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Manufacturing E-Commerce & The New Professional Online Consumer

Leading the way for online B2B purchases is the emerging “prosumer” — a new highly-connected, highly-engaged customer that would rather self-serve than follow today’s typical B2B commerce model.

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Business-to-business commerce is poised to eclipse online consumer sales with the company-to-company online sales market having already surpassed $550 billion. Of the B2B companies currently selling online, nearly 50 percent of them expect half of their entire customer bases to buy online within the next three years, according to Forrester Research. Leading the way for online B2B purchases is the emerging “prosumer” — a new highly connected, highly engaged customer that would rather self-serve than follow today’s typical B2B commerce model. Companies like Amazon and eBay are not just conditioning these online buying expectations at the individual consumer level, but they are beginning to attract professional buyers willing to purchase business products from their online marketplaces. 
The need to address evolved hyper connected self-service customers online, especially in the less prominent B2B and manufacturing landscape, is further driven by the fact that 34 percent of savvy consumers switched suppliers in order to make a purchase online, according to a B2B study conducted by UPS. What does this tell us? Those “prosumers” who are accustomed to seamless — omnichannel retailing and online purchase functionalities, value their preferred buying habits over existing supplier-relationships! 
Below are some examples of features that today’s savvy B2B prosumers are demanding in their online buying experience. We took a look at features for three different B2B categories. 
The first B2B category is Maintenance, Repair, and Operations (MRO). Typically characterized as commodity products, this is the category most closely resembling B2C with easily indexed catalogs and similar merchandising; however, in a B2B context there is also contractually negotiated price lists. The most important prosumer features for this category are: 
        • Upsells and cross-sells available on product pages
Often B2B buyers need help choosing multiple, related products. Do they need copier paper along with those toner cartridges? Your product pages are the place to speak to these concerns, offering accessories, improvements, and helpful advice to help boost brand loyalty.
  • Volume discounts
Give buyers an incentive to buy more by offering quantity discounts. Depending on the kind of products you sell, offering shoppers an incentive to purchase multiples of the same products can be a great way to sell more products, while giving buyers the feeling they are saving the company money.
  • Catalog quick order option
For many commodity product buyers, it’s all about convenience. Catalog quick ordering makes ordering simple for regular recurring shoppers who know exactly what they want to buy ahead of time, (e.g. shoppers who may have already identified their orders via a separate catalog). 
The second B2B category is configurable products. Configurable products are more complex offerings requiring specialization and knowledge amongst buyers. It is critical for this type of buyer to see exactly what they are buying and that they get validation they are doing it correctly. In addition, with many configurable and custom products, often there are no returns. Thus, the B2B purchaser must make very wise and careful decisions to purchasing unusable products. To support a self-service prosumer purchasing configurable products, you must have the following features: 
        • Data model recognize all the nuances
When it comes to configurable products, catalog information is much more complicated — detailed spec sheets, schematics, installation guides and compatibility options are often associated with them. The eCommerce platform needs to know all this and be able to associate the correct products with the correct options and pricing 
  • User Experience (UX) is both intuitive and easily navigable
The UX layer needs to be intuitive and easy to navigate. While it’s tempting to promote or push certain products on your shoppers, giving them the power to locate their own product ultimately lets them find the exact products they’re seeking. Filtering and sorting options are a good place to start. Some examples of popular filtering options include sub-category, price, brand, color, size, star rating, and on sale. And examples of popular sorting controls include price (highest to lowest and vice versa), new arrivals, best sellers, best reviewed, and alphabetical.
  • Bundles and collections streamlines purchasing experience 
Bundles are pre-selected combinations that minimize any concerns from the buyer that they are not purchasing the right combinations. They also save time for those who are in hurry and seek convenience. 
The final B2B category is regulated products. There are many products found in food, drug, medical device, radiation emitting devices, vaccines and blood, animal, cosmetics, tobacco and other sensitive industries whose products (and buyers) are regulated and restricted for sale by the FDA and other government agencies. To support a self-service prosumer for this B2B category, you must offer: 
        • Authentication and/or 3rd party at different stages
Your eCommerce platform must be able to restrict buyers from viewing the products, seeing pricing, adding to cart or checking out before authentication. 
  • Configuration by role, pricing, and content 
Who can buy, what they can buy, how much they can buy, and how the products are shipped all may be regulated. Sell the wrong product to the wrong party and you risk violating the law. 
  • Education and support go hand in hand
Often these products are very sophisticated and it is necessary to have robust product information management capabilities to support the level of detail required. And don’t be surprised if regulated product customers require lots of personalized hand holding, including live chat and international language support. 
With all of the data strongly suggesting a pendulum swing towards greater B2B ecommerce adoption, now is the time for manufacturing businesses to embrace the digital technologies that can easily take their transactions online and support their sales organizations with more engaging technologies and support systems. However, in order to attract and retain highly engaged “prosumer” buyers , B2B sellers need to focus on delivering a highly personalized shopping experience that balances the needs to self-serve with flexibility for pricing, product and content in order to meet the unique needs of today’s B2B buyer.
Sean Cook is CEO of ShopVisible
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