In B2B commerce however, the purchase process is often more complex, requiring increased research to clearly understand the needs of the business, and deep planning to ensure the solution meets those needs. The B2B purchase process can include:
Complex product specification and configuration
Unique multi-location shipping
Several distinct users participating in a multi-step purchase workflow
In short, B2B e-commerce is a unique beast and one that needs careful consideration, often paired with a bespoke solution.
For an organization that sells to a B2B customer, building on an off-the-shelf e-commerce platform can be a frustrating endeavor, or worse, simply not feasible. The requirements that support business processes and end customers' needs can be impossible to implement through existing platform apps and modules. In almost all cases, a long list of third-party integrations will be necessary, often requiring extensive custom development. Even then, it can be challenging to deploy exactly what is needed due to platform constraints.
So, what’s the right approach to deploying e-commerce for B2B organizations? How do you support a complex and highly configurable product catalog while meeting a B2B customer's needs?
Over the past couple of years, we've had the opportunity to work with several clients, each selling to a B2B customer, creating unique challenges that require a carefully crafted solution.
Our team at Engine Digital has extensive experience solving this problem, specifically for organizations in the architecture and design industry, including RBW (Rich Brilliant Willing), a lighting design and manufacturing business; 3form, a producer of acoustic panels and other interior materials; and Loloi Rugs, a premium rug brand.
In addition to serving wholesale buyers, each organization sells to a design-savvy audience – architects and interior designers. Being design-minded, this audience has high expectations for a seamless customer experience. In support of the creative process, self-driven discovery and specification is the baseline expectation that any brand in this space must deliver.
The initial challenge for Brooklyn-based RBW stemmed from an extensive and highly-configurable product catalog, including myriad options for each of their lighting products. Options include physical attributes like size and finish, plus voltage, brightness, and color temperature — for a total of roughly 75,000 possible product combinations.
RBW products illuminate many of the world’s leading hotels, restaurants, and Fortune 500 office spaces. They manufacture locally using the highest standards in materials, craftsmanship, and social-environmental accountability. For a design-led organization heavily invested in the details, extending this same brand articulation to how they serve customers through the sales process is one core aspect of their growth strategy.
To get this right, RBW needed to provide customers with a bespoke e-commerce experience that would address the needs for advanced specification and complex cart functionality, not provided out-of-the-box by existing e-commerce solutions.
They saw the need to create an online customer portal to serve a growing B2B customer base who were currently doing business with RBW through a primarily manual process. Getting away from this cumbersome approach would reduce administrative overhead for RBW and provide a more efficient experience for their customers.
With extensive configuration options comes the need for a complex e-commerce merchandising strategy. The RBW team had developed its product architecture around a set of codes that make up the various components configured within a specified product. As products are configured, these codes generate an expansive number of SKUs. While this makes for efficient inventory and product assembly, it isn’t necessarily as straightforward within the architecture of an e-commerce platform, especially when the customer has configuration control.
The concept of product options is a central theme in e-commerce commonly known as variants. If you sell t-shirts with two options: size and color, the size option has three values: small, medium, and large, while the color option has two values: blue and green. One specific variant from these options is a small, blue t-shirt. As you add options (or configurations) to a particular product, the variants increase quickly.
Typically, e-commerce platforms limit how stores can manage products, allowing only a handful of variants under each product group. These limitations are acceptable for most retailers because, on average, they use variants similarly across many categories. For brands selling t-shirts, variants will be mostly the same.
But for B2B brands, especially those with large, complex product catalogs providing customers the ability to specify, configure, and even customize an order, variants become a limitation within the majority of e-commerce solutions. In which case, we need to take a different approach.
In searching for a suitable e-commerce solution, the options are many, with platforms like Shopify and BigCommerce stealing most of the spotlight. These platforms are essentially turn-key, capable of most of what a retailer might need out-of-the-box, and have extensive third-party modifications that can add even more functionality.
Of course, there are plenty of enterprise solutions too, including Adobe Commerce (formerly Magento), Salesforce Commerce Cloud, and Oracle CX Commerce. And while these platforms can deliver a lot of value, they come with a hefty price tag and a considerable amount of investment in setup and configuration costs alone.
While each of these platforms markets some form of B2B capability, they remain largely limited in their ability to meet the bespoke needs of organizations with complex catalogs, unique sales processes, and specific business logic.
These shortcomings go beyond catalog management and variants. Flexibility in user account structure, payment methods, shipping options, and many other unique needs of a B2B or wholesale buyer are not sufficiently supported.
For B2B brands, there isn't an e-commerce solution that effectively delivers the required functionality – so the custom approach may often become a necessary one.
For RBW specifically, we ran up against limitations so significant that we had to rethink our approach completely, opting for a custom solution as the best way forward.
Like many of our clients, RBW manages its core business logic through enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. Our goal was to enrich the existing product data at different levels to minimize redundant data and reduce the company's administrative surface area, requiring less work to keep the platform up to date.
Traditional e-commerce sites typically rely on the underlying server-side technology to generate pages as visitors hit the site – with Jamstack, we could generate static pages ahead of time so that page loads become almost instantaneous. Using a decoupled technology stack, our development team was able to work on isolated features, sharing a single source of truth without needing to sync databases with remote servers.
We chose Sanity as our content store as we knew the platform's unopinionated nature would allow us to tailor a solution fit for RBW’s unique needs. Sanity operates as our headless CMS in the stack. All of the data is stored using cloud-based infrastructure and accessed through an API. Sanity has been around since 2017 and is rising quickly in popularity. We were impressed with the overall experience of implementing the platform; comprehensive documentation made onboarding our engineering team easy.
Sanity allowed just the right amount of customization without needing to learn every nuance of the platform; this alone unleashed our development productivity and enabled us to deliver more features in the time we had. Navigating the point when it makes sense to reach for low level tools requires a fair amount of planning and consideration. Ultimately, it’s a balancing act to try to attribute effort where it will have the most impact for end users.
As with all product planning for digital solutions, the list of desirable features can grow quickly. With a custom build, what’s important is to find alignment on what priorities are critical to the business and where best to invest budget and time to market to drive the greatest value for the business.
What this leaves us with is a roadmap of possible future improvements, optimizations, and enhancements. With a custom solution, the opportunity for extending the experience is endless as we end up with far fewer constraints. By building on Jamstack, we keep the doors open to address the organization's future business needs; some may exist today, while others may surface due to how customers engage with the new platform over time.
Having gone through the e-commerce build with several B2B clients, we have had the opportunity to work with both off-the-shelf platforms and custom solutions. There are clearly merits to both approaches depending on the unique needs of the business. While both approaches come with certain pros and cons, it’s safe to say that each is worth consideration at the outset.
While the engineering approach of a solution like this will undoubtedly be a central part of the planning and decision-making around what direction to take, we can’t stress enough the importance of a thorough up-front planning process before critical tech stack decisions are made.
While this is not intended to be a conclusive list, planning starts with gaining a clear understanding of the B2B business, how it operates, how it utilizes data, and the general level of digital maturity of the organization and its team. Next, it's important to evaluate the structure and potential complexity of the product offering; the configuration options provided to customers; and how categories, individual products, and variants/attributes are defined and managed. Going further, it's critical to understand the fulfillment process, payment methods and options, sales process, and general customer support from a B2B perspective. Finally, perhaps one of the most critical pieces of the puzzle is understanding the B2B/wholesale customer's unique needs and buying journey. Look at how customers evaluate products, who is involved in the search, selection, and configuration process, and what frictions might exist in a typical B2B e-commerce experience that a custom approach can avoid.
In short, insight is key to determining if an off-the-shelf solution will suffice or a more bespoke e-commerce approach is necessary. And getting to this level of clarity upfront is a required step in understanding the decision at hand.
If your team is exploring options for a B2B e-commerce solution and seeking a partner to help guide you through this process, reach out to us.
Learn more about our work with RBW here.
See what Sanity has to say about our RBW project here.