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Defining E-Commerce for B2B

April 5, 2022
They may look similar on the surface, but B2C and B2B e-commerce are two completely different channels and should be addressed as such. Here’s how to tell them apart, along with some tips for achieving success in the B2B channel.

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There was a time when the lines between business-to-consumer (B2C) and business-to-business (B2B) e-commerce were pretty blurry. The online channel was just coming into its own, the pandemic had yet to drive many buyers to the web to place orders, and people still gravitated toward physical stores for their goods and services.

That was changing slowly up until 2020, when the pandemic shoved e-commerce into a time machine, pushing it years ahead of where it was and forcing companies to rethink their B2B approaches.

Making the Distinctions

In the B2C world, e-commerce success requires a great website, clear information, and a way for customers to view and interact with products; build a shopping cart; and make an immediate purchase. For B2B, additional technologies and tactics are usually required.    

In complex electronics supply chains, several factors differentiate B2B from the simple B2C use case of assembling a shopping cart, hitting “buy now” and checking out. Buying micro-electronic components for a manufacturing process, for example, involves aligning many different variables (package types, pricing, electrical characteristics, physical dimensions, operating temperatures, etc.) with both application requirements and manufacturing schedules.

Due to this complexity, computer-to-computer interactions are required within B2B in order to exchange the amount of information necessary to align all of the required information across thousands (and sometimes millions) of parts. No one can be expected to effectively search 100 different supplier websites and identify the parts with attributes, pricing and availability that meet the needs of a purchaser. However, the right piece of technology or software canand must be expected todo just that.

So while a website will also be a core requirement for B2B—users will always want to explore products, see data sheets and read through information—there’s also a need for automated computer-to-computer interactions that truly support B2B. The good news is that there are a number of options to choose from. In some cases, the right solution might be a blend of these various channels depending on existing systems and capabilities, business models, trading partner requirements and a number of other business factors.

Basic Accepted Automation Protocols

The basic accepted automation protocols (or rule sets that establish how systems communicate with one another) provide a strong foundation for laying out a solid digital B2B roadmap for any company. Fortunately, the electronics industry focuses on a handful of standards, including API, EDI, CXML and ETL (flat files or export exchange).

While often regarded as an antiquated method of exchanging data, ETL (extract, transform, load) is an efficient mechanism for exchanging static data between systems (which is to say, data that is not subject to frequent change, like parts data). The ETL standard involves moving large volumes of data from one system to another, typically via a spreadsheet (CSV or an Excel file). When moving a large parts catalog from one system to the next, for instance, the parts list itself could contain millions of parts. Add in parametric data and a single, full part data export could easily comprise tens or hundreds of millions of rows.

Going a step further, if we consider pricing and availability information, that data is frequently changing and may need to be retrieved in real-time in order to complete B2B transactions. This takes place as the purchase decision is being made, and an application programming interfaced (API) is probably the best fit for this process. That’s because APIs support real-time synchronization between trading partners.

In the absence of an API, a daily electronic data interchange (EDI) or flat file update for price and availability can be used to align that data in as close to near-real-time as possible. That way, B2B orders can be placed with confidence.

A Well-Rounded B2B Platform

CXML and EDI both do an excellent job of managing the entire buying and selling process, with each digital protocol encompassing the full exchange required to both buy and sell parts: parts data, pricing and availability, request for quote (RFQ), purchase order, change orders, invoicing, ship notices, forecasts and debits.

While these protocols are not real-time, they do provide an excellent foundation for building out a viable B2B platform, allowing any company to conduct business with its many trading partners across the omni-channel selling environment.

It’s clear that B2B is a broad term, and certainly significantly more complex than B2C, but it still encompasses the basics of any e-commerce exchange: It must mimic the transfer of data that a buyer and a seller would engage in manually in order to align the purchase with business needs and wants. All of the protocols listed above meet that need, and some subset of these protocols is required to take an initial step toward a well-rounded B2B platform.

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