It’s no secret that B2B eCommerce is quickly changing in 2021. Over the past few years, and particularly during the last year, the industry has seen remarkable growth. As we look towards the future, various 2021 B2B eCommerce trends point to sustained growth in the world of business-to-business sales.
Latest B2B eCommerce Trends
The adoption of digital processes by businesses is nothing new. Companies have long recognized the importance of digitization and leveraging digital commerce as a strategic investment and competitive advantage. Investments in these technologies had been driven up by the need for frictionless shopping, personalization, and improved operational efficiency. We noticed these developments back in 2017, way before the pandemic was even close to being on anyone’s mind.
In the years that followed, some clear demographic changes started emerging, and B2B merchants began focusing more on catering to the growing online customer base. From the proliferation of mobile devices to the ever-increasing number of millennials moving online, the B2B eCommerce sphere started getting even more attention.
Last year’s disruption bought about by COVID-19 took the world over by storm but proved to be a significant boost for eCommerce. More and more businesses started looking at digital channels not as an addition to their physical location but as a strategic source of long-term, sustained growth. Major players such as Amazon, Alibaba, Walmart, and others boosted investment and reach amid stay-at-home orders. They went on massive hiring sprees, beefed-up their infrastructure, and leveraged their longstanding digital commerce experience to quickly meet customer needs.
At the start of the pandemic, leading B2Bs such as manufacturers, distributors, and suppliers acted quickly to adjust to the new reality. They embraced flexibility, remote work, and an agile approach to their marketing strategies, business models, and supply chains.
However, other brick-and-mortars and digital vendors were ill-prepared in dealing with lockdowns and unpredictable reopening phases. Many had complex global supply chains with inherent weaknesses. They couldn’t quickly reinvent themselves to better serve amid quickly changing market conditions.
Over the past year, new purchase habits formed while customer expectations remained at an all-time high. Businesses realized they couldn’t hide behind COVID for poor customer experience for long – wrong information about orders, fulfillment, or even stock counts pushed customers to look elsewhere.
Even after businesses reopen, operational concerns will likely remain in the business community from the mid-to-long-term. As digitals shopping grows, we’ll continue seeing business sellers pressured to identify innovative ways to remove friction and stay competitive.
What Have We Learned From 2020?
As we look back at the year that was, we see everything from how we live, work, and spend changed drastically. While 2020 accelerated change in many areas of business, it truly left its mark on B2B eCommerce.
With the world on lockdown, B2B buyers and sellers turned to the internet in droves. The question now is not if digital adoption rates will grow, but by how much those rates will grow. And many businesses are wondering what 2021 has in store for them.
In this post, we’ll explore how the B2B commerce landscape changed and our best predictions, trends, and statistics for what the next year has in store.
The Rapid Rise of B2B eCommerce
The coronavirus uncovered inefficiencies in the sales process and the customer experience brands didn’t know they had. These changes pushed many B2B brands to accelerate their digital transformation initiatives.
Now, McKinsey asserts more than 75% of B2B buyers prefer online purchasing and remote sales interactions instead of in-person ones, with only 20% of B2B counting on a return to in-person sales. Respondents cited the need for more value, product availability, and purchase convenience. Another previously insignificant factor – safety – became a priority overnight. Brands must accommodate these needs while responding to emerging trends such as curbside pickup and more flexible delivery and payment options to compete in the years that follow. And it’s a proven strategy – companies that reacted quickly to changes experienced growth as others saw contraction.
According to Divante’s 2021 predictions, one of the most significant areas of B2B growth will be in marketplaces, data management, security, and payments:
In the meantime, B2B companies are busy adapting to the crisis, whether it’s dipping their feet in B2B eCommerce and moving their selling operations online or replatforming to new eCommerce environments. Manufacturers, distributors, and wholesalers explore new selling options afforded by various B2B eCommerce platform options. According to McKinsey, 96% of respondents plan to change their go-to-market strategy and increase spending on digital selling channels. Above all, these changes are permanent: 80% of respondents plan on retaining their new selling models into 2021.
Here are some of the top B2B digital commerce trends for 2021 and beyond:
Today, more than ever, the majority of 2021 B2B eCommerce trends are driven by changing buyer demographics. Gen X consumers (those born in the 60s and 70s) now make up most leadership roles and perform more B2B purchases than other age groups. Millennials (those born in the 80s and 90s) are even more digitally savvy and make or influence 60% of B2B buying decisions.
Today’s B2B customer is already shopping on B2C eCommerce sites, and is accustomed to speed, convenience, and personalization. In other words, when storefronts are easy to navigate and purchase from, they notice. However, B2C and B2B buying behaviors are completely different, and B2B buyers will be more attuned to these differences as B2B eCommerce growth continues.
Customers are reaching brands on new channels and becoming more strategic and deliberate in their purchases. As COVID unfolded, B2Bs realized a digital channel could help them maintain relationships and buyer journeys and address customer concerns better than their competition. Forward-thinking brands quickly realized that their eCommerce websites would either help them expand to new markets and business models or leave them behind in the dust.
Digital B2B sales is the name of the game, at least for the foreseeable future. According to research by Sagefrog, 2021 B2B marketing budgets will eschew tradeshows and events and fully focus on digital experiences. Website development is expected to top the list, consuming 51% of B2B sellers’ marketing budgets. Second in line for marketing spend is digital marketing. The focus on SEO and SEM is only natural, since search engines generate over 73% of global traffic to B2B websites, with searches increasingly becoming more locally-focused, descriptive, and specific.
Buying Over Building
In the early days of eBay and Amazon, an eCommerce platform was a costly and bulky technology solution, built by in-house IT teams. Today, the most cutting-edge B2B eCommerce technology can be found off the shelf from a vendor. Forrester Consulting commissioned a report revealing that vendor-supplied eCommerce technologies offer a 16.5% savings in development costs, 22% saving in integration costs, and a 16.4% faster time to market, among other benefits. Learn more about building and buying eCommerce solutions in our guide.
In 2021 even more B2B companies will opt for a platform with the ability to build a website using low-code SaaS platforms for a customized setup. This approach allows B2Bs to get the best of both worlds with maximum functionality and flexibility and a minimum of investment.
With the emergence of customized solutions, could it mean that the debate over buying and building eCommerce solutions has finally ended? Open-source eCommerce platforms like OroCommerce are emerging as alternatives for merchants operating in a highly regulated industry or serving a large customer base.
And with rapidly increasing vendor options and B2B needs growing increasingly complex, it’s important to make the right moves early on in your software strategy.
Emerging Security Threats
While some plan to go back to the office when the pandemic is over, a substantial shift to a remote workplace will be permanent. This will increase the reliance on a singular digital selling tool such as a B2B eCommerce platform. Unfortunately, this shift also means more opportunities for theft of customer data and other malicious attacks. While security has been an increasing priority for B2B eCommerce businesses, the change to digital selling has made these concerns more important than ever.
While the risk of attacks and data fraud is a concern for all eCommerce brands, B2B sellers who rely on extensive product catalogs, larger deal sizes, and more complex approval mechanisms must work even harder to protect their digital channels. WEF’s Covid-19 risks outlook report maintains that attackers strike when organizations are confused, distracted, or undergoing change, and businesses list cybersecurity threats as one of their top worries.
For B2Bs that lack an adequate security culture and rely on siloed security functions now is the time to turn security into a central business element. According to research by G2, cloud-based, and detection-focused security solutions will outpace legacy systems. Cloud technology adoption, including cloud-based eCommerce, will accelerate these trends and play an even bigger role in operational efficiency.
Explosion of Marketplaces
Marketplaces have been connecting buyers and sellers since the beginning of time. Amazon long ago established itself as the destination for online shopping, and B2B marketplaces are quickly following suit. It’s not hard to see why: B2B marketplaces save time on research and comparison shopping, while simultaneously saving money, streamlining fulfillment, and providing buyers a sense of security. According to RBC Capital Markets, Amazon Business, an Amazon B2B marketplace, is expected to take the lion’s share of the $67 trillion B2B market and reach $52 billion in sales by 2023.
B2C customers already know that Amazon and eBay aren’t the only marketplaces. Over the past year, dozens of brands leveraged enterprise marketplaces to increase revenue. These include marketplaces by Walmart, Best Buy Canada, Christian Lacroix, ePrice, and others.
In this sense, B2B and B2C customers aren’t that different. To serve B2B needs better, vendors are quickly moving to the B2B marketplace. In fact, Gartner predicts that over 15% of medium-to-high-gross eCommerce brands will have deployed their own marketplaces by 2023, and 70% of all marketplaces launched by then will support B2B transactions. Research by iBe TSD goes even further and predicts that marketplaces will account for 30% of all B2B sales.
PWA and Headless Technology
In their 2020 Magic Quadrant for Digital Commerce report, Gartner expects typical online experiences to be powered by no less than 30 integrated applications. Besides investing in connecting tools, B2B eCommerce brands will invest in headless architecture and progressive web applications (PWAs) to communicate external data to their mobile storefronts.
It’s not hard to see why: mobile continues to be one of the biggest trends in B2B. While mobile traffic accounts for over 53% of all traffic, it only generates 29% of total sales, meaning there’s still room for user experience improvements on mobile.
Unlike mobile apps, PWAs are delivered over the web and work across all devices and operating systems. Customers aren’t required to download and install memory-hogging apps, and developers don’t need to build and maintain separate applications for Android and iOS devices. PWAs offer increased speed, efficiency, and seamless experiences with or without a connection. Headless commerce offers similar personalization opportunities, including voice integration, smartwatch, television, and other, less traditional forms of purchasing. Most importantly, a headless setup allows brands to keep their B2B-specific features and back-office processes.
Growth of Self-Service
Business buyers are researching and comparison shopping online, and they expect to purchase on the same channels as well. According to research by OroCommerce, 86% of customers prefer using self-service tools to order, reorder, and check order statuses without contacting sales representatives. Similarly, B2B buyers already perform 57% of the purchase process prior to engaging with a live person, and this percentage will only increase in 2021.
In 2021, the B2B customer will demand more from the self-service experience. They expect responsive interfaces and intuitive commands that save them time and money when ordering and reordering. They expect to view past orders, manage negotiations, and approvals without contacting sales representatives. Similarly, back-office staff need visibility into customer information, manage quotes behind the scenes, and ensure the purchase experience goes as smoothly as possible.
More Cloud Adoption
Not surprisingly, the spread of cloud computing and cloud-based eCommerce continues growing unabated. Cloud eCommerce solutions enable brands to explore new security technologies, leverage big data and analytics, and developments in the internet of things to offer engaging customer experiences.
Last year’s study revealed that half of surveyed technology professionals said the pandemic altered their cloud plans. In a similar revelation, IDC’s 2021 FutureScape report predicts that by the end of 2021, over 80% of enterprises will shift to cloud-centric infrastructure and applications, which is double last year’s projections.
Brands increasingly rely on the cloud to future-proof their operations and maintain flexibility in 2021 and beyond. They expect to keep or grow their cloud technology investments to streamline operations, drive efficiency, and maintain flexibility.
As 2021 rolls around, B2B buyers will be just as comfortable as B2C buyers with interacting with interfaces that streamline a task or make their lives easier in some way. These busy professionals are looking beyond well-designed websites with personalized experiences, recommendations, and suggestions. They want experiences tailored to their needs. In fact, Smarter HQ reports that 72% of customers only engage with personalized messaging and 69% of B2B buyers are willing to pay more for a personalized experience.
In your search for B2B eCommerce software, look for platforms that serve multiple customer types and audiences, complete with personalized prices and checkout workflows. The ability to customize the customer experience allows you to ease into new customer segments and markets when needed.
AI & Chatbots
Artificial intelligence is one of the most exciting technologies that will shape the way we shop. It, too, will have significant effects on the future of business-to-business eCommerce. Gartner’s research predicts that by 2024, over 75% of organizations will use AI, driving a fivefold increase in streaming data, including analytics infrastructure. While historically, AI has been slow to offer value to most businesses, numerous machine learning technology advancements promise to bring AI implementation costs down.
For example, AI-learning algorithms already offer buyers targeted, personalized recommendations about what they should purchase next. These algorithms have long powered as much as 35% of Amazon’s sales – a number that is increasing as machines leverage more data for more accurate recommendations. In another example, B2B brands that install AI-powered chatbots on their sites see remarkable engagement rates that translate to more sales.
AI-powered image recognition technology is also used in eCommerce to classify images or to recognize objects in images. Sellers with millions of SKUs have at least just as much product media, descriptions and specifications. Thus, AI systems have the potential to reduce manual work, error rates and cut down on expenses while improving the customer experience.
Focus on Customer Experience
Many customer experience trends that were set in 2020 will continue in 2021. One such area of focus is website usability and accessibility. Compliance with ADA regulations for web content accessibility helps open B2B eCommerce businesses to underserved markets.
Stay-at-home orders led to record numbers of site visitors, driving a wider divide between those who invested in the customer experience and those who haven’t. For example, CrazyEgg demonstrated that 4 seconds is enough to make 25% of site visitors to leave the page. Google’s research revealed that PWAs can load up to eight times faster than an average mobile landing page.
For most brands, improving engagement isn’t only about optimizing performance. It requires robust integrations that transfer data in real-time for a better self-service experience. Self-service portals must make order management, modification, as well as real-time order tracking intuitive and accessible on all devices.
As customers, many of us are familiar with omnichannel retail, where brands offer customers a seamless experience on social media, eCommerce sites, and brick-and-mortar stores. These trends are slowly making their way towards B2B eCommerce, and brands are taking notice.
Today, over 82% of customers consult their smartphones when making a purchase in a brick-and-mortar store. Other customers prefer to research, buy, and then receive items without physical interaction. Others still expect to change how they communicate and receive a consistent experience.
For example, customers can quickly start their journey on a brand’s Facebook account and then move to a desktop site, expecting to see their product view history there as well. Digitally-attuned brands use this method to provide messaging specific to the platform to drive conversions further.
Businesses realize the power of omnichannel to centralize multiple sales channels and customer relationships under one roof. Thus, an omnichannel selling strategy remains one of the top B2B eCommerce trends for 2021 and will only gain popularity as time goes on.
Employee Productivity and Safety
According to RetailTouchPoints, automation can increase team productivity by 45% and overall revenue by 49%. Unfortunately, even today, the vast majority of B2B brands don’t fully use their eCommerce strategy as a revenue driver. That is changing – companies are turning to automation to cut down on manual tasks, decrease error rates, and maximize operational efficiency. Thus, automation will remain one of the top trends in B2B eCommerce.
Workflow automation is great for increasing productivity and streamlining processes that drive growth. Some workflow automation ideas increase personalization; others eliminate time-consuming back-office tasks or streamline supply chains.
However, automation also enables traditionally or partially offline brands such as manufacturers, distributors, and suppliers to operate remotely. This builds resilience and flexibility within operations, helping brands weather shocks and uncertainties down the road. Many offline B2Bs are realizing that remote work is possible, and leveraging digital technology boosts employee engagement, work-life balance, and reduces health risks.
Will 2021 Continue as a Year of B2B eCommerce?
2020 was certainly a year that nobody will forget. In the B2B eCommerce space, 2020 was a year of new opportunities, new markets, and unprecedented growth – for those who were prepared. Of course, not everyone fared well. Brands that didn’t invest in or postponed their digital strategies reconsidered their decisions.
Today’s customers – whether B2B or B2C, operate in a marketplace driven by experience. To compete, B2B companies cannot afford not to listen to their audience. They must leverage new and emerging technology to meet ever-changing customer expectations quickly.
One thing’s for certain. For B2Bs, eCommerce will remain a revenue-generating lifeline and a way to sell to new customers – and more of them. It’s a tool that not only enables brands to expand to new verticals, but to sell via new business models such as B2B2C, D2C, and others.
But for many of us, the future will always be shrouded in mystery, so here’s to hoping that 2021 is another positive, prosperous year for B2B eCommerce.
In the meantime, every company must take these key 2021 B2B eCommerce trends into account.