How to Tackle Ecommerce as a Wholesale Distributor: Your Guide to Becoming an Industry Disruptor

That ecommerce remains a hugely growing market ranks right up there with “the sky is blue” in terms of obvious statements. 

According to data from Statista, global retail sales for ecommerce will reach $6.5 trillion by 2023. 

That’s all well and good for B2C sellers, you may think, but what does that mean for me as a wholesale distributor dealing with large orders to secondary sellers?

Ecommerce and digital transformation doesn’t just unlock potential for businesses selling to consumers. Increasingly, B2B brands are discovering their buyers are looking for many of the same things retail customers are looking for. 

To compete for market share as a wholesale distributor, you need to be part of the industry disruption and give your customers what they want. That means not only having an online presence, but one that creates a seamless customer experience from search all the way through checkout. 

Don’t be left behind as other B2B distributors make it easy for buyers to find and purchase what they want. This guide will help you get started in creating or optimizing your ecommerce channel to help your business innovate and grow. 

Why Ecommerce for Distributors? 

The B2B business is changing. Part of this is because the customers themselves and their expectations are changing.

According to research by Merit, 73% of buyers are Millennials. 

Millennials’ expectations for the B2B shopping experience are influenced by the same expectations they have for B2C shopping. They don’t necessarily want meetings and sales calls. They want an easy way to research and purchase what they need.

Consider these insights from B2X partners on how B2B buyers are searching:

  • 89% of B2B researchers conduct their searches online.
  • 73% of global traffic to B2B company sites originates from the search engines.
  • 57% of the buying process is done prior to engaging with a sales team.

In other words, if you don’t have a strong ecommerce channel to draw customers in and show them the value of your products, you’re likely missing out on a huge number of buyers out there searching. 

And their expectations for an easy digital experience don’t stop when they find your site. According to data from Corevist, 44% of B2B buyers in 2020 expect to see pricing online and 41% want self-service functionality. 

Providing these options opens your business up to the preferences of a number of new customers and may also provide a better experience for your existing customer base.

Reasons Why Distributors are Reluctant to Use Ecommerce

If you are like many distributors I speak to, you are aware of this shift but are held back by obstacles to overcome with unclear paths to resolution.

There are several pieces to the puzzle that you need to get right.

1. B2B business complexities.

There are usually many reasons B2B companies think ecommerce cannot work for them.

Yes, there are challenges, but there many more possible solutions than roadblocks.

Here are a few common concerns I hear from B2B businesses in regards to ecommerce:

  • You have customers with contract pricing, how will you handle that?
  • What about the customers who have special terms?
  • What about the items that you only provide to certain customers?

Each of these can be easily solved for the right ecommerce technology.

These are not roadblocks; they are considerations on an RFP and to ask of your technology vendors.

2. Team.

Beyond the technology itself, you may be wondering:

Who will support it?

Everyone on your team already has more work than they can handle.

  • Who has time for another initiative?
  • And what skills will this person need to have?
  • How much time will this take for your team to support?

This is where proper change management comes in.

Launching an ecommerce channel is a net new project for your business, and you will need to reset expectations accordingly.

But, it is not impossible to do – nor will it mean an increase in workload.

3. Culture of change.

We all resist change.

  • Salespeople are threatened by a tool that could replace them.
  • IT is concerned about security and their responsibility in the advent the site goes down or is compromised.
  • Others are skeptical that this will have a return on investment.

Even if you get every other planning step right, your culture will need to shift for the project to be a success.

Your team will need to decide to make the shift to becoming a digital business and the leadership will need to champion that effort with their words and action.

4. B2B purchasing.

B2B buyers don’t buy exactly like B2C buyers.

This is where the “consumerization of B2B” oversimplifies the challenges B2B sellers face.

For instance:

  • Some of your customers require a punchout solution.
  • Others pay via purchase order.
  • New customers you may require to pay via credit card.
  • You may have a group of customers that require manager approval before an order can be placed.

Can you handle all of this via ecommerce?

The answer is yes. There are technologies to handle everything from punchouts to purchase orders and many can be easily integrated with your ecommerce platform. 

Advantages to Adopting Ecommerce for Distributors

Overall, the positive impact from creating a strong ecommerce channel can more than outweigh the work needed to combat the above challenges. 

1. Room for growth and scalability.

By incorporating ecommerce in your long-term strategy, you are building an incredible outlet for growth. As mentioned above, you’re opening yourself up to a huge growing market and making it easier for a much greater audience to find your products. If you’re looking to scale up your operation, this is a great place to start. 

2. Endless innovation. 

Even if you’re not looking to scale up, you risk falling behind by not investing in digital tools. While your current methods might be working for you now, times are changing. Ecommerce provides a way for you to continue innovating so you can change with them. Be ready for customers’ evolving expectations around the buyer experience. Keep moving forward to avoid losing ground. 

3. Improved efficiencies. 

While it can be easy to see the adding of a new channel as just a way to add more to your workload, it can actually help you streamline your operations. Once you get things up and running, you can automate a number of processes. Online tools for analytics and inventory management can also help you make smarter, more efficient choices throughout your own supply chain. 

5 Requirements Needed for Distributor Ecommerce 

Determining what components will be necessary for your ecommerce store to have will be largely dependent on what type of industry you operate in. That said, there are a few mainstays that any distributor may want to strongly consider. 

1. Faceted search.

If you, like many wholesale distributors, have a complex catalog with many different product offerings, you need to make sure buyers can hone in on exactly what they need. Faceted search is a site navigation system that allows users to narrow down search results by a number of filters based on faceted classification of products. 

2. Customer-level pricing. 

One of the main differences between B2C sites and wholesale sites is that not all customer relationships are the same. Larger customers may have negotiated different discounts for your products. You can still honor these different pricing models through an ecommerce site that offers customer-level pricing. 

3. Account-level controls.

Much like discounted pricing, different buyer accounts will likely have different needs. 

Your ecommerce site should allow you to offer not just different pricing, but different products, different shipping options, and more. By adjusting controls at the account level, your customers are able to get the personalized experience of working with a salesperson, but with the convenience of a self-service option. 

4. Content, tech specs, and resources.

Good content is important for shoppers to not only find your site but to help them make a decision once they’re there. We mentioned above that buyers often find wholesale sources through search engine searches. Design SEO-optimized content that can help answer the precise questions they’re asking and give them the answers they’re searching for. Additionally, once they’re on your site, clear content — from product descriptions to technical specifications — can make them confident they’re getting the exact products they need. 

5. Personalized product recommendations. 

Personalization in online shopping is something that both B2C shoppers and B2B buyers are clamoring for. Providing personalized product recommendations can not only improve customer satisfaction by helping them find more they might need, but also can help increase your average order value. 

Steps for Distributors Building Ecommerce

Now that you know some of the basics you will need, let’s look at how to get there.  Here is a step-by-step approach that will set you up for success.

1. Develop Your Project Requirements.

The planning of your project is one of the most important steps.

You need to decide: Who is the target audience for your ecommerce site: your existing customer base, new customers, or both?

Here is a checklist for developing your requirements:

  • Evaluate the competition. If you search on the names of the products you sell, whose websites come up? Go to the websites of your traditional competitors, do they sell online? Search for your products on Amazon or Amazon Business, what do you find? What is your unique value proposition compared to your competition?
  • Decide what products you will sell. If you don’t already have an ecommerce site, think of a subset of your products that you can start with and expand on over time. If you try and put your entire product catalog online, getting your data in the right shape and the needed product photography can often lead to project delays. Better to get up and running with a set of products you can learn from. What products are your highest margin or would make your sales teams’ life easier if they didn’t have to be bothered with placing the orders?
  • Determine how you will organize your catalog.  The size and complexity of your product catalog will dictate how you can organize your site so customers can find the right products. For example, you can determine if customers will need to narrow their choices by different product attributes (e.g., width, color, brand, shape, length, shape, etc.).
  • Develop your sales tax strategy.  This will depend on how you handle sales tax offline and how you may have to adjust as you add in or grow your ecommerce. You may want to consider services like Avalara or TaxJar that enable you to calculate sales tax in real-time in checkout.
  • Plan for fulfillment.  What will the fulfillment process look like? Will you integrate your eCommerce to your ERP to minimize manual data entry and speed up fulfillment?
  • Line up your payment providers. Do you already take credit cards in your business? If so, what payment processor do you use? Will some customers be able to pay using credit terms? How are credit limits approved and managed internally? Will you need to support punchouts? Will managers need to approve orders?

Figuring out the answers to all of these questions will help you to personalize your RFP that you submit to technology vendors in order to ensure the technology you chose has as much built-in as possible to support your needs.

2. Identify potential obstacles.

Every company has a slightly different way of doing business. There will likely be certain ways you operate today that are not a straightforward match for ecommerce.

The key is to identify them up front so the team understands what they are and can address them in the solution that is planned.

Here are a few to consider:

  • Account creation: Your approval process requires internal review before a customer can place an order.
  • Order total is unknown: You calculate shipping after the order is placed and therefore don’t know the order total when the customer is going through checkout.
  • Regulations: Are there government industry regulations that affect how your products are purchased? For example, certain chemicals cannot be shipped to a specific state (e.g., California). If this is an issue for you, this should be listed in your requirements so it can be addressed during your site implementation.

Again, each of these challenges have solutions other distributors and manufacturers brands have figured out.

The ecommerce technology on the market is incredibly impressive and flexible enough to meet these needs.

3. Develop a vision of success.

Begin to think through what your new site will enable customers to do that they cannot do today.

How will it make their lives easier?

Create some measurable targets for what success looks like:

  • What are your revenue targets for year 1? Make clear ROI goals for your ecommerce channel.
  • Do you want to increase your speed of fulfillment? For instance, your goal might be to actualize 95% same-day shipping.
  • Do you want to decrease the amount of time your sales reps spend on taking small orders? Your ecommerce channel should be able to streamline your processes and help you and your team save time. 

The answers to this will depend on your current company overall revenue and what level of priority you are giving this initiative.

4. Promote a culture that will support change.

Before you can do this, you need to be sure you are ready to support change.

You should be excited about this initiative.

If you aren’t, talk with people who have had successful ecommerce implementations.

  • Read books or listen to speakers about businesses that have grown through digital commerce. Get excited about the potential to support your company in making this shift that will protect the future of the business.
  • Share with your team what you are excited about. Talk with them about what benefits they will see (less work to take an order). Talk with them about the benefits for your customers. Explain the benefit to the company as a whole as well as the cost of doing nothing.
  • For your salespeople to support this initiative, ensure there is no penalty for customers placing orders online. I would recommend your sales reps getting the same commission for orders coming from the website for their accounts as they would if they took the order offline. It is still a relationship they maintain. This helps everyone to be on the same team.

And finally, remember to recognize people who are creatively solving problems and going above and beyond to support this initiative.Celebrate small wins as your team works toward becoming a digital business.

5. Build your ecommerce team.

There are several different roles in the successful implementation of ecommerce.

Some will be internal and others will be external.

Determine who will serve in these roles and if you don’t have people, consider an outside agency or consultant to support you.

  • Content creator: Development of content strategy and the content itself.
  • Designer: This person will develop wireframes/mockups. They should be experienced with design for the web and for mobile. If you plan on keeping your B2B site’s web design simple, you can leverage pre-built themes and minimize your design requirements.
  • Front End Developer: This person will be skilled at HTML/CSS and Javascript that will influence the user experience.
  • Back End Developer: This person will be skilled at API calls to integrate with other systems as well as development that is not end-user facing. Often, you can use an agency for this role.
  • ERP Expert: You should have a resource who is knowledgeable on your ERP/fulfillment system to ensure that the requirements address your operational data needs.
  • Project Manager / Scrum Master: Project management is an important role in the successful outcome of your project. BigCommerce, for instance, supplies you with an ecommerce implementation Project Manager when you are on their enterprise plan.
  • Digital Marketing: This includes SEO, paid search and email marketing. Invest in email marketing and a base level of SEO at a minimum. Depending on your audience and goals, paid search can yield a strong ROI, if done well. Ensure you have someone managing these programs that has done this before and is clear on how to review your analytics to measure your ROI.

If this is your first step into ecommerce, ensure you have some people on your team who have done this before. At a minimum, you want a project manager, a developer, and a digital marketer who all have implemented an ecommerce site before.

Remember, some of these roles can be outsourced to your partner agency.

As such, many of these positions will likely be external to your organization that you hire via a solutions implementer (SI). As you talk to SIs, understand that they all have their own technology biases. This will be important for you to understand as you select your technology.

Identify who on your ecommerce team will come from your internal team and who you will be engaging externally.

Even if you have internal developers, you may want to have them support the site following the development and allowing the SI to do the initial implementation to get you up and running.

6. Select your technology.

There are a number of ecommerce platform options out there, but it’s important to pick the right one for your business. Here are a few things to consider: 

  • What will setting up your site cost? Are there pre-built integrations that will save you money?
  • How easy will the platform be for you to maintain? Will you need to manage security, patches, and updates yourself? 
  • Is hosting included?
  • Will you need a separate site for your content site? If so, is there a way to integrate that with your ecommerce?
  • Does it have the B2B features you are looking for? Take into consideration B2B ecommerce industry trends.
  • What ongoing development is being done on the platform to ensure you stay up-to-date with changes in the marketplace?

Plan to take some time selecting your technology. You will need to educate yourself on the many aspects of this decision.

The Importance of User Experience and Product Content

Providing customers with their desired user experience is not a simple task.

It is more than offering your product for sale on your website.

You need to think about who your user is, what problem they have when they come to your site, and how you can help them solve that problem.

  • If it is a customer looking to buy a specific tool, what are the common reasons they are buying that tool?
  • Can you offer a YouTube video that helps them with the equipment they are buying the tool to fix?
  • Are there other products they will likely need along with that tool?

Consider how you will display related products, either on the product page or in the shopping cart (or both).

Preparing Your Site to Serve Your Ecommerce Customers

Becoming a digital business is about more than setting up an ecommerce site.

It is about supporting customers in getting the answers they need via the channels that are the easiest for them to use.

1. Train your internal team on using your website.

Your sales reps should know how to use the website well and be able to assist customers in any questions they might have. They should also demonstrate to customers how the self-service features of the site will make their lives easier. 

2. Plan communication to your existing customer base to introduce them to your new site.

While one of the goals of your ecommerce site might be to gain new customers, you will also want to make sure your current customer base is aware of it and can use it to their advantage. Email your current customers to let them know. You may also want to create content like videos or webinars to assist them in understanding how the process is changing. 

3. Make sure your customer service team checks emails frequently.

Any big changes will lead to some questions. Especially as you’re just getting started, make sure to quickly follow up with customer inquiries to make sure they have the information they need to use the site. 

4. Consider setting up live chat on your ecommerce site. 

Many businesses have found live chat on site to be a nice way to engage with customers who might not want a full sales call but who have quick questions they want immediate answers to. 

Digital businesses are also about continuous improvement.

You will get feedback from customers on things that are not the way they expect.

Make note of it.

  • Study your analytics to see where users are running into obstacles placing an order.
  • Review your search statistics to learn what users are searching for and not finding.
  • Customers will get on live chat to tell you when something isn’t behaving the way they expect. Help them to place an order, but pass the info along.

Have a budget to plan for ongoing improvements.

Your customers will value seeing that you are investing in improving the experience for them.


B2B ecommerce is a growing market. You want to make sure to stay on the first wave and become an industry disruptor or risk being left behind. 

By following this guide, you can create an ecommerce presence that will support gaining new customers and providing a value add for existing customers. 

Creating an ecommerce site that will offer the B2B buyers of today and tomorrow the experiences they are coming to expect will ultimately help you grow your business now and into the future. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *