The fast-spreading coronavirus isn’t catching all digital B2B buyers and sellers entirely unaware or unprepared.
But the coronavirus, now updated by the World Health Organization as a global pandemic and the chief driver of shutting down entire industries, roiling stock markets and forcing companies of all sizes to shift their entire workforce to work from home, is impacting B2B ecommerce in major ways, say ecommerce executives.
From challenges on all fronts of ecommerce—from supply chain, inventory management, order fulfillment and delivery to customer service and even search engine optimization—many B2B ecommerce executives say they have never seen business conditions change so rapidly.
“It’s a war out there,” says Vic Hanna, CEO of BettyMills.com, which sells a range of medical equipment and supplies online but was founded as an ecommerce site for janitorial and cleaning supplies.
Survey: 80% of suppliers see disruption
The front line of the impact of the coronavirus is being felt by ecommerce companies on their supply chain, inventory management and product delivery operations. A new poll of 600 supply chain managers by the Institute of Supply Chain Management finds that nearly 75% of companies report supply chain disruptions in some capacity due to coronavirus-related transportation restrictions, and more than 80% believe that their organization will experience some impact because of COVID-19 disruptions. Of those, one in six companies (16%) report adjusting revenue targets downward an average of 5.6% due to the coronavirus, the institute says.
“The story the data tells is that companies are faced with a lengthy recovery to normal operations in the wake of the virus outbreak,” says Institute of Supply Chain Management Thomas W. Derry. “For a majority of U.S. businesses, lead times have doubled, and that shortage is compounded by the shortage of air and ocean freight options to move product to the United States—even if they can get orders filled.”
For many B2B ecommerce sellers such as MSC Industrial Supply Co., which reported ecommerce sales of $2.019 billion for the fiscal year ended Aug. 31, 2019, an increase of 5% over the prior year, the biggest immediate challenge is stocking inventory—and deciding who gets what first.
For now, the big priority is getting products into the hands of returning and long-standing digital customers, MSC says. “To ensure that we continue to serve our existing customers as a trusted partner, we have prioritized their orders ahead of new customers looking to order these particular products only,” says an MSC spokesman.
Big demand for safety products
MSC, which carries an inventory of about 1.7 million products for maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) and other industrial products, is seeing a big demand for safety products. “As a result of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), we continue to see increased demand for safety products such as N95 respiratory masks and a few other related products,” the spokesman says. “Like other suppliers, we are experiencing a back-order situation for these items, but we are working with our supplier partners, who are working diligently to get product back in stock as quickly as possible to address current and future demand.”
MSC began working to secure available inventory beginning in December, especially from Chinese manufacturers, the company says. “Our inventory levels are strong as a result of stocking up at the calendar year-end to take advantage of rebate opportunities, as well as buying ahead of the Chinese New Year,” the MSC spokesman says. “We have a ‘good, better, best’ portfolio of products to offer customers alternative product options.”
At Bulbs.com, which generates about 85% of all sales on the web, sells light bulbs, fixtures and related lighting products to companies in the real estate management, hospitality, food service and related industries. Its biggest challenges are scrambling to find more available inventory and frequently update contingency plans to stay on top of an ecommerce market in flux, says CEO Mike Connors. “We are working very closely with our vendors, staying on top of various scenarios and developing plans and watching the consistency of voice and actions for our customers and employees,” he says.
For Bulbs.com, another big priority is watching conditions of the various vertical markets it sells to. For example, sales to schools, universities are being impacted because of closings related to coronavirus. “Project work from our customers is becoming a challenge and planning a lighting retrofit for April could be dicey,” Connors says.
For now, inventory levels at Bulbs.com are adequate. “We brought in 20% more inventory of top-selling SKUs several weeks ago, when we first learned about the virus and the potential impact on Chinese manufacturing,” he says. “We have mixed results depending upon the supplier—but we have nearly 100 suppliers.”
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