How to Structure B2B Retail on Hosted Ecommerce Platforms
Let’s assume that you’re a business-to-consumer (B2C) retailer who is having strong success on a hosted ecommerce platform, like Shopify or BigCommerce. You’re getting to experience the many benefits of a hosted platform, including out-of-the-box security, robust templates, and hosting services.
But, so far, you’ve been reluctant to bring the other component of your business – business-to-business (B2B) selling – to the same platform. Or maybe you’re just starting a wholesale business and not sure about folding it into your current hosted platform.
Indeed, wholesale selling is a very different business than selling directly to retail customers. For starters, the product quantities for sale are generally much higher. A typical online shopper may buy a single shirt, but a wholesale purchaser could buy hundreds of shirts to stock at numerous stores. Also, the pricing can vastly differ between retail and wholesale. With just these two examples, the question quickly arises: can hosted ecommerce platforms support B2B selling as well as they do B2C?
From Command C’s vantage point, the answer is yes. After years of focus on the B2C experience, hosted platform companies now see the potential of creating a similar experience for B2B. But challenges remain as ecommerce develops in this new area – most notably, how do you handle inventory between your B2B and B2C sites?
Aggregating and Sharing Inventory Between B2C and B2B Sites
It’s never ideal for retailers to show an “out of stock” product notice on their site. This becomes even more challenging in B2B due to the large-quantity sales; one big sale could deplete inventory. This may sound like a happy problem to have, but you could lose the next customers if they can’t buy what they want from your store.
To solve for this, first, you want to know if your hosted platform has a dedicated structure for wholesale. If it does not, you may need to establish some workarounds to get your site to properly manage the two sides of inventory. This is possible, but it will require development help beyond the standard platform solution.
If your hosted platform does specifically address B2B, as is the case with the Shopify Wholesale channel, then there’s a system in place to manage many of the common issues. Using the Shopify Wholesale example, it shares the same inventory data with a merchant’s B2C site. It is truly a channel; not a separate instance.
But this set-up also comes with some challenges. For example, with many hosted platforms, there are limitations as to how much a retailer can customize the user experience. Often platform companies have done a great job of creating a strong template, but it can be tough to veer away from that. For instance, if you want to tailor the frontend or alter something in the checkout, you may be limited by the platform’s constraints.
For wholesale businesses that have a straightforward sales process without a lot of variation, the structure of the Shopify Wholesale channel can be beneficial. It’s simply important to weigh a platform’s pros and cons before getting set-up on it.
How to Approach Customizing Your Chosen Platform
When retailers need to customize their B2B business, they tend to use one of two approaches. The first one is best summed up by the infamous phrase, “There’s an app for that.” And yes, apps can help merchants fill in the gaps where the platform doesn’t meet their needs. This can include anything from segmenting prices by customer group to inventory notifications and more. There really is an app for just about anything you can imagine.
But keep in mind that while you’re working to solve one problem, you may create another one. With every app, you’re introducing third-party code into your ecommerce system. Oftentimes there is no problem with this, but sometimes, third-party developers fail to properly maintain their apps. This is outside your realm of control, but it will affect your business. Should this happen, your site may experience glitches and in general suffer from what we call “app bloat.” Too many apps, or outdated apps, can add a lot of load to a site. The overall system will cease to work quickly and smoothly.
Create Two Separate Customer Experiences
The second approach is create two separate customer experiences. This plan stems from the fact that B2C and B2B business are fundamentally different. There already exists a lot of separation between these two areas. With this mind, it often makes more sense to manage two different customer experiences – one for your wholesale customers and another for your retail shoppers.
For retailers who use this strategy, there are many strong ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) tools available that can enable you to fulfill orders. The key here is to minimize duplication. Once this is accomplished, however, and the systems are as streamlined as possible, the B2C and the B2B sites can then stand on their own and best serve their specific customers.
It often takes some time to accept that you may have to maintain two separate stores for each experience. That said, we actually think it makes a lot of sense. Your B2C and B2B businesses, albeit under the same company, really are distinct operations. Though it may take some additional resources to manage, the flexibility and ability to meet the distinct needs of each experience are much more available to you with this approach.
Remember: B2B Buyers Also Buy B2C
This may seem obvious, but it’s worth extra consideration: your wholesale buyers are also shopping online in their personal lives. In other words, they have strong expectations of what the ecommerce experience should be. By finding the optimal solution for each side of your business, you’ll gain the tools to grow them both.