B2B ecommerce has been on a tear. The global B2B Ecommerce market reached US$12.2 trillion in 2019 – six times that of the B2C market. Yet according to B2BecNews surveys in 2018, based on feedback from 276 manufacturers, wholesalers and distributors, 60.7% of manufacturers and 38.1% of wholesalers and distributors did not yet have an Ecommerce site. The vast majority (75%) said they planned to be online by 2020. 

Here we are mid-2020, and if you are one of these companies still trying to play catch up, the clock is ticking, and you may not be able to finish the race.

So what’s derailing you? Chances are it’s your culture … and your tech stack.

B2B relied on face-to-face selling and special pricing based on quantities and customer loyalty. So the tech stack reflected that. I did a little research on technology stacks from just 5 years ago and it was focused on behind-the-scenes customer management. Tools like CRM, marketing automation, and sales enablement tools were procured to allow companies to push out messages to the customer.

Those tools are what’s holding you back now.

The Near Obsolete Tech Stack

Go back another 10 years, and Electronic Data Integration (EDI) was in its prime, made popular (and mandated) by the 800 pound consumer gorilla known as Walmart. Key to just-in-time ordering was the ability to communicate and directly with suppliers – and B2B companies built massive infrastructures to handle EDI ordering. 

But EDI still required the buyer to already know about the manufacturer, its offerings, and, most importantly, the exact SKU – all of which drove the investment in 20th century sales and marketing tools of trade shows, face to face, print catalog, direct mail, and the phone. But a funny thing happened. Turns out, B2B buyers are also B2C consumers. 

In their off hours these B2B folk were trained to use search engines, social media, and Amazon to find new ideas, products and services. When Amazon decided to open up its B2B marketplace in 2015, the die was cast. B2B eCommerce has become more than just a nice-to-have, it’s now the new mandate.

With Amazon Business projected to grab $34b in sales by 2021, they are grabbing sales from companies like yours.

Product Catalogs Hold Up Shift to Online Selling

But perhaps the biggest impediment to change is managing the product catalog. 

Transforming a company from offline push selling to online pull selling is not easy. Every single offering that was once seen in person – or influenced by a person – now has to sell itself online. 

You want new buyers to find out you sell capacitors? You need to have that product detail findable by Google. You want existing customers to find out you now offer sustainable products? You need to merchandise them on your site. 

In order to do any of that, your product catalogs need rich metadata. Here are but a few of the types of information needed – just to sell on your own site. If you also (or instead) sell into a marketplace – you also have all this information conform to whatever channel you are selling through. 

10 Considerations for Your Product Catalog 

  • Localization: If you have global customers, you need to think “local.” From languages to currencies to sizes. Do you have easy currency conversions/ Do you have sizes available in both Imperial/SAE and metric? (If you use both, you should make it easy to toggle between ALL metric or ALL SAE so that people only see what they will use.)
  • Attributes: Let’s talk about these for a moment. Attributes are characteristics that make something different from something else. If every product has exactly the same attribute, there might not be a lot of distinction there. If you are selling products from recyclable materials, that should be called out as an attribute.
  • Terminology: You can use your terminology – as long as people know what you are talking about. If your buyers only buy pies and you want to call it cake, well, they may never look for or find your product. Or have robust technology that will suggest that the two are the same.
  • Pricing: Do you have different pricing for different companies? Make sure that you can easily manage these entitlements right from login. And make sure they are up to date.
  • Variants: Are there variants to your product? If bicycles can be assembled with different seats, pedals, or tires – ensure those variants are easily found.
  • Availability: Customers need to know if a product is available and how many are available. If a product is not available, they must know when it will be. And if it is discontinued, you must be able to recommend something else. 
  • Recommendations: My family owned a high-end retail furniture store for decades. A good sales rep would be able to tell my father and sister which products would be a good choice for replacing a discontinued product. Your site should be able to offer personalized recommendations as well.
  • Personalized Navigation: If you have a product catalog with tens of thousands, perhaps even millions, of SKUs, you will want to personalize the navigation to help your buyers find only that which is relevant for them. Let’s say you are a home furnishings supplier and you have sustainable products in the mix. Instead of ordering facets in a generic fashion, you would display only those categories that had products made of recycled materials. 
  • High quality media: Your buyers are trying to sell your products – and will likely look to you for images, how-tos, even documentation. In addition to the catalog, make sure ancillary images are easily available as well. If you offer a warranty with your product (and you should so you can start compiling a direct-to-customer database), make sure that information is readily available for your supplier to pass onto the customer.
  • Robust search: One of the repeat complaints buyers tell me is that even after they carefully type an arcane SKU into the site search box, they somehow get an onslaught of 250 results. “Partial match” searches are the culprit. But if this is a repeat customer, you should be giving them exactly what they have bought in the past. 

If you are the person who has had to manually figure out the attributes in order to classify, tag, and describe mundane items like screws, capacitors, gaskets, you know how hard it is to maintain all of this. A product catalog management solution will help. As will a product information management solution. And a digital asset management system. And a content management system. And all the other systems you have. But what you really have ended up with is an archipelago of siloed databases, each with its own index. 

The problem with that is when a user queries your site, that query gets sent out to multiple indexes. Each silo might have its own rules on what is most relevant, instead of working in concert to provide what the user wants. 

Unified Index and Machine Learning

A unified index is literally one master index of all your assets, all your knowledge and all your products. This allows for homogenous ranking of search results, regardless of their sources. But, while important, that’s only half the equation. The other half is marrying that unified index with machine learning

In B2C, much of the effort with machine learning is focused on user data, such as past buying history, what they click on – and what they don’t, what they type in the query box – and what they retype. 

In B2B though, you probably have a much smaller ratio of customers to products. So while user behavior data is important, product intelligence is key.  This allows you to figure out how products – and words defining those products – are grouped together. This allows you to know that a washer goes with a given fastener, or a bicycle seat with certain bikes. 

My colleague Jacopo Tagliabue describes products as being similar to humans – you can learn a lot about them by the company they keep. You can read his brilliant description of product embeddings to show how this analysis can be done. 

The key to product clustering again, goes back to harnessing all that rich data that is in all those silos. That can only be done with a unified index.

Catch Up – and Speed Ahead

The good news is that, even if you have been waiting until the last leg in the race to catch up, you still can. Most of your B2B brethren that beat you to online are still struggling, precisely because they have not yet adopted a unified index with machine learning. If you were one of those companies who held off until now, you can actually catch up – and speed ahead if you go with the right tech stack that serves the challenges of 2020 and beyond.