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How post-pandemic B2B e-commerce tech stacks will look

What will B2B e-commerce look like in the post-pandemic world? Experts and tech leaders share how COVID-19 fueled big changes and what's next.

Pre-2020, business-to-business commerce for many companies comprised shuttling paper, faxes and spreadsheets between sales and finance departments. Since the pandemic, those companies either moved to online ordering or plan to build tech stacks to get there.

B2B companies and experts said this transition was well on its way before 2020. But some companies took their time migrating data and processes from manual means to fully automated CRM and B2B e-commerce systems. Those that made progress before businesses temporarily shuttered in 2020 experienced growth, while those that didn't struggled -- and are playing catch-up now.

Some companies braved the pandemic's remote-work complications and upgraded B2B commerce tech stacks midstream during the lockdown. It paid immediate dividends.

Kent Water Sports, based in New London, Ohio, has 10 U.S. facilities and one in China spanning 10 companies and about 20 different brands. Some of Kent's partners are big-box stores, some of them mom-and-pop shops. The company experienced off-the-charts demand for its wakeboards, water skis, life jackets, snowboards and other gear as consumers turned to outdoor activities conducive to social distancing.

Kent updated its ordering and payments process for its partner distributors by adding Microsoft Dynamics 365 Commerce to its tech stack, transitioning from an older Microsoft app during the course of 2020. Kent had grown over the years through acquiring companies and brands, so building a unified B2B e-commerce system included the twist that some of the brands it owned still nominally competed with each other. Some of the brands also sell direct to consumers.

"In March and April 2020, it was looking really doom and gloom -- we had some of our big customers postponing and canceling orders," said Rhett Thompson, Kent Water Sports director of IT.

Within weeks, not only did many of the orders get reinstated, but additional orders came in on top of that.

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"People realized they can social distance out on the water. We started to see our sales skyrocket, and from May onward we had record months every single month," Thompson said. "It was pandemonium ... at one stage we had to turn off our e-commerce sites because we couldn't take the volume of shipping."

HO Sports wakeboard
Increasing sales of Kent Water Sports equipment, including HO wakeboards (pictured above), required a B2B e-commerce rip-and-replace during the pandemic.

B2B e-commerce poised for massive growth

Forrester Research projected that many B2B companies either have invested or plan to invest in consumer-like e-commerce sites. B2B e-commerce will represent $1.8 trillion, or 17% of all U.S. B2B sales by 2023. That figure represents self-service e-commerce only, where customers enter their own orders into a website or app.

But that's not the whole story. When sales rep-assisted orders are taken into account, where the rep enters the order into the same e-commerce site on behalf of a customer, e-commerce today equals the sales numbers of traditional offline channels: Each account for 42% of U.S. annual B2B sales, which currently adds up to more than $10 trillion.

Sales reps are doing that more and more at Kent Water Sports because it tends to be more straightforward than dealing with the company's ERP system, Thompson said. Some customers skip the rep altogether and place orders themselves because it's a much better experience than the previous method, which involved sending an email or encrypted spreadsheet to their rep. The design team likes it, because they can build consistent e-commerce user experiences for each brand and consolidate on one back end.

"It's one of those things that, before you had it, people didn't ask about it, but as soon as you got it and there's a problem they complain about it and all of a sudden it's a big issue," Thompson said. "That's a double-edged sword for the IT department, but overall it's been a big timesaver for us."

Farmer Boy B2B e-commerce site seeds new business

The events of 2020 forced B2B e-commerce modernization, partly to benefit customer experience but also to decrease procurement costs, according to data from digital agency Capgemini in a report last month based on surveys of 650 B2B sellers in February and September 2020 -- before and after most coronavirus lockdowns.

Customers now want consumer-like personalized, self-service experiences; subscription choices for repeat orders; loyalty programs; and self-service ordering. Not only that, but their preferences split upon generational lines, making personalization more crucial. For example, millennials want either completely digital ordering processes or have a sales rep visit them in person. Baby Boomers prefer talking to salespeople on the phone. Generation Xers are fairly split on that, but their preferences lean toward the millennials'. Regardless of generation, 42% of respondents indicated they would not return to a supplier if it didn't provide adequate insight into inventory levels or up-to-date product data.

It was pandemonium ... at one stage we had to turn off our e-commerce sites because we couldn't take the volume of shipping.
Rhett ThompsonDirector of IT, Kent Water Sports

Farmer Boy, a farm supply and construction materials chain with four locations in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois that caters to both consumers and farm businesses, attracted new customers nationwide after it set up an e-commerce site from BigCommerce in June 2020.

"We were definitely becoming more of a national company before we launched our website, but since we launched, we are selling in the continental 48 states and into Canada," said Brian Marquette, Farmer Boy digital marketing manager. "Our sales -- and [sales footprint] -- have grown. We're doing a lot of business down South and in the Southwest, all across the country now."

Having an e-commerce site gave Farmer Boy the opportunity to capture business they otherwise wouldn't have, Marquette said. As other outlets selling similar goods to farms closed or lost business because they weren't set up for online ordering and their customers didn't want to shop in-person, Farmer Boy grew by building a digital ordering experience.

While Farmer Boy still is in the process of setting up more granular analytics, the company can confirm that site traffic is up at least 40% as of December 2020, and sales are also up by double digits -- a trend that continues into 2021.

The next step in the company's e-commerce technology rollout, Marquette said, involves updating content on their copious product pages. That includes checks for accurate descriptions. More than that, they plan to add product dimensions where they aren't already there and supplemental content such as videos and user manuals.

"We don't want to lose them when they pick that page," Marquette said. "We want them to know exactly what they're getting."

While many B2B companies knew in theory that they needed to update their ordering processes prior to 2020, the pandemic showed what needed to be done, Constellation Research analyst Nicole France said. That knowledge drives rapid investment in both B2B e-commerce technology and the business processes to support it.

"It shouldn't have been the case that things were hard to buy, or it's hard to get service, or it's hard to have follow-up conversations -- but it's way more obvious now where those gaps are," France said. "After being a low priority, e-commerce is suddenly a really big thing."

Pandemic drives new B2B e-commerce capabilities

Customer experience platform vendors changed their product roadmaps in 2020 to accommodate B2B users' needs to build e-commerce sites and mobile apps. Salesforce users needed "bite-sized innovations" they could quickly stand up, such as Buy Online, Pick Up In Store (BOPIS), said Lidiane Jones, Salesforce EVP of Commerce Cloud. Salesforce focused on delivering tools that enabled users to quickly open up new channels for ordering and delivery.

Salesforce B2C users were ahead of most B2B users in their e-commerce operations, Jones said. While 2020 was about B2B operations embracing technology to stay in business, the focus in 2021 is on improving usability. While B2C users experienced big growth spurts as the lockdowns took hold around March 2020, B2B users didn't get their bump until the fourth quarter.

Jones anticipates more growth as B2B users set up means for sales reps to place e-commerce orders on behalf of their customers and offer more subscription options.

"[Salesforce users] who have a better understanding of their customers fare well, and will continue to fare well," Jones said. "We believe a good data strategy for customer-centric commerce is the way of the future."

Adobe also invested in commerce tools for B2B users to simplify their adoption. Both Salesforce and Adobe see B2B users deepening the relationship between marketing and e-commerce content, forging connections where there hadn't been.

The accelerator for this might be a headless approach that decouples content from the marketing or e-commerce front-end applications, said Haresh Kumar, Adobe Experience Manager head of strategy and product marketing.

"Commerce has a bit of complexity," he said. "Commerce content -- what's the price? What's the product description? Those were sitting in the commerce engine. Marketing stuff was sitting in the content management system. [Traditionally,] you'd have to merge them together. A headless approach helps a lot in the creation of these experiences."

As the COVID-19 pandemic draws to a close, B2B e-commerce stacks will likely grow in stature and priority for many businesses. They're no longer a nice-to-have, but bedrock IT systems. Traditionally, both B2B and B2C businesses viewed e-commerce as its own profit center, accounting for its own slice of the sales pie. Soon, most sales will begin with e-commerce as offline order-taking processes become obsolete.

"We left a lot of money on the table because we weren't set up for [e-commerce]," said Kent Water Sports' Thompson. "For big customers, like Costco, we were, but we were relying on their e-commerce engines."

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