The vast majority of wholesalers will probably have at least considered developing a digital capability already.

But for those that have already started their digital journey, they will almost inevitably be investing further in the channel as their client base continually demands more convenient forms of shopping.

E-commerce platform b2b.store found 49% of over 650k orders it processed were actually placed outside of working hours, strengthening the need to have effective digital platforms in place 24/7.

“The main benefit to customers of wholesalers increasing their digital offering is convenience,” comments Rob Mannion, founder and CEO of b2b.store. “Customers are increasingly embracing digital ordering from traditional channels because it allows them to place their orders at any minute of the day. With almost 50% of all digital orders now being placed out of working hours, this is proof of the need to provide flexible ordering platforms. Furthermore, by allowing your customers access to your products 24/7 this allows them to browse the entire range of products in their own time, leading to increased spend.”

Modern eCommerce platforms will also incorporate several features that allow very large orders to be created really quickly again adding to the efficient nature of the ordering experience.

“Consider all the different options carefully as many eCommerce solutions have been designed for the B2C audience and may need costly adaptations to work for the B2B audience,” suggests Mannion. “Look for platforms that are designed for the sector as again this will mean that they already have the functionality in place that you need as opposed to you having to pay to have it developed. Also consider using a Software as a Service (SaaS) provider as there are huge benefits to this model.”

Operating as a monthly subscription, the model allows wholesalers to quickly and cost effectively evaluate a platform, then subscribe should they wish to continue using it. The best SaaS platforms continuously listen to customer feedback to inform their own product roadmaps, with the costs of ongoing innovation and platform development being priced into the subscription. This is a game changer for the sector, allowing wholesalers to automatically benefit from new functionality as it is released and ensuring they stay at the cutting edge of developments without facing wave after wave of development costs. Crucially, by choosing a SaaS-based E-commerce provider, wholesalers can reduce costs to just tens or hundreds of pounds per month, depending on the size of their business – a significant saving over traditional pricing models.

James Clarkson, CEO and Founder, Adventoris, comments: “We estimate that there will be a high percentage of wholesalers expanding their digital offering in the next few years. 80% of our clients over the last five years have been wholesale and we don’t see this slowing down.”

There is a real opportunity for wholesalers to use digitisation for a greater sharing of data. This interconnectivity between businesses will increase the efficiency of suppliers and provide a better customer service for buyers.

The future of this industry is about creating the ability to allow the real-time integration of systems and allow for immediate queries and solutions across businesses.

“We know that one of the biggest challenges for wholesalers is losing visibility of the ‘last mile’ of their product,” adds Clarkson. “They don’t see where the customer demand is building and cannot always plan as accurately as they would like. More interconnectivity and data sharing will allow wholesalers to prepare in line with the market and manage elements of their business more efficiently, such as driver planning, stock and supply chain. Working towards digitisation will enable businesses to flourish.”

The key benefit of adopting digital methods is the significant customer engagement. Businesses can offer a 24/7 digital customer and sales service, customers can view stock availability live, as well as special offers, product details – all the information that a sales team would provide in just a few clicks at any time.

“Our clients that are utilising SwiftCloud technology have seen their basket values (sales) increase by around 15 per cent because their clients now have full visibility of the product range and often add more products to their orders,” says Clarkson.

Mobile ordering is made easy and reliable and so the convenience factor plays a huge role in securing repeat custom. Adventoris’ clients are reporting increased sales, good customer retention and a reduction in costs. Sometimes businesses are reluctant to adopt the digitisation of their sales channels. “Over the years I’ve heard the phrase ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. Often businesses don’t feel they have the headroom for new projects, or their customer and product data is often poor to start off with and the task can seem overwhelming,” Clarkson continues.

“However, my advice is that digitisation is absolutely essential to remain competitive. Businesses don’t need to dive in straight away to a complete digital overhaul, but it is worth dipping a toe in the digital water and taking a step towards building the business’s future. Simply exploring the options and being open to these conversations can make what seemed an overwhelming task into an easy decision.”

There is a growing trend, accelerated by the pandemic, where suppliers are increasingly selling direct to the consumer; digital sales channels are allowing for ‘anyone selling to anyone’.

During the pandemic, digitisation enabled businesses to achieve this and many now continue to thrive in the post-pandemic world. Digital sales channels are allowing businesses to become more streamlined and competitive, enjoying growth beyond their existing customer base.

Jon Roberts, Sales Director at OrderWise, comments: “Almost every wholesaler we speak to is looking to develop their digital offering to meet changes in customer demand and to gain control and visibility across their business. Fragmented systems no longer cut it and businesses need to be able to access all information, at all times, ideally all in one place.”

For some, this means developing existing infrastructure while others are starting almost from scratch.

The challenge that many face is the fact that their current business software or ERP system is not capable of supporting either in terms of fundamental integration, or offering seamless data import and export. Similarly, finding a front end platform that can effectively manage the more complex pricing structures is a common hurdle that results in the project being pushed down the road.

“The customer journey has never been more critical to success and customers are more savvy, they have higher expectations and they want choice, flexibility and expect efficient service,” adds Roberts.

Whether it’s through EDI integrations with suppliers and customers, a website or the use of marketplaces, one of the main benefits to wholesalers is the flexibility. By providing customers with a range of ways to interact and place an order, revenue is likely to increase. Similarly, the impact of this self-service capability will free-up staff time to focus on more value-add activity.

This has become more important than ever with the ongoing issues around staffing availability and costs, forcing many wholesalers to pay experienced sales and customer service teams to take orders and complete admin tasks. With an automated system, these people can be freed up, utilising their skills and experience to add value to the business.

On a more fundamental level, everyone has become so accustomed to the online offerings that have developed in retail that they now expect a similar experience within B2B. Individual buyers within organisations can often favour the supplier with the easiest ordering and interaction process over those with a cheaper or better product.

“The key advice would be to consider the implications of this across their operations,” says Roberts. “Many businesses take the view that by having an online presence this will solve their issues. In fact, without the right back office, WMS or ERP system, this decision can create more problems if the business isn’t able to effectively get orders out the door.”

OrderWise has seen many wholesalers that have scaled back or even pulled their online platform due to the issues it created in order fulfilment, customer service and stock availability, issues that should certainly have been considered as part of the initial project.

Iain Bate, Marketing Manager at SEIDOR, comments: “I think that all wholesalers will look to expand their digital solutions in the coming years – they would be crazy not to. It’s crucially important that they do to avoid being left behind by competitors who have already adopted a digital-first strategy. The most successful wholesalers are already utilising top-down automation, Artificial Intelligence (AI) in their supply chain to analyse and track data and detect anomalies that may cause delays, and to generate forecasts to streamline and improve supply chain efficiencies.”

Companies who completed a digital transformation project prior to the pandemic are the ones who would have successfully navigated the challenges of lockdown and the new consumer trends that followed. During the initial lockdown, there was a huge scramble by companies who had no online presence to quickly create an eCommerce platform to take orders online from customers. Organisations who have evolved their online strategy are now looking towards an onmi-channel approach to help customers place orders using a variety of channels.

An omni-channel solution, which powerfully integrates into a back-office system, not only provides a seamless purchasing experience for the customer, but automates critical business tasks to help improve productivity for employees. Companies can increase sales, grow customer loyalty and reduce inefficiencies within a single solution. It’s win-win.

“You’ll want to have a clear strategy in place to outline what you want to achieve from your project,” adds Bate. “This will help define outcomes when your solution is in place. Secondly, wholesalers should choose to partner with a vendor who has a proven track record working in their industry. By working with an experienced partner, wholesalers will have a better chance of delivering their project on time and within budget.” Dael Links, Head of Marketing for Snappy Shopper, comments: “Home delivery is an essential part of the future success of convenience stores, enabling them to widen their community network and future-proof their business against the competition.

“It has grown significantly in recent years, driven predominantly by the increase in consumer demand, so offering this service brings many benefits to stores, beyond increased sales, profit, and customer loyalty; it also enables them to reach a much larger customer audience.”

According to the brand’s retailer network, around 80% of their customers who use the Snappy Shopper app were acquired through the platform and would never have visited their physical store. Alongside this, Snappy Shopper is seeing that customers tend to spend more online with 160% increase in customer spend online compared to instore.

“A retailer’s menu and range is so important,” adds Links. “We strongly advise a great product range and to minimise substitutions, but if you do come across the need to, always advise the customer before delivery. Making your menu attractive is a vital pillar.

“Another key area to success is making each delivery count; we encourage retailers to always deliver on time and to use that delivery to build rapport. Range and delivery are two operational points that we see successful retailers get right time and time again.”

Sarah Coleman, Director of Communications at TWC, comments: “We don’t doubt that almost all operators will expand their digital offering over the next five years, but based on where they are today, far fewer will have a fully digitised business in this timeframe, in our opinion. That said, there is evidence of some incredible digital journeys that are happening across wholesale: from across our client base, we would highlight Filshill, UWS and Turner Price, all of whom have a clear digital vision and a roadmap to achieve their objectives.

“Recognising that there may be wholesalers whose digital strategy we are unaware of, we believe that there are only a handful that are at the stage of clearly communicating their digital vision and who have a clear understanding of the benefits it will bring to their business.”

To be effective, a business needs a single vision of its customer data, sales performance and suppliers – with the ability to slice and dice that data for business development, personalisation and margin management purposes. This requires significant investment, not to mention cultural change for some organisations.

The core benefits for customers of wholesalers increasing their digital offering will be a personalised shopping experience – whether that is tailored promotions, product recommendations based on customer type or improved efficiency. Ultimately, the customer wants the cheapest possible price and the most efficient shopping experience – and a good digital solution will enable both.

 

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