B2B technical and industrial companies are adopting affordable, yet robust e-commerce platforms in record numbers. Forrester forecasts the US B2B e-commerce will reach $1.8 trillion and account for 17 percent of all B2B sales in the United States by 2023. This explosive growth is driven by an abundance of companies doing everything they can to one-up peers and win your business with compelling technology.
Companies in scores of B2B industries are building out e-commerce capabilities as a strategy to quickly add another distribution channel — connecting you to a much larger audience. Additionally, with the surge of B2C commerce in the last few years (think Amazon), B2B buyers are demanding similar high-quality experiences from business-to-business firms.
If you want to add e-commerce capabilities to your website or “marketing stack,” this is your year. More B2B e-commerce software is available in online versions, which helps drive down both acquisition and maintenance costs. At the same time, software vendors are offering multiple versions of their platforms with tiered capabilities and price points. Some even offer free versions.
By some measures, there are at least a dozen e-commerce platforms you could consider for your company’s B2B storefront — too many for anyone to evaluate over a reasonable period. However, to save you time, we’ve provided you with just enough background on the industry’s top four platforms to help you choose the best technology for your company.
In addition to overall pros and cons of these top four software platforms, there’s a handful of key criteria to help you decide which e-commerce platform is best for you and your specific application. Nothing is one-size-fits-all. If you’re exploring e-commerce for the first time or updating an existing or older e-commerce website, there are many additional factors to consider, which impact both the website and your operations:
- Defining shipping rules
- Creating a product database
- Managing the inventory
- Choosing a server environment
- Order fulfillment
- Extendibility & reliability
- Promotion/discount types
- Complex product configurations
- Payment Processor
Every B2B e-commerce website package must satisfy what are often two opposing requirements — a rich platform to creatively showcase your company’s products, and the need to offer users intuitive functionality to find and order products.
B2B E-commerce Platform Evaluation Factors
Technical, industrial, and manufacturing companies often require more unique functionality from an e-commerce platform than a B2C company. For example, a company that only sold custom products discovered that many of its customers were ordering the same products with similar specifications. Realizing an opportunity, the company began offering the same products to customers as regular inventory items, while continuing to offer the custom versions. Dealer portals and pricing groups are a common need.
As you consider the best choice for your company’s e-commerce platform, here are six factors to help you evaluate your options:
1. User Experience
Consider the customer’s user experience, and also the skill level and the number of people who will edit and maintain product information. Will there be more store content than marketing content or vice versa? Some systems make it challenging to easily create nicely-formatted marketing content pages. If the system requires administrators to know HTML, CSS or other languages to hard-code layouts, it may be challenging for the average admin to maintain your site. Conversely, some systems provide a slick and simple admin interface for adding and managing products. Additionally, some platforms are quite extensible, but their admin dashboards are so complicated they can require significant user training, which can be expensive.
Will all of your products be available for online purchase or will some require the customer to request a quote or have the product custom made to spec? Will there ever be a case where some customers can purchase a product outright while others may need to request a quote? Are you selling single or bundled products? Will you offer advance order purchases or backorders?
2. Website Life Expectancy
The average lifespan of a website is three to five years. But because a B2B site will likely integrate with numerous business processes its lifespan can be longer with careful maintenance. Make sure your platform is extendible enough to meet your long-term growth plans.
3. Business Rules Flexibility
How flexible are your company’s business rules when it comes to automated online functions such as shipping and tax considerations? Are you willing to flex your current processes or requirements to comply with a wide array of different scenarios? For instance, a large e-commerce platform like Shopify has baked-in business rules that reflect industry best practices for conducting online commerce. A business rule, for example, may state that returning customers don’t have to manually input shipping addresses or billing information. If your business can’t adopt the fundamental rules in the industry’s leading platforms, then you’ll have to tailor an off-the-shelf solution.
Building a B2B e-commerce presence is also an opportunity to evaluate your internal processes. Is every step in the process essential, does it add value?
4. Installed Base
What’s the installed base of the e-commerce platform you’re considering? Your in-house developer may have fallen in love with an emerging, niche platform that’s perfect for your needs. If the platform is too new, however, it could be challenging to find external expertise in case your developer leaves. With mature software, you can rely on a broader community of developers to tap for support questions, updates, best practices, crowd-sourced security patches and more.
Bottom line: It’s better if you choose an e-commerce platform with an extensive installed base — where technical help and support is prodigious. The largest of the competing platforms — Magento and Shopify — even organize annual worldwide conferences to bring together partners, developers, users and agencies for a multi-day immersive experience of learning and sharing.
5. Cybersecurity, Maintenance & Hosting
Some e-commerce applications are hosted, turnkey applications. If you don’t plan to use a hosted system, you’ll have to provide a dedicated server, proactive maintenance, security patches, regular PCI scans and more. While your website may not be a hacker’s prime target, websites at small and midsize businesses are hit daily by bots — most originating from Eastern Europe and China — testing the site’s firewall. According to security firm Sitelock, a typical business website is attacked 44 times a day. Victims of attacks often find their sites infected with “bots, malware, backdoors and other malicious software.” The stakes are even higher when the privacy of customer credit card information is potentially at risk.
If you take the open-source path, experts can help you develop robust security around your website, but costs are generally higher when compared to the licensing fees for hosted e-commerce stores on Shopify or similar platforms, and, the liability is on your shoulders.
We always recommend that you choose professional-grade, dedicated hosting for your company’s website and e-commerce platform, if you don’t go the hosted route. Additionally, to maintain a secure site, perform monthly or more frequent updates to your CMS and any plug-ins or extensions you’re using.
6. Systems Integration
Every company has legacy systems that may have to work cohesively with the new e-commerce platform. However, sophisticated ERP software such as NetSuite, IQMS, Sage and Infor can be challenging and will likely require extra support from your IT department. A skilled web developer can work with your IT department to make direct connections or use a third-party intermediary system, so that information is passed efficiently between systems, reducing the need for manual entry.
CMS and E-commerce Integration
Many systems work well as a standalone, but to provide your users with a seamless experience as they browse your website for educational content as well as purchasing products, we often recommend you build a platform with a proven CMS (content management system) like WordPress or Concrete5 for the marketing content, and your chosen e-commerce package, such as Magento or Shopify for the e-commerce functionality. The two systems can “talk to each other” to the extent that you’ll never have to enter the same information in each platform.
Some companies may choose to have two website administrators split duties between the store and corporate content — especially if your e-commerce platform contains hundreds of SKUs. Your users, of course, won’t perceive any differences within your website. For instance, you can create a standard header and footer which is managed by the CMS but includes cart and account status elements from the e-commerce tool. Other than a URL change (companywebsite.com, store.companywebsite.com), your customers won’t notice that there are two underlying technologies.
Pros and Cons: Shopify, Magento, BigCommerce and WooCommerce
In the list below, we’ve summarized each of the top four B2B e-commerce platforms, provided several pros and cons and shared 2019 pricing data.
Subscription-based Shopify can scale from a small volume system up to an enterprise-wide system. The platform can easily handle large product volumes and spikes in traffic. You’ll appreciate its intuitive admin controls, which helps minimize training expenses. Additionally, Shopify is known for its relatively low implementation costs and offers several service plans.
- Slick and easy admin interface
- Hosted — includes security and platform maintenance
- Low monthly cost and more economical by comparison build cost
- Online support from the platform
- Extensive, easy-to-use online documentation
- Large developer pool
- Broad API support
- Well supported tools for integrating e-commerce features into outside websites
- Limited marketing content customization
- Cannot customize payment gateway or checkout process
- Business logic sometimes won’t accommodate your needs
- Expect about $600/year for Shopify service access, addon apps, and hosting. For live shipping rates, the price jumps to about $4,000/year. An enterprise-level experience, Shopify Plus, starts around $15,000/year.
This powerful platform, which is now owned by Adobe, is used for midsize to large e-commerce sites. You’ll need an experienced web professional or developer to help you set up and manage Magento, which is an open-source or subscription-based service. It’s great for complex scenarios where you have a shared product database and multiple storefronts for various parts of your business. Magento is also ideal for complex freight shipping scenarios, or any other scenario where you need to customize the e-commerce system to match your requirements or business rules.
- Open source and extendible
- Large marketplace for third-party customizations
- Flexible product option configurations
- Multiple destination shipping configurations
- Numerous user groups (facilitating dealer pricing, individual customer pricing, etc.)
- Flexible tiered pricing rules
- Compelling discount and coupon code system
- Large developer pool
- More expensive to build and maintain
- Requires beefy dedicated server environment
- Needs security and regular PCI scans
- Admin tools can have a steep learning curve; could require extensive training
- Templates can be inflexible and require developer support for most adjustments
- Expect about $6,000/year to run and maintain Magento on a dedicated server with PCI compliance testing, firewall and monitoring.
The WooCommerce platform runs exclusively on WordPress websites as a simple plug-in, which explains its popularity. If you decide to use WooCommerce with an existing WordPress theme, make sure the theme is compatible with the plug-in (all themes aren’t). And because it’s open-source, the plug-in is free! The secret of success with WooCommerce is choosing a high-quality WordPress hosting service, and working with a skilled website developer.
- WooCommerce and WordPress are both open source and can be enhanced via WordPress plug-ins and WooCommerce extensions.
- Large developer pool
- WordPress CMS is highly customizable for marketing content
- Simple and intuitive dashboard tools
- Enhancing a site with numerous plug-ins or extensions may increase the site’s complexity and potentially cause maintenance problems as the plug-ins and extensions independently evolve over time.
- A large developer pool, combined with a low barrier to entry, can result in quality problems if you hire inexperienced people. Make sure you vet your employees or contractors before making hiring decisions.
- With some installations, WooCommerce exists on your hosting server, which makes related liability a concern.
- Expect about $4,000/year for WooCommerce hosting, monitoring, maintenance, and licensing for addons.
The BigCommerce platform is available as standalone software, as well as a subscription-based service. The software’s dashboard is easy-to-navigate and will have you up and running in little time. The customizable software allows you to transform your store’s appearance and functionality into an effective, bespoke website.
- No transaction or setup fees
- Create unlimited staff accounts — ideal for large companies
- Multi-channel selling to use on Facebook, Amazon, eBay and others
- Plans include unlimited bandwidth, products and storage space
- Can download theme files to edit offline
- A small selection of free themes
- You must upgrade to a more expensive plan if you surpass the annual sales threshold associated with your plan.
- Recurring billing isn’t available out-of-the-box — but the feature’s available in the app store.
- Some advertised features only available to U.S.-based users
- Expect about $1,200/year for BigCommerce service access, addon apps, and hosting. For an advanced search filtering, the pricing jumps to about $3,200/year. An enterprise-level experience is available starting at $11,000/year.
Add New Distribution Channels, Grow Faster
For technical and industrial businesses seeking methods to grow faster or add new distribution channels, e-commerce platforms are making it easier for marketing leaders to acquire new customers through a low-risk, inexpensive strategy. Today, you have a capable mix of B2B e-commerce platforms to choose from for designing and building an ideal system. It’s time to open up new sources of revenue and give your customers more purchasing options.