This post has been contributed by nChannel
Manufacturers, distributors, and wholesalers have been selling online for decades. In the past though, eCommerce was nothing more than basic portals for existing customers to place re-orders or browse a product catalog. It wasn’t a strategic channel to acquire new customers and increase sales.
Today, modern B2B buyers are flipping this notion on its head. Your buyers now prefer to shop online over offline and expect online experiences similar to how they make personal purchases. They’re looking for the convenience, speed, and personalization that eCommerce can offer, even for their more complex B2B purchases.
This type of experience can be a tall order for manufacturers and distributors, especially for those trying out eCommerce for the first time. As you navigate the eCommerce landscape, it is important to consider two things.
- How to choose the right eCommerce platform
- How to integrate your eCommerce platform with your other systems like an ERP
Choosing a Standalone B2B eCommerce Platform
Many manufacturers and distributors are prone to turn to their ERP providers for an eCommerce third-party plug-in or built-in module. A few years ago, this approach to eCommerce made sense. It wasn’t seen as an investment in the future of your business and these plug-ins could be convenient and cost-effective. These modules were native to your distribution ERP software and already worked with your offline processes.
Today, the nature of eCommerce and marketplace management has grown more complex. these primitive solutions leave little to desire when creating differentiated online experiences that your buyers demand. They were built to be convenient to the merchants, not to your customers. In most cases, these modules don’t have flexible and scalable functionality to serve your buyers with B2C-like experiences such as:
- Site navigation and product search
- Rich product listings
- Customer-specific price lists
- Self-service account management
- Easily customizable webstore layout
- Intuitive check out processes
- Flexible payment options like account terms
Recognizing the shortcomings of their ERP’s eCommerce modules, many merchants now turn to modern eCommerce platforms like OroCommerce. Over the years, these types of software vendors have delivered B2B eCommerce functionality that allows for attractive front-end experiences, while still supporting complex B2B backend operations like: product catalog management, order routing among suppliers, customer-specific price lists, customer account management, and more.
Realizing that eCommerce is the future of shopping, merchants are taking a “best of breed” approach by selecting standalone eCommerce software that will serve them for the long run. Merchants aren’t sacrificing functionality and requirements for convenience and budget. Today’s buyers will realize the difference and will choose to work with those that meet their online buying expectations.
Integrating Your ERP with Your B2B eCommerce Software
When manufacturers and distributors choose standalone eCommerce software though, they have a new challenge to solve. They must integrate their eCommerce software with their backend systems like an ERP. However, they can face a number of ERP integration challenges for B2B, like outdated technology and a lack of understanding of how the data should flow between the two systems.
Merchants can turn to integration providers like nChannel that map data flows between your endpoint systems. This allows you to automate processes such as:
- Order processing and fulfillment from multiple locations
- Providing timely shipping statuses to customers
- Displaying inventory availability online to avoid overselling
- Managing and updating product listings from ERP to eCommerce
- Managing price lists to ensure accuracy online
- Managing customer information like term accounts and purchase history
- Reconciling financial reporting faster
Automation improves operational efficiency and ensures you have visibility over all your processes. It also allows you to continue to leverage your ERP as the backbone of your organization, even when adding new eCommerce processes.
To help you better understand what it takes to integrate your eCommerce platform with your ERP, here’s some things to consider:
How can you get ERP support “talking” with another software product?
It’s not always easy to make two endpoint systems “talk” to each other. You must understand how data is sent, read, and accepted by one system to another. Data often must be transformed from one format to another to meet those requirements. Common ways to connect systems are through their:
- Open APIs like REST and SOAP
- SFTP – Flat-file
- Connecting directly to the database itself
- Electronic Data Interchange (read more about EDI for eCommerce)
Each and every eCommerce integration approach has its advantages and disadvantages. Today, the recommended approach to integrate systems is through open APIs. However, a legacy ERP might not have that option. Instead, you would need to rely on flat-file exchanges or deploying hardcode that connects to its database directly. Your endpoint systems and ERP integration approach will determine how well data can and can’t be exchanged between them.
You can learn more about your ERP’s interface by speaking with your ERP integration implementer or checking your software’s public documentation.
How organized and accurate is your product data for ERP integration?
A challenge for manufacturers and distributors is managing, updating, and publishing your product data online. Your product catalogs are often large, complex and can vary by customer group. Before an eCommerce and ERP integration project, you must evaluate the state of your product data.
Be prepared to make the necessary changes to organize and enrich your product data to sell online. For example, product relationships should be clearly defined for parent-child product or kit/assembly items. eCommerce experiences are driven by product data to create intuitive site navigation, product searches, and rich product listings. You also need well-structured product data to support order fulfillment and inventory tracking from your eCommerce platform to your ERP.
Is your ERP integration the source of truth or are other systems involved?
While an ERP is often the backbone of your organization, it’s not always the only system used. Manufacturers and distributors often need to include important data from 3PLs, supplier databases, shipping providers, and any other specialized software.
Before an eCommerce integration project, you should consider your processes and how data should flow between all your systems. What system will be the source of truth for each of your datapoints?
For example, common integration datapoints for B2B eCommerce include:
- Items and Item attributes → ERP to eCommerce
- Inventory counts → ERP to eCommerce
- Price lists and pricing agreements → eCommerce to ERP
- Customers and Contacts → eCommerce to ERP
- Orders → eCommerce to ERP
- Shipping and Fulfillment Details → ERP to eCommerce
- Order cancellations and Return Details → eCommerce to ERP
Implementing your eCommerce software alongside its integration into any other vital system like an ERP ensures that you build out an end-to-end solution that works for your organization for the long run.
nChannel empowers retailers, wholesalers and technologists with integration tools to sync data and automate processes between their eCommerce, ERP, POS and 3PL systems from inventory synchronization and order fulfillment to supply chain management.
About the Author: Jillian Hufford joined nChannel as their Marketing Analyst. Using both her writing and analytic skills, she assists the Marketing and Sales teams. Jillian performs competitor market research, provides analysis of key sales metrics, and writes informative posts on multichannel eCommerce trends.