Supply runs a companion ecommerce site that sells various types of faucets, sinks and related inventory for handwashing stations. Business on the site is “brisk,” Fricano says.

Helping customers order just what they need

One distributor of such products as Purell hand sanitizer and Lysol and Clorox cleaning products has learned lessons during prior virus outbreaks on how to better deal with market disruptions and manage supply chains and customer expectations.

In earlier virus outbreaks, such as Zika and H1N1 within the past several years, the distributor, which asked to remain anonymous, stepped up communications with customers to let them know about available inventory and expected shipping and delivery times. Such tactics are helping again during the coronavirus outbreak when customers have been clearing the warehouse shelves of cleaning products like Purell hand sanitizer and Lysol and Clorox cleaning products.

This distributor has been able to work with its suppliers to maintain deliveries to its distribution centers, but some of the hottest-moving products don’t even get placed on warehouse shelves before getting shipped to customers.

That has made communication with customers more important—and harder to accomplish—as fast-moving inventory often doesn’t even get shown on the company’s online ordering portals, requiring customers to rely more on calls to customer service centers instead of checking the portals for inventory availability.

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A market more fluid than ever before

The distributor has expanded call center hours to address customers’ questions. And it has broadened efforts to help customers better plan order volumes, helping them to acquire enough products for expected market demand without over-purchasing products that may not be suitable for returns should demand from end-customers suddenly drop. If companies order overly large quantities of, say, hand sanitizers, they have to realize that such products often have expiration dates beyond which they can’t be returned to suppliers.

At SustainableSupply.com, Fricano says his business is keeping pace with buyer demand—and the business is performing well. “Our team is working around the clock processing orders and keeping up with supplier backorders and stock outages,” he says. “We’re seeing significant demand for toilet paper, paper towels, soaps, dispensers, and facial tissue not only from our business customers but also from homeowners as well.”

But the current business environment in B2B ecommerce is more fluid and shifting in ways that executives and analysts say they haven’t seen before. “Demand is strong, and we are keeping pace,” Fricano says. “So far spending for maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) products is very strong, but that could change if big factories and other B2B operations start to close down because of coronavirus.”

Sign up for a complimentary subscription to Digital Commerce 360 B2B News, published 4x/week, covering technology and business trends in the growing B2B ecommerce industry. Contact Mark Brohan, vice president of B2B and Market Research Development, at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @markbrohan.

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