Ecommerce for Manufacturers: A Quick-Start Guide To Set Up Online Operations

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Historically, the manufacturing sector wasn't among the first ones to jump on some bandwagon.

But when a visionary leader decided to challenge the status quo, they ignited a true revolution.

Henry Ford reimagined the automotive sector with the conveyor belt. Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss persuaded the world to wear durable denim over wool and textile.

While today brands such as Nike, Audi and Siemens among others are honing their fully automated smart factory solutions.

But amidst such rapid changes in production, it seems that manufacturers, especially in the B2B space, have overlooked another important transformation — within their buyers.

Modern B2B consumers no longer dwell for a single sales channel, online or offline. Faced with an array of options, an ever-evolving set of needs and increased time pressure, B2B manufacturer buyers wait for a revolution in online buying experience.

If you want to be among the industry pioneers, this post offers a deep dive into ecommerce for manufacturers — from new customer expectations to essential prep-steps for running digital commerce operations.

The B2B Manufacturer Buyer Has Changed

The global pandemic cast a heavy toll on the manufacturing companies. As the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) reported in Feb-March 2020:

  • 35.5% of manufacturers faced supply chain disruptions.
  • 78% felt that the uncertainty around COVID-19 would also have an impact on their businesses.

The above has prompted many to look into leaner ways of operating, procuring and purchasing supplies from others. In particular, dwell more into digital commerce.

In 2020, total manufacturing and distributor sales grew by just 1.5% to $17.5 trillion. But B2B digital sales grew at whooping 10.9%, generating nearly $9 trillion.

That makes sense, considering that a good cohort of current B2B buyers is the tech-savvy Millennials. Since their personal shopping experience is already marked by seamless online transactions, they transpose the same expectations on B2B suppliers.

According to a 2019 UPS study, millennials make the largest portion (38%) of their total industrial purchases directly from manufacturers. For comparison, only 29% of Boomers choose to buy from manufacturers over distributors or online marketplaces.

Millennial or not, online ordering isn't enough to win over modern buyers. Accenture found that over 63% of B2B executives want to integrate 'personalization' in their digital offerings. Most are looking for reliable partners, offering a hearty mix of offline and online functionality for procurement. They want to engage with B2B suppliers, offering user-friendly online ordering features, as well as online quote requests for personalized pricing. In fact, 64% state that they'd switch to another vendor if the company provides real-time, personalized pricing.

Apart from that, some want to receive estimated freight quotes, information on bulk discounts, MOQs and customisation opportunities, preferably at any time of day or night and via multiple channels.

Given such an array of demands, an integrated ecommerce solution is the manufacturers' best bet in being available whenever customers need them to.

What Does Ecommerce Look Like for Manufacturers?

For a long time, manufacturers stayed away from the online selling space. "Too complex", "too high-risk", "low ROI" were some of the common excuses.

In 2020, however, a lot of leaders had to rethink their position. With supply chain disruptions and physical store closures, a lot found themselves discounted from their main sales channels — the distributors and suppliers.

Companies with an ecommerce presence, on the contrary, were positively surprised with the increased volume of purchases:

In March 2020, 30% of manufacturing and 30% of distribution companies generated 60%-80% of their global revenues from B2B ecommerce.

The pandemic accelerated pre-existing shifts in B2B buyer journeys, prompting even more customers to rely on online mediums during all stages of their research.

Gartner Manufacturers

Given the above, the current state of ecommerce for many manufacturers is a peculiar mix of non-linear, offline and offline touchpoints, spanning over different assets and verticals.

An ecommerce website can be optimised to facilitate those scattered journeys, providing buyers with the key information they need to proceed to the next step.

Those who managed to decode the common customer journeys within their niche and create an online experience around them are already seeing solid wins.

Benefits of Manufacturers Having an Ecommerce Site

Given that B2B ecommerce is expected to reach $1.8 trillion by 2023, accounting for 17% of all US B2B sales, launching an ecommerce website makes sense profit-wise. But there are several more benefits beyond direct monetary gains:

1. Direct access to customers.

The perks of the DTC (direct-to-consumer) business model are well-known among B2C brands. But B2B companies in the manufacturing industry benefit too by selling through their website over distributors. In particular by:

  • Preserving higher profit margins.
  • Exerting greater control over brand representation.
  • Ensuring optimal pricing and discount strategies.
  • Collecting customer data for personalization.
  • Increasing customer loyalty through on-brand retention campaigns.

Access to customer data alone offers a plethora of opportunities for expanding your business. Apart from leveraging those insights in your sales and marketing strategies, you can also use direct customer feedback for product development.

2. Opportunities to innovate.

By knowing how your consumers shop and what they value in their suppliers, you can develop unique value propositions. For example, feedback from equipment end users can tell you which add-ons or modifications to prioritize.

Procurement data can suggest when certain parts are due for replacement so that you could pitch an early delivery to the buyer. Feedback from sales reps and support agents can suggest how you can improve after-sales services — introduce better delivery schedules, improve warranty or expand the scope of installation/training services.

3. Scalability.

Ecommerce greatly increases your bandwidth for processing orders without the need to attract more distributors or hire extra sales reps. Items that don't need any customisation can be instantly sold to the buyers without in-person contact.

What's more, you can seamlessly tap into new markets or even sell cross-border. The latter can be particularly lucrative as 43% of the total spending on industrial goods and supplies in 2019 was allocated to internationally sourced products.

4. Improved efficiencies.

Online sales quotes and checkout massively reduces the time your sales team spends on invoicing. Also, by automating payments and setting up recurring billing for regular re-ordering you can cut down the time wasted on chasing invoices. Both your staff and your cash flow will thank you for that.

5. Brand awareness.

According to Google, 58% of B2B industrial manufacturer buyers start their research online with a product (e.g. a tire), then follow up with a brand. Your ecommerce website can be SEO-optimised to receive traffic from search engines for both types of queries — product and brand-name ones. So that more buyers get familiar with your brand and full product range.

6. Use of analytics.

With full access to customer data, you can employ an array of ecommerce analytics solutions to boost CX and increase sales. For example:

  • Personalized similar product recommendations.
  • Dynamic real-time pricing for different customisations and order volumes.
  • Relevant up-sell/cross-sell positions.
  • Best suited warranty, servicing or customer service packages.

How to Effectively Use Ecommerce for Manufacturing

B2B customers have an array of sales channels to choose from — distributors, channel partners, online marketplaces, resellers. Your main goal is to provide an easier purchasing experience for them via ecommerce.

Here are 5 steps to make that happen.

1. Create an engaging website.

In 2017, Forrester predicted that over 1 million B2B salespeople will be made redundant by 2020.

That prediction didn't fully pan out. But it's true that all B2B buyers now heavily rely on digital channels when evaluating suppliers:

Demographic Image Manufacturers

A “company website” is where representatives of all three age groups land during the early stages of their research. What's more, it's the go-to place for returning buyers, ready to re-order. And those seeking after-service.

Your first step is to ensure that your ecommerce website can effectively cater to four different types of needs:

  1. Research & evaluation: Create sufficient top-of-the-funnel content — buyer's guides, comparison tools, reviews, evaluation templates — reinforced by more comprehensive mid-of-the-funnel content — webinars, white papers, case studies.
  2. Purchase: Most B2C ecommerce design practices apply to B2B too. Prioritize intuitive navigation, easy-to-search product catalogues, detailed listing and secure checkout. But be mindful of the extra steps in your customers' purchase journeys and design your online experience around them.
  3. After-sales: When selecting supplies, 7 in 10 industrial product shoppers name 'returns', followed by 'on-site repairs' and 'on-site maintenance', as the top-3 most important after-sales services. Make sure that your B2B ecommerce platform highlights how to access these. 
  4. Re-ordering: Set up a user-friendly self-service portal for rapid re-ordering. If you have technical resources, you may also want to offer direct integrations with the popular enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions and e-procurement systems. This way regular buyers could auto-order the needed goods once their stock runs low.

2. Equipped sales staff.

An online storefront is important, but a lot of customers still want to speak with a sales rep at some point in their journey. According to Pros 2020 survey, B2B buyers want to engage with a salesperson when:

  • Researching products with complex configurations (61%).
  • Asking about special prices (61%).
  • Inquiring about specific terms (58%).

In all cases, your sales team should empower buyers with helpful information to facilitate their journey. When that's the case, customers who are provided with information to help them advance their purchase are three times as likely to complete a high-value, low regret deal.

Thus, make sure that all sales managers:

  • Have deep product & industry knowledge. Invest in training and upskilling if necessary.
  • Are well-familiar with the typical purchase cycles in your industry.
  • Were given enough supporting sales materials and collateral to share with the buyers.
  • Can formulate your competitive advantage over the competition.
  • Have real-time visibility into customers' purchase history.
  • Can access real-time information on inventory levels and dynamically quote prices.
  • Are comfortable with offering pre-sales/after-sales support across channels (social media, mobile app, online chats, etc.).

3. Provide a personalized catalogue.

Personalization is another major demand among B2B shoppers. In fact, 69% state that personalized offers help them gain more value from their suppliers. And as we already know, a feel-good online experience leads to increased sales, higher average order value and customer loyalty.

Given that already 76% of B2B customers receive customised offers, you shouldn't skimp on personalizing your product catalogue too.

You can do that in several ways:

  1. Set up an on-site quiz-styled questionnaire that would help buyers narrow down their choice.
  2. Create an Amazon-style online product comparison tool for more detailed comparisons.
  3. Leverage email marketing to follow-up with personalized PDF catalogues and other collateral after the conversation with a sales rep.

4. Ensure visibility of spare parts.

Maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) is one of the most pressing issues for manufacturing businesses. A delayed replacement part can result in costly downtime and subsequent production delays. As an OEM, you certainly don't want to be the cause of that.

The big boon of modern ecommerce solutions is their ability to act as a single source of truth — a portal, consolidating data from different points-of-sales and showing customers where and when they can order the necessary items. 

Also, the current advances in tech and connectivity allow manufacturers to design inventory management strategies based on real-time connectivity. Using predictive algorithms, you can accumulate historic purchase data with condition monitoring data to estimate when certain parts are due for replacement. Based on that, you can delight customers with 'just in time' and 'just in case' notifications, prompting re-ordering.

5. Configure products online.

In the vein of personalization, custom online configurations is another highly-demanded feature among B2B companies. Again, an ability to create several product setups for easy comparison majorly alleviates the feeling of overwhelm most B2B buyers deal with.

By adding a virtual product constructor to your ecommerce website, you can:

  • Present real-time pricing, process and product information within a single interface.
  • Address common customer questions with helpful pop-ups and links to manuals to reduce the volume of support inquiries.
  • Empower buyers to assemble fully custom specs, not available with other vendors.

Factors to Consider When Creating an Ecommerce Store for Manufacturers

Delightful CX is a major attractor for modern B2B consumers. To capture a bigger B2B market share, prioritize the next 4 steps when building your ecommerce store.

1. Identify your audience and their needs.

Unlike B2C, B2B brands cater to a smaller universe of shoppers with highly specific needs. The knowledge of who your ideal buyers are, where they dwell and how you can best serve them has to stand in the mortar of your e-store.

Start with preliminary online market research:

  • Scope the online competition.
  • Analyze the online shopping experience they provide.
  • Determine the priority sales/marketing channels for your brand.
  • Analyze the standard sales cycles in your industry.
  • Identify the key steps in the customer lifecycle.
  • Map the key stages in the sales cycle. 
  • Outline the main pain points your target audience deals with at every stage.
  • Brainstorm ways for alleviating these via digital means. 

Then get to the virtual drawing board and start mapping the main customer navigation flows through your website. It's good to have a UX/UI designer at this point. Your goal is to envision how a potential buyer will move — from the homepage to the shopping cart — and determine what could help them progress faster.

2. Select the products you will sell online.

While not all B2B goods can be sold online (especially those requiring customisation), still you should set up a dedicated product catalogue. You can separate your products into two categories:

  • Available for instant online ordering.
  • Sold in-person/via sales reps.

For the first product category, you can create a B2C-like shopping experience online that includes:

  • Online product listings.
  • Easy filtering and search.
  • Instant pricing.
  • Detailed product descriptions.
  • Attractive photos and/or 3D models.

Berlin Packaging, for example, does a great job with this. The company designed an easy-to-browse product catalogue with each listing featuring all of the above, plus related product recommendations.

Berlin Manufacturers

For products that cannot be sold online for certain reasons, you can create a set of dedicated landing pages, featuring exhaustive product information, online comparison or config tools, plus a CTA to contact a sales representative.

3. Build your ecommerce store.

With an array of out-of-the-box B2B ecommerce solutions such as BigCommerce, you don't need to start the development process from scratch. Instead, you can leverage premade core commerce features, visual design tools, plug-ins and integrations to assemble your online store. This can save you time and costs on pre-launch.

Selecting your ecommerce platform

B2B ecommerce platforms come in many shapes and with different feature combinations. To narrow down your search, first think in terms of solution grade.

  • Do you need an enterprise solution? Such platforms offer a greater degree of customisation, scalability and elasticity when it comes to handling high traffic volumes. On the other hand, such options also require an in-house IT team or external partner to assist with the initial configuration, extra integrations and maintenance.
  • Or a solution for small businesses will do for you? Distributed as SaaS and/or open-source, such B2B ecommerce platforms are pre-packaged with core commerce features and ready-to-use plug-ins/extensions to enable extra features. Most SMB ecommerce adopters start with such options and then choose to upgrade.

Next, think in terms of features. The ecommerce platform you choose should provide you with sufficient tools for creating an on-brand sales experience. Some of the must-have B2B ecommerce platform features are:

  • Ability to set custom MOQs and add bulk discounts.
  • Wholesale order forms and wholesale pricing.
  • Access restriction options to hide certain areas of your website (e.g. pricing for custom product configs).
  • Customisable product catalogue and pricing, adjustable to different customer segments.
  • Flexible and secure payment options and integrated payment processing.

Check a deeper overview of B2B ecommerce platforms and important features if you are still at the research stage.

Store's theme

Most SaaS ecommerce solutions come with a theme library — a selection of free and premium website designs you can download and easily customise.

A good B2B ecommerce theme provides:

  • Intuitive navigation.
  • SEO benefits.
  • Advanced product listing features.
  • Responsive, mobile-friendly experience.
  • Easy no-code customisation (+ advanced in-code changes).

Check out this line up of B2B ecommerce website designs to get a better sense of what you can build using a premade theme.

Store's design

Your overall store layout should be aligned with your typical customer journey.

Every standard ecommerce design element such as homepage, product catalogue, product listing/landing pages and checkout form should be optimised to facilitate the buyer's decision-making.

Here are several essential UX best practices to accomplish the above:

  • Invest in longer page content and microcopy for key products.
  • Direct buyer towards extra information and tools for comparison.
  • Offer an easy way to connect with a sales rep or support agent.
  • Prominently display integration, compatibility and regulatory information.
  • When you cannot give a fixed price, provide several pricing scenario models or a calculator tool.
  • Prompt buyers to self-sort themselves into the right segments via progressive navigation, questionnaires and short quizzes.

Your goal is to help the buyer move further down the sales funnel, by addressing different concerns they have with readily available content and/or online tools.

Product descriptions

B2B decisions are highly rational and often involve multiple stakeholders. So your product descriptions should focus on facts and figures, rather than emotional marketing tactics.

When you are writing B2B product descriptions:

  • Aim for clarity over wit. Prioritize key product features, benefits, standard and regulatory/compliance information.
  • Explain and illustrate. Mention different product use cases, provide walkthroughs and demos from other customers.
  • Minimize jargon. Include the most important product specs and keep the others in downloadable product sheets.

4. Create your ecommerce team to support your store.

Remember: over half of buyers will still want to speak to a sales rep before purchasing online. So ensure that you have a properly staffed ecommerce sales division to support online order processing, as well as custom quotes and large-volume deal negotiations.

Separately, you should have dedicated engagement managers to support existing clients. These folks should keep track of average buyer re-ordering cycles and reach out for prospects when it's time for repurchasing. Plus, they can also introduce new customers to core products and/or after-sales propositions to drive loyalty.

Lastly, you may also need an ecommerce development partner on call to help with minor website improvements, troubleshooting and new extensions. Though, if you opt for a B2B ecommerce platform such as BigCommerce, most of the technical website maintenance work is performed by us.

2 Examples of Manufacturers Using Ecommerce

Alright, you already learned a lot of ecommerce theory. But learning by example is important too. So let's take a look at how other manufacturing business owners run their ecommerce operations.

1. EcoEnclose.

Ecoenclose Manufacturers

EcoEnclose produces and sells sustainable packaging solutions for all sorts of goods and industries. Their ecommerce website has a B2C-like shopping experience with the ability to choose eco-packaging by type, use or industry. 

Every product category page progressively reveals different benefits of their packaging, plus value-added services such as custom branding, done with Algae Ink, 100% recyclable shipping labels and the ability to order fully custom packaging solutions.

Ecoenclose 1 Manufacturers

(EcoEnclose uses hyperlinks to direct shoppers to more information, plus offers multiple contact options.)

The manufacturer also opted for longer, more detailed product listing pages, featuring comprehensive information about the products, promoting bulk discounts and providing an easy way to place a sample, bulk or custom order.

Ecoenclose 2 Manufacturers

2. Clarion Safety Systems.

Clarion Manufacturers

Clarion Safety Systems produces safety signs, tags and labels. Apart from selling their products online, they also provide a range of extra services such as signage risk assessments, customisations and translation services. So their ecommerce website is quite a busy one but in a good sense!

Here's why.

The header area offers clear navigation to different types of products and services. Using the navigation bar, shoppers can:

  • Review all custom manufacturing & printing services.
  • Browse all available product categories.
  • Check provided services.
  • Get extra information regarding safety standards.
  • Or use the search bar to find a specific product.

Individual product pages nearly list all the available products, plus feature handy filters for refining search results — another excellent design practice.

Clarion 1 Manufacturers

Lastly, the company has a simple and effective online sign constructor tool that lets shoppers create custom safety signs. It features sample signs, design tooltips and all essentials tools for creating different types of signs and sending them over for manufacturing in a matter of clicks.

Clarion 2 Manufacturers

Need more examples? Check this round-up of B2B brands, delivering a stellar customer experience.

Wrapping Up

Manufacturing leaders are in an interesting position today. They can stick with the 'old way of doing things' and keep relying on third-parties. For how long will such a model remain viable? That's a tough question considering the rapid pace of digitization across markets.

Or they can take the matters into their own hands and set up ecommerce operations. Given the current B2B ecommerce market prospects and the future anticipated growth, fostered by Industry 4.0. and additive manufacturing, in particular, manufacturers today can start building a stronger rapport with their target buyers, collect data about their evolving preferences and apply it towards product development. That's a far more sound plan for not just future-proofing your operations, but also ensuring higher profitability.

FAQs

What is a manufacturer?

A manufacturer is a company, producing goods for sale from raw materials and afterward, selling them to customers, wholesales, or distributors.

How does ecommerce work for manufacturers?

Rather than distributing the produced items via third-parties, manufacturers can set up an online store to sell directly to consumers. So that goods get shipped directly from the fabric to the end-users. To launch ecommerce operations, leaders need to choose an ecommerce platform, create an online store, list individual products and product catalogues, plus create a checkout experience — on-site only or via phone, email, etc.

Why are manufacturers expanding into ecommerce?

In short, because the industrial purchase segment of ecommerce is booming. Most B2B buyers research and shop for supplies online. An ecommerce website allows manufacturers to improve brand awareness, attain higher profit margins (by ditching resellers/distributors), increase sales, plus expand into new markets and even regions.

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What ecommerce integrations do manufacturers need to be successful?

Some of the must-have ecommerce integrations for manufacturers include those with popular CRM, ERP and e-procurement systems. This way, they can build tight relationships with customers and deliver the required supplies 'just in time'. Other good-to-have integrations include payment processing (for online ordering), social media and email marketing (for retargeting campaigns) and integrations with in-store POS systems (if those are present).

What are the best ecommerce platforms for manufacturers?

The best ecommerce platforms provide a good degree of customisation when it comes to online product catalogue design, plus advanced features for restricting access to certain website areas/content, along with flexible pricing strategies.

How do manufacturer product catalogues work with an ecommerce platform?

A flexible ecommerce platform gives you plenty of options to create product catalogues. First, you can set up a B2C-like experience and list different types of goods for immediate purchase (with MOQs and discounts specified). Secondly, you can create interactive digital catalogues for custom products and items with multiple configs, enabling customers to review all product specs and variations online and then forward a request to your sales team. Lastly, you can also create and send personalized product catalogues via email to shoppers who completed a questionnaire and inquiry form online.

How does custom pricing work with an ecommerce platform?

Modern ecommerce solutions such as BigCommerce offer native CSR generated quote management and bulk pricing broken down to the SKU level. You can also assign price lists to specific customer groups or single wholesale accounts.

Should all manufacturers try ecommerce?

Absolutely! Given the overall B2B market prospect growths, it's safe to assume that online industrial product sales will also grow at a steady rate.

Why are manufacturers reluctant to try ecommerce?

Because entering the unknown is always a bit overwhelming. Especially, when some also feel skeptical towards the potential of ecommerce sales (versus selling via distributors). But 2020 has told many that being online equals staying profitable. Plus, with out-of-the-box solutions, setting up an ecommerce store no longer requires huge software development teams or lengthy timelines. That beats another common excuse of "it's too expensive and risky".

How does BigCommerce support manufacturers with ecommerce?

BigCommerce offers an intuitive, but robust ecommerce platform, packed with all the essential B2B commerce features. Using visual building tools, pre-made themes and extensions, new adopters can create a basic store in a matter of weeks. Apart from offering extensive documentation, fast customer service, dedicated account managers and training, BigCommerce can also connect manufacturing businesses with vetted development partners to assist with online store setup.

What is the role of ecommerce in the smart manufacturing era?

The end-goal of smart manufacturing is to enable greater adaptability and rapid product design using new-gen technologies such as AI, ML, IoT and big data analytic. So that any custom goods could be manufactured on-demand at a more affordable cost within the short time-frame. Such as setup ecommerce websites or embedded ecommerce functionality will facilitate seamless ordering of fully custom products with the input specifications, transmitted directly to the factory for immediate manufacturing.

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