B2B eCommerce shouldn’t be so hard

Jack Hayward, co-founder and technical director of Gravitywell, explores how B2C eCommerce experiences can be applied to large-scale trade and save the industry millions.

24 January 2019
manufacturemeet the expertonline shoppingtechnology

In the modern world of one-touch online retail, B2B customers are often overlooked or simply ignored when it comes to eCommerce. 

Gravitywell is a digital agency that specialises in creating easy-to-use and highly functional bespoke software for businesses of all sizes. The Bristol-based team has previously worked with Adelie, one of the largest food-to-go companies in the UK, to produce an eCommerce experience for Adelie’s customers, amongst whom are many of the UK’s most well-known high-street retailers along with independent cafes, corner shops, universities and more.

Jack Hayward, co-founder and technical director of Gravitywell, explains why the food industry needs to upgrade its B2B eCommerce platforms and shares some key things to bear in mind when building a customer-friendly site.


As Ritam Gandhi of Studio Graphene recently wrote in an article for Food Spark on the role of tech in disrupting the food sector: “The new wave of ‘technology of convenience’ means that consumers now readily have access to a whole suite of products that can be ordered at the touch of a button.”

And that technology is evolving very fast indeed. For example, we’re moving quickly towards predictive ordering. Sainsbury’s already asks, “Did you forget?” when placing a groceries order; Amazon encourages repeat purchases through their Subscribe & Save feature. Most of these experiences are even moving away from the browser now and into mobile apps and connected home tech. It’s getting easier and easier to obtain what you need with barely a thought.

So why isn’t this convenience prevalent among B2B food-to-go suppliers? Yes, large customers use – albeit somewhat clunky – electronic data interchange (EDI) processes, but why aren’t smaller chains or independents afforded access to your products as simply as they can order something from Amazon when shopping personally? Why are so many having to check through an emailed PDF or an actual made-from-a-tree catalogue of products and then place their orders by phone? Or, as is surprisingly still commonplace, by using a fax machine?

Some of the most cited reasons for not providing a simple eCommerce channel are, perhaps unsurprisingly, that food-to-go manufacturers have complicated products and pricing, or unique sale or return contractual terms with customers, or a 20-year-old enterprise resource planning (ERP) system that’s nearly impossible to integrate with but fully embedded – amongst many others.

By not offering trade customers the same level of experience they get with eCommerce generally, the barrier to getting your stock on their shelves is becoming larger. Worse still, by not overcoming the relatively straightforward challenge of making your products available online, that wave of new technology that Ritam Gandhi talks about simply won’t be available to you.

Taking off-the-shelf eCommerce software (even some of the most accomplished such as Magento) and trying to shoehorn that into a fresh-goods B2B model that has to consider forecasting, manufacturing, delivery, per-customer pricing and more – all the while kept in sync with a tailored ERP setup – obviously isn’t going to work.

And yet, the kind of well-established user journeys and familiar user interfaces and user experience (UI/UX) that such software provides is exactly what is required. Thus, the challenge is using design and technology to abstract the customer experience away from behind-the-scenes complexity, without having to introduce drastic change to the business itself.

Here are some of the most important aspects to consider when planning a B2B eCommerce site.

1. The customer is time-poor.

They’ll love you for making things simpler to manage. And, importantly, order more. Some key points:

  • A successful eCommerce site should be entirely self-serve. Having to phone customer services to check how something works or if an order is correctly understood defeats the point entirely. 
  • Transparency and flexibility. High-volume customers need visibility of exactly what they’re getting, and when. It should be possible to quickly and easily amend existing orders without talking to customer services – such as swapping a couple of thousand items out of an order for something else in two clicks.
  • Creating and managing standing orders is an essential feature. Set and forget – and allow the website to do all the hard work around cut-off calculations, bank holidays, etc. On the other side, this provides rich forecasting data without sacrificing flexibility.
  • Delivery sites, cut-offs and lead times. Yes, they can be different per store, per despatch site, per price code and more – even within a single customer account. This shouldn’t be a challenge for the site or the customer. You know who’s logged in and which site(s) they’re ordering for. The rest should be automatic and handled by the site and your ERP system working together.
  • Invoicing and creditingneedn’t be complex. The site should complement your contractual processes, pulling financial info from, and pushing orders and requests for credit to, your ERP system in the background.

2. Customer services should be a support function, not sales

Moving away from phone and fax orders should dramatically reduce the requirement for customer service and telesales resource. Furthermore, the staff can be reassigned to support your growing eCommerce channel.

  • Consider automating repetitive CS duties. Most likely, dealing with common order or financial issues. How many of these could be automated – for example, product replacement when there is a manufacturing problem? The system itself could be responsible for notifying everyone affected automatically when there’s an issue, allowing your CS team to be proactive rather than constantly reactive.
  • Introduce tools to make life easier. For example, build familiar keyboard shortcuts in to allow CS staff to navigate the administrative interfaces rapidly.
  • Do away with fax machines. Seriously.

3. Anywhere, any time, any device

Often repeated but rarely heeded. A good eCommerce site should adapt to customer needs. Why would someone access the site from a mobile phone when they normally use a computer? Probably because they’re just trying to quickly add something to an order that they forgot, or check what time a delivery is expected. Examine use cases and user journeys relevant to each.

4. Nobody understands all of your processes/terminology

You don’t need to create complex user interfaces to match your exact processes, or separate screens to manage your TLAs and BLTs. Instead, consider a simple, universal interface and then summarising things in plain English. For example, standing orders: Use a calendar UI accompanied with a simple explanation: “Your standing order will be delivered every Monday and Wednesday until the end of the year, excluding bank holidays.” 

5. Looking to the future

Once you’ve got everything communicating successfully and data flowing in both directions without human assistance, that ‘new wave of technology’ can start to be considered. A few obvious examples:

  • Machine learning/AI. The eCommerce site has all the data it could possibly need – combined with outside sources – to start predicting what and when your customers will be ordering. Capitalise on that opportunity and sell better. 
  • Testing. Not literal software testing – hopefully you would have done that by this point – but product or feature testing. Modern web technologies make it simple to try things out with minimal budgets. This could be a simple A/B comparison between design components, or a more complicated product or range test – perhaps even automatically against another dimension such as physical store location. You might find that your new peanut butter jelly sandwich is attracting much more attention in the South West, so you can allocate manufacturing budgets accurately.
  • Internet of Things (IoT). Yes, really. A current buzzword, but one that is set to remain. Your customers’ chiller cabinets and Point of Sales systems will know when particular stock is low and should be able to reorder automatically. This is already happening in some major stores across the UK and US. Building the layers required to abstract your eCommerce site away from your ERP system means you’re pretty much equipped for this future already.

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