Now that the coronavirus has pushed many distributors, wholesalers and their customers further into ecommerce, B2B companies should build out their ecommerce strategy to build market share and customer loyalty, Suchit Bachalli, CEO of Unilog, writes.

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Suchit Bachalli

With vaccination rates growing by the day and states lifting restrictions, it feels as if the end of the pandemic is within reach. For many businesses, there’s a feeling that things are returning to some level of normal.

Part of the 'return to normal' mindset assumes that online sales will trail off and most buyers will go back to in-person purchases, but that’s not the case. B2B e-commerce is here to stay.
Suchit Bachalli, CEO
Unilog

We now need to ask: will customers behave the way they did a year ago, or have we entered a new era, forever shifted by pandemic buying behavior? This issue is especially true for distributors, many of which launched ecommerce operations over the past year out of necessity. In the desire to return to normal, however, many businesses are ignoring the signals that their customers’ buying behaviors have changed. Permanently.

Caught off guard

Prior to 2020, ecommerce had been on the roadmap for many distributors, wholesalers, and manufacturers for several years. Setting up an online storefront was something that many knew was important, but it was an item that they kept punting on due to a mix of time restraints, lack of budget, and higher priorities.

Needless to say, the pandemic pushed ecommerce to the top of everyone’s roadmap. Forced to restrict in-person sales, many B2B companies dove headfirst into ecommerce to maintain their sales and keep their customer base. Online sales, in addition to curbside pickup, helped preserve revenue in a very uncertain time.

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While many are quick to publicly acknowledge the benefits they realized from adopting an ecommerce strategy, they are also privately kicking themselves for not getting into ecommerce sooner. The downtime at the start of the pandemic hurt all B2B sellers. Hopefully, we all took note and are determined to never be caught off guard again.

Maintaining the benefits

To some, ecommerce might have felt like a stopgap, but in reality, it represents a huge opportunity to build market share, increase sales, remove friction from the channel, and engender customer loyalty. There is so much upside to online selling beyond simply keeping the lights on.

Data shows that half of B2B sellers with digital commerce capability now do more than 10% of their overall revenue via ecommerce, and the growth in online sales in 2020 was off the charts. Part of the “return to normal” mindset assumes that online sales will trail off and most buyers will go back to in-person purchases, but that’s not the case. Forecasts do show the rate of growth for ecommerce slowing down after the massive growth in 2020, but it will not decline. In other words, B2B ecommerce is here to stay.

It’s safe to assume that the online to offline sales split isn’t going to return to pre-pandemic levels. A large portion of buyers who adopted ecommerce are going to continue to purchase online, and there is an opportunity to continue growing that channel, possibly even recruiting new buyers who are actively pursuing online purchase options.

Cameron Ashley Building Products is a perfect example. They launched their ecommerce site in February of 2021. “Though we knew it was the right strategy, there was some internal conversation that questioned if our customers would actually use an ecommerce site to make purchases,” said Donny DeMarie, president and CEO. “When we launched our site, we had our first order within 22 minutes, and we did over $1.0 million in online sales over the first month. Our online sales pace has doubled every two weeks, and now represents close to 10% of our total sales!”

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Online and always on

The change in buyer behavior and customers’ expectations of an online purchasing channel may be much greater than many think.

It’s unfortunate that it took a global pandemic to push many distributors and wholesalers to prioritize ecommerce, but 2020 marked a giant leap forward, and there’s no turning back. Customers have seen the ease of online ordering and self-service and now expect this convenience in the B2B commerce world. It’s just a question of how much distributors want to take advantage of the business opportunity.

Suchit Bachalli is CEO of Unilog, a provider of ecommerce technology. Follow him on Twitter @suchit_bachalli and on LinkedIn. 

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