Christmas is coming soon for business-to-business web sellers of all kinds. But this year, as they deal with the ongoing litany of ecommerce challenges and problems brought about by the global COVID-19 pandemic, many B2B sellers don’t know—or can’t forecast—what lies ahead for them this upcoming holiday buying season.
“We are keeping our expectations and sales forecasts very fluid these days,” says Mike Connors, CEO of Bulbs.com, a B2B ecommerce site that sells electrical equipment and supplies.
The holiday shopping season is quite different for B2B sellers compared to business-to-consumer ecommerce merchants. The fourth quarter for web retailers is the biggest quarter of the year. For many merchants, it’s the year’s “make or break” quarter, where merchants plan their consumer strategies months in advance, agonize over the best offers and deals to attract online holiday shoppers, and try to create the best customer experience.
Complex B2B buying decisions
In contrast, B2B buyers typically aren’t impulse-buyers, but tend to purchase goods and services for their organization year-round and often on a set schedule. B2B buyers also make more complex buying decisions and take months to research products before placing an order online.
But Black Friday, Cyber Monday and the days leading up to the end of the holiday shopping season can generate significant website traffic and online sales for B2B sellers. “Business buyers get swept up in the momentum or want to complete their corporate buying for the year, before the holidays hit,” Connors says. “We get some really good business before the holidays.”
Bulbs.com, which launched in 1999 as a web store selling lighting products, generates annual ecommerce sales of about $20 million. Throughout the week after Thanksgiving, it targets B2B buyers with special deals. “We see a substantial increase in traffic during that whole cyber week, particularly Monday through Wednesday,” Connors says “I believe our B2B customers are busy looking for deals on maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) supplies during the week when doing some personal shopping as well and hit our site along the way.”
Bulbs.com is planning on offering new deals during this year’s holiday shopping season. But what form those deals may take, and how well they may perform, is hard to predict given the ongoing changes on online operations from COVID 19, Connors says.
Meeting COVID-19 challenges
Like many B2B sellers, Bulbs.com—which provides lighting products to more than 200,000 commercial customers operating across 300,000 global locations in the hospitality, retail, property management, healthcare, manufacturing, government, education, industrial and municipal sectors—coped with multiple changes when the coronavirus began hitting home in March.
The B2B seller spent the end of 2019 and into January laying in more product inventory from new suppliers to counter supply chain disruptions in China. The company also overhauled its distribution center workflow, developed a new remote workforce program so office staff could work from home, and adjusted to big swings in order volume and web sales. “From the middle of March to the middle of April we were down 40%, and then business bounced back,” Connors says.
To generate more sales and create new ecommerce opportunities, Bulbs.com developed new product categories, such as hand tools and protective eyewear, and launched a new business-to-consumer page that now accounts for about 25% of total web sales, the company says.
Bulbs.com will also eye new holiday shopping opportunities. But what specifically the B2B web seller will do—and when—remains fluid. “These days it’s all about staying nimble,” Connors says.
For example, as successful as its new direct-to-consumer ecommerce program has been, it’s too soon to tell if Bulbs.com can count on that jump in online business for the long term, he says.
With nearly 20 years in the ecommerce business, Bulbs.com knows all about strategic planning. “We think ahead,” Connors says. Bulbs created a new planning model based on data from website traffic, online daily orders and other metrics to forecast business conditions in increments of five days, 10 days and 15 days in the future. “It’s an indicator of what we need to do as a business to adjust to constant change,” he says.
But even though the holiday shopping season is approaching fast, it’s too soon to see what’s ahead for the fourth quarter, Connors says.
Racing to deploy new website features
Bulbs.com is typical of how many B2B sellers are rushing to put in place new online business strategies and launch website features like product recommendations to satisfy the demands of more purchasing managers shifting more of their buying online.
But there is also great uncertainty in forecasting sales or putting in place new programs too soon, says Karie Daudt, senior commerce consultant with digital transformation consulting firm Perficient Digital.
“We saw many manufacturers that were more digitally mature make quick pivots to adjust, but they still suffered in one way or another,” she says. “The bottom line is that everyone needs to fix something about their business as a direct or indirect impact of COVID-19.”
State Electric Supply Co., a 67-year-old regional distributor of electrical, data communications and power transmission products, is another B2B seller taking a short-term view of ecommerce sales as it reworks its game plan for online in the wake of COVID-19. State Electric Supply sells products through an ecommerce site and 44 physical branch locations in seven states: Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia. “Holiday shopping has never been a major focus for electrical distribution, perhaps it should be,” says State Electric vice president of ecommerce Dave Gravely. “We will run a few specials and we started free freight just after the pandemic started.”
More online opportunities
Ecommerce has been an even bigger priority for State Electric since the pandemic began. “The virus has definitely created more online opportunities as our B2B customers are using it to lessen site visits and control social visits and distancing,” he says. “We are also hearing from many customers not wanting to purchase products made in China.”
State Electric doesn’t break out ecommerce sales, but since the coronavirus hit home, web sales are up 46% compared with the same time last year. “We’ve been doing a lot of pushing of the website,” he says. “Face-to-face meetings for our sales guys came to a stop.”
State Electric has been putting in place new ecommerce programs, including curbside pickup at its distribution network, and adding new digital marketing programs, such as campaigns for products made in the U.S. “We used this as an opportunity to highlight products ‘Made In The USA,’ and we now have ‘Made in the US’ as a filter, so customers have the option to view U.S. products only,” Gravely says.
State Electric is no stranger to B2B ecommerce. Two years ago, the State Electric website was redesigned by suburban Chicago ecommerce design firm Americaneagle.com; it now runs on ROC Commerce ecommerce technology platform from Real Omni Channel Commerce Inc.
The retooled website features a faster and better-organized site search that lets users search through an inventory of about 60,000 products by category, manufacturer or such attributes as voltage or lamp wattage. The site’s updated product pages now feature such content as customer reviews, detailed product specifications, and better images that site visitors can enlarge with a zoom tool.
Ecommerce ‘a necessity’ for growth
Features for registered customers are also new. Among the changes: registered customers with accounts can access online pricing specials, ordering tools and quote-request forms. Also, they can use stored user profiles to expedite checkout, review orders and manage account details.
“Ecommerce is now a necessity for our business growth,” Gravely says.
But the distributor also is looking past the upcoming holiday shopping season as it looks for new and bigger ecommerce opportunities while managing its way through the coronavirus. “We’re doing lots of things to drive COVID-cautious customers to our site,” he says. “Our online sales have increased 43% for March, April, May year over year—for the electrical industry, we’ll take that over a slight holiday bump.”
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