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In early 2020, COVID-19 radically shook up the retail, manufacturing, and eCommerce space. Suddenly, having an eCommerce channel was more critical than ever before, as brick-and-mortar stores, in-person sales, and other traditional forms of retail became inaccessible. 

Yet while COVID-19 undoubtedly sped up the timeline for many manufacturers and distributors, most were already experiencing a need to build out digital channels long before the pandemic struck. Fear of change and legitimate concerns over challenges have held many businesses back. 

Despite these hesitations, the benefits of eCommerce far outweigh the difficulties associated with launching the channel, and will set up brands for a successful future.

In this paper, we’ll take a closer look at launching eCommerce specifically for manufacturers and distributors, and break down:

  • The challenges manufacturers and distributors face 
  • How addressing today’s challenges will lead to future success
  • Rapid, scalable solutions for launching an eCommerce channel
  • How to get started TODAY

Breaking Down the Challenges

While COVID-19 may have exacerbated existing challenges for manufacturers and distributors, it didn’t necessarily reveal any new ones. Rather, it just increased pressure to address them.

The Linear Path to Purchase is Dead

You’ve likely heard the catchphrase, “brick-and-mortar retail is dead.” While eCommerce has certainly impacted the retail space, in-store shopping remains a popular and important channel. 

What has changed is the linear path to purchase. Once upon a time, a manufacturer might have created an item, and sold it to customers via a store. 

But today, customers frequently stop, start, and pick back up the purchasing process via numerous channels. Rather than solely relying on in-store shopping, they might browse a website on their phone, use their desktop while at work, get distracted and then later while scrolling on social media see an ad that reminds them to continue the process. 

graphic: traditional sale vs funnel vs non-linear path

In fact, the average consumer now uses two or more touchpoints when considering and purchasing a product. Even more significantly, nearly 50% of consumers regularly use more than four touchpoints.

This causes manufacturers and distributors to need an omnichannel strategy that incorporates an eCommerce channel.

omnichannel vs multichannel

An Example in Action

Amazon might be the big name in eCommerce, but Walmart successfully adapted their approach to make them a relevant competitor.

They worked to acquire a number of eCommerce brands and brains (investing in people is as important as investing in technology) and began to grow an omnichannel approach. 

Customers can now order online or in-store, get items delivered, picked up curbside, or picked up in-store. A new “Express Delivery” option even allows customers to order and have home delivery in two hours or less. Currently, Walmart is rolling this feature out. 

All of these efforts resulted in increased sales (eCommerce up by 74% in Q1), and an increase in variety of products sold. While they had traditionally sold groceries via eCommerce, their new strategy saw rises in other products sold, too. 

Key Takeaways

Obviously, Walmart is a massive, well-recognized brand that has the resources to sink into omnichannel investments.

Yet many of the lessons they learned while expanding their eCommerce channel, and growing their omnichannel strategies, can be applied to distributors and manufacturers.

For starters, having the resources -- both financial and personnel -- can make or break your launch. All too often, manufacturers and distributors looking to develop a digital branch forget to account for the right people. They focus on technology (which is certainly important) to the detriment of developing a solid change management strategy and ensuring that entrepreneurial, early-adoption leaders are carving the path forward for the entire organization. 

Just as significantly, Walmart recognized the need to move quickly. COVID-19 or not, the time for eCommerce is NOW. Manufacturers and distributors would be wise to embrace the digital age, or get left behind by competitors. This means not only investing in an eCommerce channel, but investing in one that can be scaled rapidly. 

Additionally, Walmart tapped into something absolutely critical regarding customer expectations: get them the products they want in the way that they want it. From delivery to in-store options, Walmart examined what was important and meaningful to their customers -- and then made it happen.

This requires a strong knowledge of your customer base -- both current and ideal -- and the diligence to regularly communicate with them, reassess your approach, and implement new strategies based upon your findings.

The Self-Service Trend is Here to Stay

One such strategy is embracing self-service - a trend many B2B distributors and manufacturers had just begun embracing prior to COVID-19.

The introduction of innovative self-service capabilities impacts the kind of customer experience B2B brands are expected to deliver.

Not only do customers want to be able to get the products they need, when they need them, in the way in which they need them, customers also want to be able to do this research themselves, rather than relying on a salesperson.

Studies show that anywhere from 60-90% of the B2B sales cycle happens before a potential customer even connects with a sales representative. And 70% of B2B buyers find buying from a website more convenient than buying from a sales representative.

b2b self-service

Customers now conduct a massive amount of independent research, all of it online, prior to reaching out to your business.

For distributors and manufacturers, not having an eCommerce channel, where businesses can use self-service features to get informed, significantly shortchanges your ability to sell. 

In today’s market, you need to build a thorough case online that your brand is the best solution for customers.

Cost-Benefit Analysis

Going omnichannel can seem overwhelming, but it works. The Harvard Business Review found that 73% of customers already shop omnichannel.

Furthermore, studies consistently show that shoppers who engage on multiple channels make purchases more frequently, with some studies indicating that omnichannel more than doubles customer purchases. 

Businesses also managed to retain 89% of their customers when engaging them via an omnichannel strategy, proving just how much it strengthens brand loyalty.

graphic: Cost-Benefit Analysis

Building for the Future

So we’ve established that eCommerce is critical for distributors and manufacturers. But how to implement it?

If you’re going to invest in an eCommerce channel, it’s wise to design one that will be agile. Technology -- and consumer expectations -- are rapidly evolving. This means that you’ll need customer-facing designs that can be regularly updated, a way to account for complex B2B pricing (which varies by customer), and a need for speed, while simultaneously building out a back end that allows you to manage your inventory, orders, distribution options, and more.

Let’s unpack what headless commerce, the leading solution, looks like.

Headless Commerce

Headless commerce solutions, which were pioneered by Elastic Path, are a great option in today’s ever-changing, omnichannel landscape. But what exactly is headless commerce, and how is it different from a traditional eCommerce design?

graphic:traditional cms vs with headless cms

The overarching - and most important - differentiator between the two is that headless eCommerce is far more flexible than its counterpart.

This is because headless commerce solutions are de-coupled, separating the front-end (or the “head”) and back-end systems. Each system can function independently of one another, allowing the front-end content presentation layer to stand apart from the back-end content management system (CMS). 

By de-coupling the front-end experiences from the back-end functionality, front-end developers are no longer married to the infrastructure and coding that comprises the back-end. They do not have to use built-in templates and themes, and can create unique, customized user experiences, which are easily updated as trends and customer expectations shift.

Meanwhile, back-end users maintain critical functionality and management features.

Consequently, headless commerce architecture is intrinsically built for the new age of eCommerce.

How Headless Works

Headless commerce works by passing requests between the presentation (front-end) and application (back-end) layers. It uses application programming interface (API) calls to communicate between the two layers.

For example, if a customer clicks “Purchase,” the front-end sends an API call to the back-end to process the order. The back-end sends an API call to show the customer that their order has been completed. This eCommerce API serves as the “body” of your system, to which you can attach many “heads” (or buyer touch points) as needed.

Your functionality (inventory management, payment processing, order processing and shipping) remains separate from your user interfaces, but the two communicate with API calls.

graphic: traditional cms vs with headless cms 2

Consequently, headless solutions allow you to adjust your site to accommodate consumer demands much faster than the average retailer, and without sacrificing any internal processes. 

User experience-focused designs improve conversion rates, ultimately impacting your bottom line.

graphic: improved ux

A Fast, Out-of-the-Box, B2B Storefront

If you’re a distributor or manufacturer looking to rapidly launch an eCommerce channel, one fast and easy solution -- that comes with expert support -- is the new Jumpstart eCommerce Accelerator, supported via Elastic Path.  

Jumpstart eCommerce Accelerator eliminates the time, cost, and effort of defining and building the front end experience of your eCommerce site. This accelerator speeds up your time to market. 

About Jumpstart

Jumpstart was created to give your customers an exceptional eCommerce experience, while providing you the flexibility to make strategic decisions and see ROI in weeks, not years.

The Jumpstart eCommerce Accelerator integrates with your Elastic Path Commerce Cloud SaaS that is a headless, microservices-based, SaaS commerce service that provides your business with the ability to deliver unique commerce experiences at speed. It contains all necessary core commerce capabili-ties to support your business operations. It can be easily integrated with Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), as well as other IT systems, to get your eCommerce business up and running, with all of the B2B features you need, in record time.

b2b storefront graphic

Jumpstart also provides a fully turnkey team that supports, enhances, and operates your channel at a cost savings of over 50% (compared to traditional ways of managing eCommerce). 

These services include: 

Operating eCommerce

  • Importing customers, catalogs, price-lists 
  • Setting up promotions 
  • Creating and uploading banners 
  • Producing analytics reports

Training

  • Change management to get your leadership and managers ready 
  • Training your team on how to set up customers and run the new eBusiness 

White-Glove Onboarding and Support

  • Customer setup: getting your eCommerce customers registered, using the site, and ordering 
  • Monitoring: carefully watching each online order
  • Optimization: identifying and working through any issues that arise in the onboarding process
  • Bug fixes for issues on the site 

Ongoing Enhancements

  • Hosting and maintenance 
  • Business operations support (SEO, content, onsite search optimization) 
  • Changes in functionality to the site

Cost Savings

Just as significantly, Jumpstart trims down the time and costs usually invested in an eCommerce launch. You’ll eliminate:

  • 3-6 months documenting requirements 
  • 2-3 months on UX
  • 4-6 months on front end implementation 
  • 1-2 months for testing 
  • Hiring and retaining key channel team members

Instead, you’ll be able to: 

  • Provide a better customer experience: letting customers discover, learn, and buy products online 
  • Start selling more products and reducing the cost of business 
  • Increase the lead cash cycle 
  • Improve customer retention by providing a competitive customer experience

Typically, launching a digital channel can take 1-2 years and run 36% or more over budget. This solution reduces your cost to launch by at least 80% and reduces operational costs by 50.

Learn more about Jumpstart’s structure.

Getting Started

The time is NOW for distributors and manufacturers to launch their eCommerce channels. The good news? It’s never been easier.

Headless solutions will set your company up for an agile future. As we’ve seen throughout COVID-19, the ability to respond quickly to customer needs and adapt to outside forces is more important than ever before.

And if the investment of launching a storefront has been what’s kept you from creating one for your brand, the Jumpstart eCommerce Accelerator will trim down on time, costs, and the need to hire outside expertise.

Still not sure where to start? If you’re a distributor or manufacturer who is ready to launch your eCommerce channel, and needs a rapid solution, reach out to our team of experts at Object Edge.

About Object Edge

Founded in 1994, Object Edge is an award-winning consultancy with a passion for eCommerce and the digital transformation that brings business visions to life. We offer services in eCommerce implementation, experience design, and digital transformation consulting. Our customers are innovators with complex digital challenges, requiring sophisticated solutions, and impeccable execution.