Distribution is in a period of disruption. Nowadays, the reality is fewer people want to call into a distributor but prefer the convenience of shopping online as they do for consumer items on Amazon. If you know what you want, why wouldn’t you want to be able to easily login and reorder or quickly find an item and buy it online versus calling someone and going through a more time consuming manual process?
I am passionate about this topic because I firmly believe that companies that do not go all in on eCommerce in the distribution space will eventually go the way of the dodo. You have seen this already happen in retail because the complexity of retail eCommerce is much simpler and more companies were able to convert their business online. B2B eCommerce is much more complex so this shift is happening more slowly but it will happen. I predict by 2025 you will see the same shifts happening in retail in which companies that didn’t go all in with eCommerce will be left behind. 2025 seems far away but we are now almost at 2020 and I remember all the 2020 stats that are basically here now.
Why haven’t companies gone all in? Well, it’s very complex to build a successful distribution eCommerce site and most companies simply do not know what to do or even have the talent to manage such projects. I think most companies realize the importance but simply don’t know where to start or how to execute it. As someone who has worked with many distributors, here are my tips to be successful in distribution eCommerce that will help you get it right.
Select the Right Platform:
I see so many distributors on platforms I have never heard of or simply that are just not getting it done. There are many platforms you can get up and running on at a low cost but not many of them will scale as you grow. You need a platform that you can scale with and grow with that doesn’t need to be replaced in a few years. This typically means the platform has a strong core functionality but also can be extended and improved easily. No platform is going to do everything you need out of the box, it is the customizations that will make you unique.
Magento is winning this battle in many areas in B2B because it’s the only major platform that is relatively affordable but can scale for almost any distributor and complexity with a massive developer community to hire from. I also recommend looking into BigCommerce. BigCommerce is very underrated in B2B and you can get up and running with BigCommerce very quickly at a reasonable cost. I highly recommend going with a proven platform that has a large community of developers, agencies, and third-party extensions. The platform is only going to do part of what you need, the third party apps and customizations are where the costs come into play and if no one knows the platform you are going to spend an arm and a leg trying to customize it.
Integrate Tightly With Your ERP:
Distributors vastly underestimate how complex ERP integration is for eCommerce. Unfortunately, there are virtually no good mainstream eCommerce platforms provided by ERP systems so chances are you are going to have to integrate. SuiteCommerce is making strides but is still behind major players like Magento in terms of functionality and the ability to customize the frontend.
What you need to consider for integration:
- Shipment Updates
All of these areas could have immense complexity when it comes to the integration so really try and dive into how these data points will go back and forth between both systems. Don’t underestimate this and realize that most integration products are not going to be customized to fit your specific needs. You may either have to live with what they offer or shell out more money for expensive custom integration.
One to One Customer Pricing
Customers are expecting great pricing when it comes to distribution otherwise they will just buy on Amazon or Walmart.com. This usually means most distributors have very complex pricing rules in their ERP system that may be completely unique for each customer. Integrating this pricing into your eCommerce system is critical for offering competitive pricing on your website. If the pricing isn’t accurate or competitive, your customers won’t use the website, making it useless for your customers!
One of the best ways to encourage more purchases is to offer tiered pricing for larger quantity orders. This is natively built into platforms like Magento and BigCommerce and is really a no excuse item every distributor should have on their website.
Optimize Shipping & Fulfillment:
Shipping is often one of the biggest hurdles in distribution because customers order large shipments that are not easy to estimate shipping costs. In 2019 tools like ShipperHQ and other shipping tools can integrate with major LTL carriers and help you implement complex shipping rules. Ensuring that shipping costs are optimized on your website are critical for customers checking out. No one wants to overpay for shipping, so ensure your pricing is accurate and represents a fair cost.
Lastly, you may have many warehouses. It’s possible you need to think about warehouse optimization in the fulfillment process and how orders are shipped out based on where they are going. This can be done via the ERP integration or other aspects of the project that ensures the products being shipped out are optimized based on the warehouse and the destination.
Get Robust Product Data:
Many distributer sites have a basic picture, SKU, price, and a few basic details. That no longer cuts it in 2019 and beyond. Customers expect robust product data so they can sort and filter down to the products they want as well as look at all the data about the product before they make a buying decision. There are companies like Unilog and DDS can help you get all the product data you need so there is really no excuse not to go get it. Once you have the product data, I highly recommend making sure your product pages are designed to encapsulate all this rich data.
You may also have to get creative with complex product types and inventory. Making sure the product data availability is accurate and also has all the options the customer wants is key.
Search is critical to allowing your customers to easily find your product data. It’s no longer enough to use default eCommerce search. You either need to configure something like Elastic search or use another third party like Algolia, Easy Ask, or Nextopia. Ensuring the search feature is set so that customers can easily find your products is key to success, and finding the right tool for that job is the foundation to getting it right. From there you can continue to configure and improve that search tool.
Improve Your Account Pages:
Your customers should live in the account pages because they want to reorder, track their orders, or look at any other details about their business on your website. Having robust and quality account pages that are specific to your business model will help customers get to what they need and want quickly. You want customers to feel valued when they log in to the account pages, simply using default account pages will not be enough to stand out from the competition.
Functional Design Matters:
You don’t need the best design in the world to be successful in eCommerce but as a distributor, it should function well. This means it should be easy to navigate, easy to use on all devices, and fast to get around. You should easily be able to find the products you are looking for or simply browse via categories and filters. I would focus on the design being functional in that it allows you to easily navigate to products and understand what you are buying in terms of shipping costs, tiered pricing, etc.
Your customers are always demanding new things and your business should always be evolving. I see many distributors getting caught up in trying to build this one monster project all at once. Simplify your requirements and start going agile. You can get the first version up and improve it every week in an agile manner using modern development operations. The best software companies are very agile and move quickly to improve their software. This is critical for building a high-quality eCommerce application that can evolve and improve as you have new requirements.