The 6 biggest trends in B2B commerce for 2021

Business-to-business (B2B) commerce will continue to undergo a major transformation in 2021 as companies adopt the latest technologies to find new customers, improve their supply-chain efficiencies, and provide a more personalized user experience to their clientele.

B2B marketplaces and progressive web apps are among the technologies that will see greater business adoption next year, according to several industry experts. They also predict that B2B commerce will look a lot more like business-to-consumer (B2C) commerce with improvements to the user experience and a greater emphasis on direct-to-consumer (DTC) sales.

The adoption of digital commerce strategies has become even more urgent amid the disruptions of the coronavirus pandemic, whose effects are likely to last into 2021 and beyond. The health crisis not only exposed vulnerabilities in the global supply chain, but it also forced many companies to implement safety measures like contactless fulfillment to protect workers and customers alike.

The disruptions are a major catalyst for digital B2B commerce, with many businesses setting the stage for longer-term growth as the global economy rebounds from the pandemic. While 53 percent of B2B decision makers said in July that they expected a revenue decline in the following year, 86 percent planned to boost their spending on digital sales channels, according to a survey by research and advisory firm Gartner.

“As we recover, everyone’s expectations are that digital works,” says Mackenzie Johnson, marketing and partnership manager at BORN Group, a digital marketing agency in New York. “Going into 2021, the customer experience has to be excellent.”

Below, we explore what experts say will be the biggest B2B commerce trends in 2021.

1. B2B marketplaces will grow

Online marketplaces that bring buyers together with a variety of sellers have been around in some form for years, but they’re increasingly becoming a key part of B2B commerce because they provide access to a wide selection of suppliers and products. Eighty-seven percent of B2B buyers are purchasing on online marketplaces, according to a recent study by market researcher WBR Insights. The growing popularity of B2B marketplaces makes them an important go-to-market strategy for businesses of all sizes, whether they start their own marketplace or list their products on existing ones.

“It’s critical for B2B companies to have a marketplace strategy,” says Tom McFadyen, chief executive of McFadyen Digital, whose company has developed B2B marketplaces for clientele including brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev, construction and engineering company ABB, and consumer packaged goods marketer Kimberly-Clark. “For some of the bigger companies, the best strategy is often for them to run their own marketplace, while smaller companies need to sell on marketplaces.”

B2B marketplaces can be horizontal or vertical, depending on their range of products and specialization, though websites like Amazon Business, the e-commerce giant’s fast-growing platform for enterprises, work both ways. Horizontal marketplaces typically have products every business needs, such as office and cleaning supplies, though they also carry goods that businesses, such as retailers specifically, buy in bulk for resale to consumers.

Vertical marketplaces tend to focus on a specific industry group like aerospace or manufacturing, giving suppliers a way connect with key buyers. Examples of these marketplaces include, which global conglomerate Honeywell started two years ago to focus on new and used aircraft parts, and ABB eMart, a hybrid B2B and B2C marketplace for electrification products in India.

“We’re seeing a lot of interest in marketplaces, largely because of the success of Amazon Business and other players,” says Shannon Hane, senior product marketing manager for Magento Commerce at Adobe. “Buyers like marketplaces because they can purchase from lots of different suppliers and see different kinds of products all in one place.”

2. B2B merging with B2C

B2B commerce increasingly will look more like B2C commerce as businesspeople continue to look for the same kind of online experience in the workplace that they have as consumers. That’s especially true as the millennial generation, who has been steeped in internet technology since childhood, becomes the biggest part of the global workforce.

“Almost all millennials are comfortable buying online, whether it’s Walmart, Amazon, or Alibaba, because of the selection,” says Thomas Gaydos, chief marketing officer and marketing practice lead at McFadyen Digital. “Now that they’re in positions of power to make purchase decisions at work, they tend to prefer that same model, but they’re not really seeing that out there a lot right now.”

To emulate the B2C experience for enterprises, businesses need to give their customers more tools to research products and services, and make them easier to discover. Those tools can include recommendations on other products to buy – a cross-selling strategy that helps to increase the average ticket size – and ratings and reviews submitted by buyers. Also important: providing detailed product information, images, videos, and downloadable documentation through the site to support customer research. Customers will do most of their research online before ever reaching out to a sales rep, so the quality of this research experience is critical.

Among the B2B companies that have added product recommendations to their websites is Marshall Wolf Automation, a St. Algonquin, Illinois-based distributor of electronic parts and electronic communications equipment. The company experienced a 20 percent increase in average order value (AOV) after pointing out other products for buyers to consider.

“The whole Amazon experience isn’t just the usability of the interface and online returns, it’s also user-contributed content and all the other stuff that comes along with retail sites,” Gaydos said. “If you’re not adding that, suddenly you now look like even more of a relic.”

Whenever possible, businesses should seek ways to give buyers as many self-serve tools as possible, including the ability to customize individual products even as they offer a broader selection. It’s also important to showcase the advantages of a B2B e-commerce solution to help buyers get the most out of it.

“We recommend hosting a comprehensive onboarding process with B2B customers to be sure they understand the value-add that comes with utilizing digital,” BORN’s Johnson says. “Without onboarding customers, fewer customers will take advantage of the system, and you won’t be utilizing your digital stack to its fullest potential.”

3. Direct-to-consumer growth

As B2B commerce increasingly resembles B2C commerce, businesses that typically sell to middlemen like distributors and retailers have an opportunity to reach past them and connect directly to consumers. While direct-to-consumer (DTC) selling heightens the possibility of greater channel conflict, it can be managed in a way that works for companies throughout the supply chain.

Sportswear giant Nike is an example of a company that not only has a broad B2B clientele of distributors, retail chains, and independent stores, but also a surging digital business that has become a vital source of revenue. With the pandemic dissuading shoppers from visiting stores, even those that have been allowed to reopen from lockdowns, digital channels provide a way for the company to sell a bigger selection of merchandise than is typically available at a store.

“A lot of manufacturers traditionally have had an arm’s-length relationship to end consumers,” says Adobe’s Hane. “More and more, they want a direct relationship because of the valuable customer data it provides. They want to test their products and get input more directly.”

As much as product manufacturers can benefit from DTC selling, their B2B channel partners also derive value from their other marketing efforts by providing more detailed product information that helps support demand. Nike, for example, has a growing digital DTC business, but it also runs multichannel campaigns that drive sales for channel partners.

“Selling direct can be beneficial to channel partners, especially if a manufacturer is telling a really strong brand story,” Adobe’s Hane said. “A lot of times, brands will allow customers to buy direct, but they’ll also point them to their dealers and distributors if the customer prefers to buy that way. It’s not a zero-sum game.”

Meanwhile, many manufacturers are facing growing competition from retailers that have created their own private-label brands that sell for lower prices – and yet are still more profitable.

“It’s a two-way battle that’s happening as retailers start to build their own private-label brands and make their own brands and products,” McFadyen says. “To counter that, manufacturers are starting to sell their products direct-to-consumer. The buzzword is ‘disintermediate,’ or removing the intermediaries of a wholesaler or distributor.”

Companies that sell directly to consumers have an opportunity to collect vast amounts of data about their customers in real-time that aren’t available through traditional sales channels. They can harness that information to provide a more personalized experience that boosts sales while improving customer satisfaction and loyalty.

Personalized features can include product recommendations based on order history, reminders, automated reordering, and prefilled forms that ease the friction toward checkout. A “searchandising” strategy that uses data and machine learning to sort and highlight products in search results based on relevancy, customer behavior, past purchases and business rules can help customers discover other products and value-added services.

Increasingly, personalization will consist of “headless” commerce solutions, which separates content management – or the “head” – from back-end commerce functionality like order processing, security, and payment. The separation gives businesses greater flexibility in personalizing the front-end experience, while giving them a way to extend their reach among a wider variety of platforms and customer touchpoints outside of an e-commerce site.

“A headless solution combined with segmented audiences based on quantitative and qualitative data is really powerful in providing a personalized experience,” McFadyen’s Gaydos said. “Again, we’re talking about the ‘Amazonification,’ if you will, of the B2B experience.”

5. Progressive web apps

As part of their spending on digital B2B commerce technology, more businesses will create progressive web apps (PWAs) that behave like mobile apps but are created with common web technologies available on almost any mobile device. Because PWAs are web-based, they’re easier to maintain and update. Customers simply go to a website, rather than having to download the latest version through app stores, whose quality-control processes may delay their approval.

“PWAs are merging the best of the responsive web, which most people expect now, with mobile devices,” McFadyen said. “Customers expect that your website’s going to work on a desktop, laptop, tablet, or mobile phone, but they also like the speed and usability of apps that you download from Apple’s App Store or from Google Play. A PWA is the best of both worlds.”

Businesses can use PWAs in a variety of ways to support their remote sales teams or to give customers quick access to online resources. For example, a seller of construction supplies who visits job sites can use a PWA to showcase a broad catalog of products and help customers place orders for equipment and materials.

PWAs can be integrated with smartphone functions like the camera and messaging, so B2B sellers can unlock a broad range of features. The smartphone camera can scan barcodes on products or forms, for example, to provide more information easily or to allow customers to place reorders. Businesses can send push notifications that remind customers to reorder products or to highlight discounts and promotions.

In addition, PWAs work offline and in places that may have limited connectivity to the internet, which is especially important for B2B sellers where the cellular infrastructure isn’t as reliable.

6. Fulfillment pivots toward safety

The coronavirus pandemic not only helped make digital sales channels more vital for B2B marketers, it also profoundly changed their back-end operations in several ways. For example, to protect workers in warehouses and stores, businesses developed methods to ship products in ways that limit personal contact among people who used to interact in close proximity to get the job done.

Buy online, pick up in store (BOPIS) service is now more common for retailers that want to give shoppers more peace of mind, and B2B marketers are taking a similar approach with distributing products to retail locations and their clientele. Distributors with retail locations also are adding BOPIS services. These procedures are likely to remain in place as long as the pandemic remains a public health threat.

The health crisis has also highlighted the need for B2B marketers to be flexible, especially amid shortages of products manufactured overseas. The problem is especially acute in the healthcare industry, with suppliers to hospitals and healthcare facilities facing shortages on products like personal protection equipment (PPE).

“One of the ways around dependence on a single supplier is a B2B marketplace,” McFadyen says. “When you have a lot of third parties to fulfill orders, you can still help customers find products even if they’re fulfilled by another company. You don’t want to tell your customer, ‘Sorry, no, we don’t have it. You better go shop somewhere else.‘”