B2B eCommerce Digital Transformation: Why is Adoption Taking Longer Than Predicted?

For a number of years now, the predicted growth of B2B eCommerce has been a key trend among major industry strategists, much like well-trodden topics such as Mobile Commerce and Big Data. Unlike these trends however, B2B eCommerce still remains in relative infancy, and successful adoption continues to lag behind B2C players, where consumers have long now expected a consistent experience across all touchpoints and devices.

We see digital early-adopter companies like Screwfix, Tech Data and Office Depot making huge innovations in the B2B space, by introducing technology-driven and market-differentiating capabilities to their offering. These companies succeed by leveraging best practices from their B2C counterparts, including responsive design, omni-channel pricing consistency, business process simplification and digital customer acquisition strategies. However, other B2B players, particularly smaller-sized businesses, continue to remain behind the curve in both eCommerce and digital adoption in general.

Why is this?

From our perspective, there are three primary reasons causing this:

1. Complex and Company-Specific B2B Business Processes

B2B Pricing

B2B buyers come in all different shapes and sizes; the scale, range and frequency of customer purchases can vary hugely within a single B2B organisation. As a result, B2B systems need a complex pricing model which can apply pricing at account, department or SKU level. These need to accommodate price fluctuation, customer-specific pricing and quantity-based discounts. If you then add the need to offer flexible, quotation-based pricing to customers, it is daunting for an organisation to entrust pricing solely to an eCommerce platform, and decrease reliance on person-to-person communication when applying discounts.

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Legacy eProcurement Processes

B2B legacy eProcurement systems typically involve the use of point-to-point connection between buyer and the seller through electronic data interchange (EDI), which can lack the flexibility to scale, adapt and update alongside the shifting demands of the industry. This renders B2B systems vulnerable to, and incompatible with, software upgrades or enhancements by another member of the supply chain or members of their customer base.

Business Relationships

The ‘typical’ B2C customer journey does not apply in the realm of B2B buying and selling. B2B business relationships include purchasing permissionscontractual obligations and price quotations, all of which often require a need for real human expertise as part of the buying process. Again, it is challenging for B2B businesses to imagine a landscape where this complexity is integrated seamlessly into the eCommerce experience.

2. Internal “Digital vs. Non-Digital” Conflict

The Value of Person to Person Sales

Despite the relative growth of B2B eCommerce, many sales are still made face-to-face between a buyer and sales representative, and completed via paper invoice and fax. This limits sales to within business-hours, and reorders then become a cumbersome task of filling out and faxing, or scanning and emailing, order forms.

Nevertheless, talking to a sales representative is seen as a value added experience, and their knowledge is a crucial asset for customer relations. It’s difficult to standardise such a human heavy process, and even more difficult for such a process to exist in harmony with a more automated eCommerce experience.

The ‘Catalogue’ Mentality

Many B2B websites have emerged from a reactive desire for companies to get their catalogue online to remain competitive, rather than a long-term strategy for eCommerce growth. As a result, product hierarchies and onsite search are often ill-equipped to deal with the ever-increasing product ranges required to remain relevant in the modern B2B market.

B2B organisations can become stuck in a ‘Catalogue Mentality’, where limited, paper-based information is supplemented with human expertise to achieve a sale. B2B eCommerce experiences have often failed to provide the rich site content needed to “hold its own” in a purchasing decision.

Organisational Segmentation

Companies who have developed from non-eCommerce based models to becoming an online business, have often struggled to merge their growing ‘Digital’ function with more traditional areas such as Marketing, Sales and IT. To achieve eCommerce success, businesses need to merge these areas towards the common goal of creating a seamless, omni-channel experience.

This requires substantial organisational and cultural change, which may be met with difficulty from key stakeholders. Whilst this is true across both B2B and B2C, the relative simplicity of B2C business processes have made this easier to achieve, and B2B organisations have found themselves struggling to integrate their eCommerce workstream to be a fundamental part of their business.

3. Attracting New Customer Segments

B2C seizing B2B Opportunities

As well as their traditional adversaries, B2B companies are now competing against massive online marketplaces, such as Amazon, Alibaba and Ebay, who are revolutionising B2B commerce. B2B relationships are moving from a one-to-many to a many-to-many model; the average B2B customer will conduct 12 searches via a search engine before even engaging with a specific brand’s site. Companies who have already mastered SEO as part of B2C commerce are much better placed, from a technology perspective, to adapt to the needs of a B2B customer base.

Testing the ALT textShift in Buyer Demographics

The past few years have seen a shift in the B2B buyer and researcher demographic, with approximately half of these roles now being filled by the millennial generation1. Forrester Research reported that 53% of B2B buyers use their smartphones to search for products, browse catalogues and read reviews.
This new demographic, whose purchasing expectations have been set by B2C eCommerce standards, now expect B2C staples such as personalisation, product reviews, targeted promotions, free shipping, clear pricing, rich product content, a simplified log-in experience and an optimised checkout.

Differentiating from ‘Digital First’ Companies

B2B customers are now engaging through various online and offline touch points, and use multiple information sources to make decisions. B2B companies must ensure the structure and content of their website is optimised across all devices, and that the relationship between eCommerce and their legacy sales processes is seamless, with continuity throughout.

Companies such as Screwfix and eBay (via Argos) have a huge physical presence in the UK, making initiatives such as prepaid Click & Collect a powerful customer offering: why would a B2B customer wait for Next Day Delivery when that crucial part they need right now is 10 minutes down the road? Smaller, less eCommerce focused B2B companies who cannot offer the same infrastructure need to think of new, innovative ways to compete in order to maintain and attract core customer segments.


Overcoming these challenges requires transformational business change, across process redesign, technology implementation and perhaps the most challenging: the culture of the organisation as a whole. Moving to a B2B eCommerce platform requires a strategic commitment to eCommerce as fundamental part of the business, rather than just a supplementary revenue channel; and realistically this often requires significant long-term investment.

However, according to Forrester Research, retailers can save up to 90% on sales and operating costs by launching and managing B2B eCommerce sites. For your customers to self serve at their convenience, in the knowledge that they are getting the best, consistent price regardless of channel, drives trust in eCommerce applications, and provide greater flexibility and control to business users.

Moreover, valuable B2B expertise in the form of Account Managers and Sales Representatives can be redeployed to focus on business development and less on the everyday churn of person-to-person sales.

With the global B2B eCommerce market expected to reach $6.7 trillion by 2020 (Frost & Sullivan), twice that of the B2C eCommerce market ($3.2 trillion, Forrester Research) within the same timeframe, the benefits of B2B organisations becoming eCommerce enabled are clear.

Are you still wondering how to overcome these challenges within your organisation?

Do you see other, more impactful, factors to the adoption of eCommerce within your company? Please feel free to get in touch directly with any questions.

About Tacit Knowledge
Tacit Knowledge is a digital commerce consultancy focused on creating value for our clients by helping them consistently satisfy and delight shoppers across all channels and devices.