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Getting serious about E-Commerce?

Many businesses have started online selling, and manufacturers are among those looking to get in on the action. This year should be the time that manufacturers kick-start the e-commerce process.

April 19, 2021   by Derek Corrick

PHOTO: © LIGHTFIELD STUDIOS / Adobe Stock

E-commerce was already gaining significant traction across many industries over the last decade. COVID-19 has put that trajectory into overdrive. Whether it was by choice or something forced upon them by recent events, many businesses have jumped head first into online selling, and manufacturers are among those looking to get in on the action.

While manufacturers have made some movement towards this goal in recent years, it is no stretch to say that they still have a long way to go. As recently as 2018, only 5.9 per cent of B2B manufacturing sales came from e-commerce, according to numbers from Digital Commerce 360. As they continue to grapple with the impact of COVID-19, there has never been a better time to add more operational efficiency, attract more customers, and lay a foundation for long-term growth by digitizing their sales and supply chains. This year should be the time that manufacturers who want to get serious about e-commerce kick-start the process.

The best way to start is to take a step back and let go of certain assumptions that, if they were ever right, are certainly no longer relevant. The first is the still widely held belief that B2B and B2C sales occupy separate lanes that require separate approaches. In fact, the lines between them have blurred to the point of being irrelevant. The people who make up B2B audiences, be they buyers, customers or partners, are by now largely made up of younger digital natives.

For them, Amazon is the standard by which they measure online shopping, regardless of who they are dealing with. They have come to expect a seamless and engaging experience that they will abandon at the first sign of friction. It is dangerous to assume that they will willingly revert to the traditional, no-frills, “rack and stack” approach that many manufacturers have traditionally taken to presenting their products online.

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As recently as 2018, only 5.9 per cent of B2B manufacturing sales came from e-commerce, according to numbers from Digital Commerce 360. As they continue to grapple with the impact of COVID-19, there has never been a better time to add more operational efficiency, attract more customers, and lay a foundation for long-term growth by digitizing their sales and supply chains.

According to Forrester research, 68 per cent find that gathering information online is superior to interacting with a sales rep. In addition, research shows that the top driver of B2B buying decisions is the availability of product information, which buyers inspect to be easily available online, when and how they want, customized to their unique needs.
Once rid of these assumptions, manufacturers can begin to move forward with an e-commerce plan. Here are three key factors to succeed as they embark on their journey.
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Start small, but make an impact
It is often tempting to dive into the technology aspect out of the gate, or create aggressive plans that can lead to more risk than opportunity. That is a mistake. Instead, take time upfront to focus on the business aspects. Get crystal clear on what your core customers mostly need and want from you, right now and into the future. Compare that to what you are currently offering them, and map out what has to happen to start bridging the
two divides.

As an example, manufacturers are often the first stop for customers looking for replacement parts. Given their physical supply chain roots, many have simply opted to catalogue the information supplied to them by their distributors, and assume that some static images and basic details would satisfy the need. This “just enough” approach does little to engage digital-savvy customers, and over time risks tarnishing the manufacturer’s brand.

What if instead of offering static product data that is quite likely lacking in accuracy, a manufacturer offers customers a detailed and customized overview of spare part data that is automatically updated behind the scenes whenever a distributor makes changes, and that is presented in a way that makes it simple to browse and order? It is just one great example of a realistic goal at the outset that adds value, and lays down a foundation that can be replicated as e-commerce capabilities grow.

Mastering your data is critical
The e-commerce landscape is quickly becoming a case of the haves versus the have-nots, and it is usually data that divides them. Data-driven enterprises add relevance and personalization to their customers’ online experiences, while others are falling behind. That is why implementing a product information management approach at the outset of any e-commerce strategy is critical.

Knowing your customer’s buying preferences and offering accurate product information is impossible without an effective data strategy. From search to product recommendations to order fulfillment, you simply cannot accomplish your goals without a consistent, end-to-end approach. Therefore, it is recommended that manufacturers begin the work now to make that possible. This will allow for context-driven product information. For example, allowing a tool to be featured based on its usage in an automotive versus a construction environment, depending on the needs of a customer.

Your brand, your story, your future
Finally, even if they are dipping their toes into e-commerce for the first time, manufacturers should know how they want their brand to evolve over the long-term, and ensure they have an e-commerce strategy that will take them there.

Providing a great customer experience depends on compelling, accessible information delivered in a timely and accurate fashion. However, it is also about context and adding value. Providing online buyers with additional offers tailored for them, meant to ease and accelerate their buying decisions, or help them make product modifications on the fly without having to call and talk to someone, are ways to better engage buyers and strengthen a manufacturer’s brand.

For most manufacturers, launching an e-commerce initiative is still an uncharted territory, but it does not have to be painful. With the right guidance and approach, digital programs can bring quick wins and open a business up to new customers. All manufacturers need to do is take the first step. PLANT
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Derek Corrick is General Manager of Master Data Management, Pivotree, which specializes in providing frictionless commerce to manufacturers.