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5 Must-Have Features of Enterprise E-Commerce

e-commerce

5 Must-Have Features of Enterprise E-Commerce

E-commerce is everywhere — unless, of course, you look in the B2B space. Unfortunately, one segment lags behind all the rest when it comes to online sales: manufacturers. Just 38% of manufacturers have e-commerce websites, and only 6% of all manufacturer sales come through this particular channel. 

Part of the reason manufacturers are so slow to adopt e-commerce can be traced back to the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The traditional ways of doing business largely haven’t posed a problem yet, so many manufacturers don’t feel a real sense of urgency to explore the increasingly relevant direct-to-consumer model. 

It also has a lot to do with technical hurdles. For many manufacturers, moving to e-commerce involves taking on yet one more system to master — that or an expensive integration with their current enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. It’s nearly impossible to get an e-commerce platform to talk to an old “closed” mainframe, so plans to upgrade often involve a two-year timeframe or longer to get everything up and running. They might also involve a million-dollar price tag. Not surprisingly, this tends to put e-commerce on the back burner pretty quickly. 

And it’s important to note, too, that most manufacturers work through distributors and dealers, making e-commerce seem like nothing more than a mere alternative to their current traditional sales channels. 

A Missed Opportunity

What many manufacturers seem to be missing, though, is that B2B customers are also B2C customers. Chances are that they’re already shopping online for their personal needs, and not having a way to buy their business products and services online can have a hefty negative impact on the customer experience. If you’re manufacturing a commodity product and your sales process lacks the convenience of shopping for that product online, your customers might begin to look elsewhere. 

Remaining passive about e-commerce is simply the wrong approach, especially with B2B buyers moving more of their purchases online all the time. As it stands, nearly half of all companies utilize online channels for 50% to 74% of all their corporate purchases. Not being online just means you’ve missed out on an opportunity — not only to secure additional sales, but also to broaden your reach to a global level

Also, remember that it’s easier than ever for competition and new players in the market to get in front of your customers via Google, Facebook, and email. Not having an e-commerce site could easily cost you market share, even if the competition’s product isn’t as good as yours.

Beyond the Basics

Knowing that it isn’t enough to conduct all business offline, know, too, that it isn’t enough to just invest in getting an e-commerce platform, leave it there, and call it good. Your site has to offer the functionalities necessary to run an online business. If your system doesn’t support multiple pricing tiers, it probably also doesn’t mimic your current sales process. Clearly, that’s not a good thing. 

Your site needs to be able to support multiple buying options, such as “requests for quotes” as opposed to a shopping cart model. It can take time to arrive at a number in a complex B2B transaction, and the last thing you want is for a customer to have to take the interaction offline just to finalize scope and nail down specifics. 

This naturally leads to my next point. Assuming your e-commerce site comes equipped with all the basics like browse, add to cart, checkout, email confirmation, etc., there are a few features to look out for at the enterprise level. Those often include the following:

System integration options

In e-commerce, a certain amount of coordination is necessary between the website itself and your back-end system that you use for inventory and accounting purposes. Without proper integration, order fulfillment can easily get problematic. Focus on maintenance, data input, and offering a seamless user experience. Most of all, understand all the system integration options of your marketplace website before going with one provider over another.

Proper data to support search

Product information is important. It’s what consumers see prior to making a purchase decision. But it can sometimes pale in comparison to the product data used behind the scenes. A number of data fields and HTML tags enable your products and website to rank in both Google and on-site search results. Make sure your platform accommodates these options. Also, inquire about the tracking capabilities of your on-site search function. It can be useful to monitor what users found — and didn’t find — during a visit.

Customer tiers

At the enterprise level, you’ll likely run across different types of customers. Being able to segment these customers into various tiers can come in handy. Based on their purchase history, for example, you might determine that one tier would respond well to a certain promotion while another’s browsing behavior could inform subsequent product recommendations. In other words, segmenting tiers allows you to personalize your messaging, pricing, and other marketing efforts to fit the needs of your customers. So look into this functionality while reviewing your e-commerce options.

Analytics integration

Whether you’re looking at an off-the-shelf platform or a custom solution, reporting is very important. At a bare minimum, make sure a standard tool like Google Analytics can be integrated with your e-commerce system. You’ll also want to inquire about the setup of advanced features like e-commerce tracking.

Merchandising

Generally, any platform you go with will provide the functionality of assigning products to categories. This can help with on-site search and make it easier for visitors to browse your product line. Beyond that, you might wish to feature certain products. The question, then, is what ability do you have in the platform to create banner ads, highlight related products on a product page, create landing pages around a spotlight topic for the month, and feature products in other ways? 

Providing a good online experience naturally makes customers feel good about doing business with you. It also increases the likelihood of driving new customers to your business without needing to invest in additional resources. 

Ultimately, you can handle more transactions with an e-commerce site in your corner. Just make sure your site provides you with all of the functionalities you need to keep your business running smoothly and your customers happy. 

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Michael Bird is the CEO of Spindustry, a digital agency focused on e-commerce, SharePoint portals, and enterprise websites. He has almost 30 years of experience in interactive development, user behavior, and business solutions. His successful agency, Spindustry, puts these strategies into practice to help businesses grow.

3PL

IN-HOUSE VS. 3PL: WHAT TO CONSIDER

Otherwise known as a third-party logistics provider, a 3PL is utilized by a range of businesses to support logistics and supply-chain management specifically as it applies to distribution and fulfillment services. Pre-1970s transportation contracts were comprised of the shipper (the giant retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers) and the shipping carrier. This all changed however with the introduction of an increased number of “sellers” to the market. These sellers didn’t count on logistics as part of their core competencies, and that produced what economists refer to as a “gap” (in the market). The 3PL jumped in to occupy said gap and the rest is history.

Major legislation passed in 2008 legally held 3PLs as responsible for the inventory they receive/hold/transport as the actual owner said inventory. Roughly 86 percent of Fortune 500 companies and nearly all (96 percent to be exact) of Fortune 100 companies use 3PLs today. 

Despite the high uptake of 3PLs, like most industries there are detractors when it comes to outsourcing order fulfillment. Some of the pros listed for keeping things in-house are:

-You understand your business at a level no third party could.

-Issues are easier to resolve.

-Change and/or minute-by-minute adjustments are more flexible and manageable.

Along the same lines, there are experiences with 3PLs that have left sour tastes because:

-Once a relationship is established and a contract signed with a 3PL, it can be difficult to exit.

-Relinquished control can be complex when it comes to deliveries and client relations.

-It can be difficult to communicate with external drivers/shippers or similar transport personnel in the field.

Of the above, the last point, communication with field personnel, is the principal sticking point. If order fulfillment is linked closely with 3PL transportation personnel, which in most cases it is, having a clear understanding of supervisory roles and what to do in the event of delays or poor communication is vital. Notwithstanding for the most part, the pros to working with a 3PL in a smart and effective manner far outweigh the cons.

For example, concentrating order fulfillment and similar tasks in-house takes up a tremendous amount of resources, which equates to more work and a larger staff. Many relationships, with the carriers most notably, are characterized by a disproportionate number of problems due to the complexity of the job, and it is also equally difficult to know if the rates one is paying in-house are truly competitive with what a 3PL can provide.

A 3PL can compare and select the most competitive rates due to a very wide supply of carriers. They, of course, have lower overhead costs and less staff overall is needed. Then there is perhaps the most compelling argument in 2019 for a 3PL relationship: the latest technology is always up-to-date.

With regards to order fulfillment, a 3PL provides an array of functions, but two areas stand out:

Warehousing

Many 3PLs maintain extensive warehousing facilities and especially when confronting the decision to invest and open a warehouse in a foreign company, a 3PL might make better sense. Granted, one does lose a bit of control not being able to oversee warehouse management processes, but it is likely that a 3PL with warehouse management experience in said foreign country would encounter fewer costly surprises than a new company in a given territory.

At a warehouse level most 3PLs run a warehouse management system (WMS). There is no “one size fits all” solution here as a WMS can be highly complex or as simplistic per firm needs. The value added with a WMS is shippers can access reports, track inventory and easily monitor progress. This is done remotely, of course, and most 3PLs that have an advanced WMS can seamlessly integrate it with enterprise accounting software or enterprise resource planning solutions.

Picking, Packing & Shipping

Once an order is placed or something needs to be retrieved or moved, picking, packing and shipping take place. This is where coordination meets timing meets client expectations. A wrong move will cost money and potentially a client’s contract. One of the more common mistakes that occur when trying to run a warehouse (in-house as opposed to using a 3PL) is if packing and shipping procedures are not clearly understood and/or if the company has little experience in this area, generating the appropriate labeling and being able to negotiate favorable rates with carriers such as UPS, USPS and DHL cannot be leveraged. An experienced 3PL in this instance is an invaluable resource to count on.   

Prior to transitioning into “things to consider” before choosing a 3PL, perhaps the best argument for their existence is technology related. A tech-enabled 3PL leverages the latest fulfillment software to streamline the flow of information, which saves time and automates nearly everything along the supply chain. Second, being able to split inventory across fulfillment centers via software integration and advanced analytics drives effective chains and reduces errors over the long term. No one firm can be an expert in everything and successful 3PLs invest in technology knowing that their clients simply do not have the time nor resources to do the same. They are rightly betting the 3PL will do that for them.

Things to Consider

Prior to embarking on a relationship with a 3PL in the order fulfillment arena, there are several issues that should be addressed:

-Can the 3PL commit to ongoing and irregular investments that will always be needed to keep up with augmenting capacity?

-Is it beneficial to commit to these investments on an ongoing basis?

-With seasonal drops or sales spikes, unplanned expenses generally come together: A good 3PL provider can manage these market fluctuations and protect businesses accordingly.

-Regarding handling, the amount of time spent handling special packing materials can be onerous: a 3PL provider can maintain consistency and decrease costs.

Specific Questions for the 3PL Provider

-How do you administer your accounts?

-Will I have access to your reporting data?

-Does the firm count on personnel with regulatory experience?

These issue areas and questions will help in the initial vetting process. Regardless of whether the firm chooses to stay in-house or contract a 3PL for order fulfillment duties, knowing what the other scenario that has not been selected will cost and look like is vital to any intelligent decision.