Retail stores can no longer survive without providing a full-service to their customers. They need to be on their customers’ preferred channel either online via a browser or on mobile devices in order to thrive, or even survive.   They also need to keep brick-and-mortar stores.  The in-store touch-and-feel experience is still desired but customers now want a solution that links their online store with their physical store.   How long will it be before business-to-business (B2B) takes full advantage of the technology driving retail?

Business-to-consumer sales (B2C) represents almost 10% of U.S. retail sales and that figure is growing by nearly 15% annually according to Forrester, the research company.  B2C sales are expected to make up 14 to 16 percent ($1 trillion) of the US retail landscape by 2022.The picture is similar in other developed markets.

B2B e-commerce is lagging B2C

Unlike B2C, the B2B e-commerce landscape is more fragmented. Traditionally, manufacturers, wholesalers and distributors transacted over the phone and in writing. Some still do. Many business people will experience their first online ordering experience in 2018.  Businesses are able to buy goods and services not only via a supplier’s website but also through various third-party sales platforms and software-driven marketplaces.  Forrester’s research shows a noticeable shift in the behaviour of B2B purchasers.   They are doing more of their supply market research online and communicating more extensively with their suppliers in real-time.  The self-service environment has great potential for cost savings.  Forrester found that durable goods will be the fastest-growing segment in B2B, which includes motor vehicle/motor vehicle parts and supplies including petroleum products; electrical/electronic goods and machinery and industrial equipment.

 B2B is moving forward with digital transformation

Technology-savvy suppliers such as Amazon Business are providing their end-users with applications (apps) that provide diagnostic tools, technical information, installation guides, and local inventory availability and ordering capacity, directly from the app. Since launching in 2015, the online retail leader has moved aggressively into the B2B sector, attracting more than one million business customers.  In China, Alibaba generates 80% of all online sales and is basically a B2B portal for connecting Western businesses and Chinese manufacturers.

 On-line purchasing is the norm for millennials

Younger procurement specialists are more aware of the power of technology and its use in B2B. They are accustomed to online purchasing in their private lives, they want business purchasing processes to have the same facilities that are mobile-friendly and intuitive. Understanding this shift in reducing human interaction will be increasingly critical to procurement efficiency. The facility to transact and communicate must be available 24/7.

Make it easy for the customer

Whether you are in the B2B or B2C arena, the customer is still king.

Businesses that have a wide product range that serves different industries need to establish an online platform that is customised according to the specific needs of each buying organization.   The customer is looking for a seamless and error-free experience across all channels of purchase and interaction.  Whichever platform a customer uses, the supplier needs to understand exactly how their buyer journey works, identifying and fixing the points that cause friction.  Sometimes the linkages are too cumbersome or the messages too impersonal. Keeping up site quality and performance is crucial in order to stay competitive.

One way to keep customers happy is to have a visible and responsive social media presence to solve problems on a 24/7 basis.  Trading no longer keeps office hours, you may need a chatbot.  Every interaction with customers should leave them knowing that their problem is being solved.

Chatbots will hopefully save plenty of time and money but care should be taken as machines are not known for their adaptability or empathy to deal appropriately with humans.

The rise of m-commerce – the power of mobile

In the last few years, building an e-commerce site meant creating a desktop site and adding a mobile application on it. The trend is now on creating a top-notch mobile experience with desktop being secondary.  Mobile apps open up whole new buying experiences for both B2C and B2B  – animated and 3D product images, voice-driven ordering and real-time inventory information.

Simplified payment options on mobile, including fingerprint and facial recognition, are starting to become a preferred method of payment for retail purchases.  10% of Starbucks U.S. orders are done with their mobile Order and Pay app.  Amazon Go, the e-commerce giant’s prototype cashier-less store allows customers to shop and walk out of the store. Purchases are automatically scanned and charged to the buyer’s account.

A picture is worth a thousand words

Nowhere is this truer than in e-commerce.  Images are already vital components of company websites and trading platforms, now there is an increasing use of high-quality videos and animated content that is aimed at stealing a march on the competition.   B2C companies are discovering more than YouTube, they are using social media platforms such as Pinterest and Instagram that are visually based, why not for B2B?   There is some real sales potential for B2B companies especially for complex products and software that need a demonstration.

What you see is what you get – Augmented Reality (AR)

In the B2C marketplace, you can see exactly how an object looks in your environment before ordering.  IKEA Place is an app that lets consumers experience, experiment and share adding products into any space. Products are in 3D and true to scale, so consumers can see whether the furniture or accessory will fit and what it would look like in context.  Amazon allows you to view thousands of products in your home and office before you buy them, including electronics and tools.  As image analysis automation becomes standard in mobile devices, customers will be able to take a picture of an object then search for that exact product or a similar one.

The possibilities for B2B have not yet been fully explored but 20 years’ experience of B2C can teach us something about having a frictionless means of transacting. We can reduce the need for paperwork and break out of conventional working hours.