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One Year Later: COVID’s Impact on B2B Commerce

When the pandemic hit, it forced massive lockdowns and minimal in-person contact, causing serious challenges for businesses. One year later, we are slowly recuperating and building back our economy. Although COVID-19 remains a challenge, operationally, businesses have found ways to adapt.

This especially holds true for the B2B marketplace. They have responded to the disruption by finding alternate ways to serve customers using eCommerce, new communication channels, and, in some cases, unconventional methods. Most made reactive moves to stay competitive at the pandemic’s onset, but now businesses are taking a more strategic approach to combat current and future challenges.

As we pass the one-year mark, let’s examine the impact COVID has had on the B2B industry and learn how businesses have evolved to maintain a stronghold in the marketplace.

COVID leads to spike in eCommerce

Self-quarantines and government mandates kept most people from leaving their homes but didn’t stop them from making purchases. As a result, eCommerce became the number-one source for buying and selling; so much so that Adobe maintains the pandemic accelerated overall eCommerce growth by four to six years. Just three months after COVID-19 hit the US, total online spending jumped 77% year-over-year. At that same time, the software company saw the buy online, pick up in store (BOPIS) shopping option become popular as well, growing 195%.

Distribution Strategy Group tracked more than 3,000 companies in Q4 of 2020 to determine how the wholesale distribution industry evolved their digital branch in response to this change in buying habits. Their findings revealed not only a rise in eCommerce implementations, but also digital maturity and growth.

From 2019 to 2020, overall eCommerce adoption rates among the distributors surveyed increased over 26%. Small to midmarket distributors (those with revenue under $50 million) led the way with an 87.3% rise in site implementations from the previous year. Businesses that put continued efforts toward their digital branch by adding more products, functionality, and customer convenience are maturing digitally and seeing greater returns.

Distribution Strategy Group considers businesses “digitally mature” (and profitable) when their eCommerce sales account for more than 10% of their overall sales. In 2020, 50% of respondents said their eCommerce revenues reached this milestone, up 8% from the year before – and the data shows this rate is on course to increase each year. By segment, janitorial/sanitation suppliers came out as the digital maturity leaders. Of these survey respondents, 65% said their eCommerce site accounts for more than 10% of their total sales. While the pandemic may have fueled eCommerce adoption by distributors, their efforts to improve the customer experience are continuing their upward trajectory.

A common sentiment across the B2B industry is that online buying is not going to decline. On average, respondents in the Distribution Strategy Group survey predict that 45% of their orders will be placed online post-COVID, which translates to a 31% increase from pre-pandemic numbers. McKinsey & Company’s 2020 B2B Decision Maker Pulse survey produced similar findings. Over 90% of B2B decision-makers expect the remote/digital sales model to endure, and 75% believe this model is as effective or more so than before the COVID-19 disruption.

New opportunities to serve buyers

As the demand for digital self-service tools rises, distributors are finding ways to meet that demand and still engage with buyers. Innovative technologies, tools, and services are helping them achieve success.

  • Communication tools: B2B buyers want instant answers to their questions, and communication technologies like chatbots and mobile messaging serve that need. In McKinsey’s survey, live chat ranked as the preferred channel for buyers to research suppliers and their products. Unilog integrates chatbot apps like Olark, LiveChat, and HubSpot into many of our customers’ eCommerce sites, as well as alternate messaging tools like Instaply, which allow buyers to text message businesses directly from their mobile device.
  • Mobile apps: Somewhat new to the distribution industry, mobile apps are fast becoming another self-service necessity for buyers. In fact, McKinsey noted a 250% increase in the use of mobile app ordering among their survey respondents. Distribution executives are building advanced mobile apps into their eCommerce strategy to serve their digitally savvy customers. Distribution Strategy Group reported in its 2020 research report series, The Coming Storm of Converging Technologies, that 57% of B2B executives see item recognition as an essential offering within the next few years, while 14% claim they need it now to remain competitive. This feature, which uses a smartphone’s camera, enables buyers to take a picture of a product and search for the item using the distributor’s mobile app. Unilog offers a mobile app for our eCommerce customers that includes features like image recognition, voice search, and a barcode scanner to help buyers find the products they need.
  • Endless aisles of enriched products: When buyers aren’t able or willing to visit a distributor’s brick-and-mortar locations, it’s up to the distributor to bring their products to the buyers. An online product catalog integrated into an eCommerce platform goes beyond an in-store shopping experience; it provides a virtual endless aisle of items for them to add to their cart. When those items are optimized with robust product content like product descriptions, specifications, images, videos, and supporting documents, it creates a positive ripple effect. Rich content attracts search engines, which then rank the site higher in search results, and higher search result rankings drive more buyers to the site where detailed attributes and features ensure they find the right product for their application.

    Ultimately, better content translates to higher revenues and greater profits. The specialists at Unilog not only enrich product content for customer catalogs, they also build and maintain vast industry catalogs across a wide range of sectors.

  • Value-added services: BOPIS and curbside pickup may have started in the retail sector, but they are gaining popularity within the B2B marketplace. Expanded pickup and delivery options provide buyers more flexibility and convenience – especially during a pandemic – and go a long way in building customer loyalty.

    Other value-added services like punchout catalogs, automated inventory replenishment, and online training are benefits that enhance customer efficiency and separate others from the pack.

A digital branch delivers results

Unilog has closely monitored the B2B marketplace to assess the efficacy of eCommerce, especially for small to midmarket distributors, manufacturers, and hardlines retailers. As COVID-19 spread across the country, it became the true test to determine just how much of an advantage a digital channel provides businesses.

When Unilog surveyed B2B companies with an eCommerce site, 80% said their online channel is performing the same or better than it was prior to the COVID outbreak. Average order value (AOV) has also increased as a result of more online buying. Likewise, Unilog customers report anywhere from 40% to 90% higher AOV from their eCommerce sales than traditional offline sales. We attribute this to being able to serve more people in a convenient, contact-less fashion. Digitally enabled businesses give buyers access to their full product catalog, enable multiple transaction options, and offer expanded pickup and delivery options. They’ve proven to be more equipped to weather this storm than their non-digital counterparts.

Unilog customers have been sharing compelling metrics throughout the past year as they not only survive but, in most cases, thrive during the pandemic. Wholesale distributor Stanion Electric says they have fared better than many of their competitors who lack a good online presence. For the first two months during the outbreak, online registrations grew by 40% and they saw a small spike in sales. They have also reported a 39% increase in their number of online orders year-over-year.

GT Midwest has seen an uptick in every area of their website – from site traffic to revenue. In September 2020, they surpassed their 2019 web sales due to the pandemic. Online engagement has also increased for the manufacturer and distributor. Since their salespeople have limited in-person contact with customers, they say their online chat feature has become a popular tool for servicing customers.

McGuckin Hardware, a hardlines retailer in Boulder, Colorado, launched their new site at the beginning of the COVID outbreak. What may have seemed like poor timing was actually a boon for the hardware store. As soon as they launched their site, their web traffic more than doubled year-over-year and their web sales jumped 1,320%. Today their web sales are still well over 1,000% from the year prior. McGuckin attributes these impressive numbers to their enhanced online experience, which includes helpful customer features, an expanded product offering, and convenient pickup and delivery options.

COVID-19 has forever changed the B2B marketplace landscape. But businesses don’t have to struggle to survive this current market disruption or others that will undoubtedly arise. A well-built digital commerce site has proven to be a beacon for distributors to help navigate the disruption. If you’d like to fortify your business with a digital branch, Unilog can help. Our cloud-based eCommerce platform and product data enrichment services help businesses of all sizes and industries better serve their customers and grow their business. The proof is in our customers’ success, so contact a Unilog member today.

Scott Frymire
About Scott Frymire
Scott Frymire, SVP of Marketing at Unilog, has more than 20 years of experience with B2B software companies, including 16 years marketing ERP solutions and services to the wholesale distribution market. As an industry expert and thought leader, Frymire hosts webinars and presentations geared toward wholesale distributors considering a digital branch, and those entering and competing in the digital commerce marketplace.

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