After 2020 taught us impossible is normal, and with new technologies popping up left and right, online business-to-business transactions are evolving faster than you can say "shopping cart." What does that mean for B2B eCommerce design? Glad you asked. Read on for some pointers on recent changes in eCommerce, current B2B trends and key points to consider in B2B eCommerce design in 2023. And a digression about the concept of design itself. Not entirely irrelevant, perhaps.
MANY YEARS FROM NOW
There’s no telling how future generations will view 2020. Our understanding of historical events often changes over time, and history is loaded with examples of events once considered transformative that are later viewed as much less significant.
The Panic of 1873 was a major economic downturn that significantly affected global financial systems. At the time, it was seen as a serious crisis many feared would lead to a collapse of the financial system and even a global collapse. But then came the Great Depression, which had such a significant, lasting impact on the global economy that everyone forgot about 1873.
So who knows? 2020 could go down in history as a turning point that changed the course of humanity forever, or there could be other developments that make future generations look back to 2020 and see it as a mere blip on the radar of History. In any case, for those of us who lived through it, things changed, and they changed big.
True, things change all the time. It’s the only constant thing about life. But most times, the most impactful changes, with longer-lasting effects, happen gradually, not suddenly. This time, things changed quickly and massively. The changes involved events and behaviors, and also time.
BYE, BYE, KANSAS STYLE
2020 changed the pace of things, their rhythm. With lockdowns and distancing, some things seemed to get slower. We seemed to have more time each day, the time we were not spending going places and doing things like commuting or going shopping. But other things got real fast, real quick. Like eCommerce. During the 2020 holiday season, US online sales totaled $188 billion, a 32% increase from the previous year. McKinsey found that eCommerce penetration in the US went from 16% to 34% in just eight weeks during the pandemic. A 10-year leap forward in 90 days. Not DeLorean fast, but quite fast.
The shift to digital commerce was already underway, and the pandemic took it to Ludicrous Speed. For B2B, both acceleration and change were even more dramatic. With people -customers and workers - at home, B2B companies had to adapt quickly to survive. 96% of B2B companies shifted their go-to-market model during the pandemic.
B2B companies began to learn digital fast because they had to, whether or not they had plans to digitize and regardless of what stage those plans were in, because although companies with strong online presence were better prepared for the situation than those just considering the shift, everyone was pushed to up their game to meet the new demands.
AND NO ONE WANTS TO GO BACK
People turned massively to eCommerce. B2B people too.
“Both B2B buyers and sellers prefer the new digital reality. More than three quarters of buyers and sellers say they now prefer digital self-serve and remote human engagement over face-to-face interactions (...)
Safety is one reason, of course. But self-serve and remote interactions have made it easier for buyers to get information, place orders, and arrange service, and customers have enjoyed that speed and convenience. Only about 20 percent of B2B buyers say they hope to return to in-person sales”.These eight charts show how COVID-19 has changed B2B sales forever - McKinsey & Company
Buyers now complete 83% to 95% of their purchase decisions before connecting with a salesperson. This means they are relying less on salespeople to guide them through the purchasing process and are instead using online resources such as product descriptions, reviews, and online demos to make their purchasing decisions. It also means sales staff now get about 5% of a customer’s time during their B2B buying journey. Buyers connect with an eCommerce platform, and that platform better deliver an amazing experience for users because the B2B buying cycle is long and clients are taking that journey on their own.
THE SAME OL’ NORMAL. BUYERS ARE PEOPLE
There are more companies fighting for online presence, and that’s not a trend that may go away anytime soon. Everyone is doing the same thing, and “everyone” means increasingly more people, so making sure the customer, potential or otherwise, enjoys the experience enough to stick around for one more click is essential. What else is new.
In B2B, the target audience is a business and that implies different processes, strategy, promotion, and also design. Yes. The buying cycle is longer and the aim is to engage and direct leads, rather than getting huge flows of traffic. Also yes. And the decisions are often made by teams, not one individual, so eCommerce sites must cater to different stakeholders, and offer a seamless experience to all. Again, yes. But the lines between B2B and B2C are increasingly blurry.
B2B buying is a personal experience and B2B can be a tricky acronym. Businesses don’t make buying decisions. People in businesses make buying decisions.
Decision-makers generally base some purchasing decisions on cold hard facts, depending on their businesses and their businesses' needs, not so much on impulse. But many other decisions are influenced by personal experiences, personal being the operative word. Buyers, whoever they may be buying for, want to be treated like human beings, not leads. And expect to engage on their own terms, at the times and places they choose. B2B is personal and personal user experience is key, just like in any other form of commerce. The thing is that in B2B everything is bigger and the stakes are higher.
Having said (all) that, there are some specific design strategies to consider for B2B eCommerce. But first, a digression, perhaps. Wayback machine.
DESIGN: THE ESSENTIAL VISIBLE TO THE EYE
Back in the (13th century) day, the Italian “disegnare” referred to drawings and sketches used to make beautiful buildings. And that’s where we got the word “design” from. In the Rennaisance, the meaning shifted to include decorative arts and planning of gardens and public spaces. With the Industrial Revolution, the meaning of design shifted further towards production, efficiency and functionality. By the mid-20th century, design became a strategic business tool, focused on consumer behavior, branding and marketing, later expanding further to include digital experiences, services and systems, apart from traditional products. And in the 21st century, design is about functionality, usability, and accessibility.
None of that is new because all along, since the 13th century, the word conveyed a much wider range of meanings beyond visual or aesthetics, including the planning and intention behind an artistic or architectural work, the details that made it beautiful, and tactical roles for execution. Design and functionality are inseparable.
Design has always meant, and will always mean, “how it works”. And how it looks.
And how it makes you feel.
Which brings us to the historically ugliness of B2B design in the visual, UI/UX departments. Traditionally, and somewhat understandably, the focus of B2B design has been on features and functionality. But this results in clunky, ugly and/or frustrating experience for users, forced to spend hours navigating confusing interfaces. Bad visual and UX design costs businesses time, money, and clients. This may have always been the case, but it’s certainly urgent now, and things are changing because they have to, and because they can. Most standard user-experience principles discovered for B2C apply to B2B, and B2B companies are implementing design features traditionally associated with B2C eCommerce. Increasingly blurry line.
But although some design strategies for B2B are general, only perhaps more important in B2B, some specific design features are particularly significant in B2B eCommerce.
B2B: MORE NEEDS MORE
B2B eCommerce needs more time, more security, more flexibility, more agility and ease of use, more options, more scalability. It can be a long list.
When adopting, or adapting to, B2B eCommerce solutions, companies need to be able to continue doing what they are already doing, without tremendous amounts of effort and resources. They need to be able to do more, to do better, and to do it as securely and as fast as possible. And they need air, room for decisions and for growth, space to do what they may want to do in the future. These are all massively significant considerations in B2B eCommerce design.
THE OPPOSITE OF A MONOLITH
Headless architecture is a very clever approach, despite its somewhat misleading name, that separates the customer facing head (storefront) from the back end solutions body (product and order management systems).
Global ecommerce momentum continues to accelerate and gain long-term share over brick-and-mortar. Many enterprises use monolithic legacy ecommerce platforms that need to be replaced by more modern and flexible architecture. Headless and composable commerce architecture makes implementing new ecommerce software for B2C and B2B merchants easier than the old rip-and-replace model.Big Commerce 2022 Annual Report
Headless architecture means merchants don’t have to start over from scratch, and it also brings agility. As the back end stands firm, the (multiple-headed) frontend allows companies the flexibility to move fast when their customers do, and also to move freely when some aspect of their business is ready to scale, without being forced to try to scale every single aspect at the same time.
Headless is also crucial for B2B companies to manage integrations with the often complex systems they use to manage operations, such as ERP, CRM, and inventory management systems, among others. Composable commerce allows B2B merchants to continue operating without having to give up their preferred stack or pay the price by dealing with a host of complications to manage operations.
It addition, it allows them to respond to increases or changes in traffic, order volume, products or any other expected, or unexpected, change by combining best-in-breed solutions to create a customized, robust stack.
UX BEST PRACTICES - NOW FOR B2B
Customization is one of the ways an eCommerce platform adapts to the merchant’s requirements and not the other way round. It’s also vital to set the site apart from competitors. A B2B eCommerce platform customizable by design gives merchants the flexibility to tweak different aspects of their site to optimize operations and adapt to market shifts, changing trends, and their own growth and evolution.
- Account management
B2C eCommerce usually requires only one account per customer. But B2B buyers usually have different roles and responsibilities that require different levels of access and authority. This makes account management features crucial to B2B eCommerce design.
In B2B eCommerce, customers are often buying in bulk. Therefore, the platform design must allow for bulk purchasing with quantity discounts and placing orders quickly and easily.
- Custom pricing and ordering features
B2B eCommerce customers are often repeat customers. Thus, the platform should be designed to accommodate frequent orders, reorder functionality, and account-specific pricing because, unlike B2C companies, which usually have standard pricing for all customers, B2B companies often have negotiated pricing with their customers. This means B2B eCommerce solutions must be flexible enough to handle custom pricing based on customers' specific needs and volume of purchases.
- Responsive design
Legacy, monolithic platforms were built for desktop shopping. As more B2B buyers use mobile devices to research and purchase products, mobile optimization for all platforms has become an increasingly important requirement in B2B eCommerce design.
- Security -focused design
B2B transactions often involve sensitive information such as financial and personal data. Platforms designed for security and compliance help protect buyer information and ensure the platform meets regulatory requirements.
- Go Hybrid
With the right platform, it’s relatively easy and inexpensive to expand your service to the end audience as well. It’s not for every business, but if it matches your model and audience, it’s definitely worth considering. You can serve all of your audiences with one website, branding strategy, look, feel, and shared user experience. If you want to explore the how, the why, and the potential, give us a shout .
AND I FEEL FINE
It’s the end of the world as we know it. But it happens all the time. The eCommerce landscape is constantly changing and growing. With most B2B buyers conducting their research and making purchasing decisions online, the eCommerce platform's user experience should be exceptional.
Design has always meant more than just making things look good, and this is even more true for B2B eCommerce. B2B eCommerce solutions must include several key features and functionalities to allow companies to conduct their large scale, complex operations. These include customization and account management features, bulk purchasing, and custom pricing options, among others.
However, a functional, secure platform is vital, but not enough. An ideal B2B eCommerce platform should not only be a present operational solution, but also a future possibility. It must be flexible and scalable by design to allow companies the room and capabilities to go bigger, better, and faster when needed. There are a few options out there.
We sincerely recommend checking out BigCommerce’s B2B solutions that give merchants all the power, and none of the trouble. You could also consider hiring a digital agency with B2B expertise and, naturally, we can help with that too. Check out samples of our work here and here or go right ahead and book a BigCommerce demo.