The Tipping Point for B2B eCommerce

by | Oct 6, 2021 | Digital Roadmap, Technology

(Updated 12/2/2021)

I had a call with a distributor a couple weeks ago, talking about their interest in launching eCommerce. While at B2X Partners and now running point at B2B-Squared, I’ve had so many conversations like these over the years. Many end in engagements, helping companies set a digital course and implement a software platform.

But this conversation became even more interesting. Apparently the recent trade event served as a forum for several to suggest the competitive landscape might serve as a catalyst to abandoning more-competitive products (tooling) for higher-margin consumables (in this case, gas) and skip the hassle of eCommerce entirely.

Should this be the strategy, my advice was simple: Anyone of this opinion should tidy up the books and sell the business. Because the arrogance of assuming your B2B customers prefer a direct-sales only model AND wish to add additional vendors seems ill-informed at the least.

In fact, many are already employing this strategy. Recently I’ve had conversations with distributors acquiring multiple companies who’ve already decided the the commitment required to get in the game doesn’t outweigh the ease of cashing out.

The Tipping Point in B2B

More to the point, try as I might, I have less empathy for those sitting on the sidelines or not making a true commitment to digital.

Increasingly, there seems no plainer way to say it than this: We are nearing a tipping point in B2B eCommerce, particularly for distribution.

I can fully appreciate the enormity of considerations that cause B2B companies to postpone or wade into digital. It’s expensive. It requires organizational change unlike anything they’ve seen recently. And they lack digital expertise, the knowledge of how to acquire it and the ability to know which steps to take. While we’ve helped many with that exact journey, many others have yet to take the true plunge.

To those with little motivation to start or build digital programs, the current tipping point feels real—and, soon, the prospects and valuations for the ‘haves’ are sure to look far more favorable than the ‘have-nots’.

What’s a Tipping Point & Why Should We Care

I spent the first years of my career in B2B media. In this capacity I was blessed to witness how digital transformed industries—among them, seeing printing move from analog to digital and photography from film to digital.

I learned some foundational principles along the way, among them: Never bet against the technology (it always wins); and Industry winners and losers are almost entirely defined by the organization’s ability to elegantly and efficiently incorporate digital into entirety of business (thus, the need for organizational change, not just technology acquisition).

Digital wins because it creates value for customers. Companies who adopt first receive an ‘early-mover’ advantage with customers. As digital adoption increases in markets it creates a ‘rising tide’ for ‘all ships’. But it doesn’t last forever.

Over time, natural barriers of entry are created. Some of those are cumulative technology investments made over the course of time. Often it’s organizational knowledge, not just employing digital but being really good at leveraging its capabilities for customers.

And, that’s the tipping point: That point at which digital adoption creates barriers of entry so strong that new entry (or commitment) may not justify the investment.

Signs it’s Approaching

While there may be a number of factors pointing toward a tipping point, here are a couple strong indicators—things I’ve seen similarly in other markets.

The first is technology. While much will change and improve as it relates to the digital platforms we have today, the base feature-set, technology stack and overall approach is starting to coalesce for B2B. An API-centric approach to transactions, content, product data and other supporting processes seems clearer today.

The second is organizational influence. In no small part due to the pandemic, many B2B companies are seeing not only record eCommerce business but, importantly, a much greater percentage of current revenue through digital channels. I’m finding more companies approaching 10%, 15% or more of revenue through eCommerce channels.

When this happens there is both need for additional resources, but additionally the means to fund them. 

A clearer understanding of the tools and commitment necessary to win gives organizations already vested in digital the advantage—and creates the tipping-point barriers of entry.

With that in mind, here is further evidence of  the barriers currently being created.

The End of the Traditional B2B Sales Model

As we continue to consider the impact of variants on the way we do business going forward, it’s a good time to consider what ‘getting back to normal’ looks like. I’ve thought often of the numerous B2B reps I’ve met over the years and the daily face-to-face appointments they used to keep.

But any consideration this model can be resurrected post-pandemic ignores where we’ve already been. Forrester’s 2017 report, “The Death of a (B2B) Salesman”, infamously predicted 1 million sales jobs lost in B2B. At last count, that projection was holding up well, if not slightly out-paced in reality.

There’s ample research indicating preference from millennials (now the largest workforce demographics) and B2B buyers in general for self-service purchasing, account options and the like. That’s pretty inarguable at this point, the pandemic has only accelerated this.

For all intents, the shift to digital-first or hybrid B2B sales models is fait accompli.

The Evolution (and expectation) of Customer Experience
There are few more over-used terms in today’s lexicon than Customer Experience. While it’s a common theme for many, true practice seems far more elusive—especially in B2B. But this promises to be the true separator of the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ long-term.

While the pace of technical change may seem to favor waiting,  it doesn’t change B2B buyers’ preferences for self-service or the growing number of buying options right NOW. It also doesn’t replace some of the hard-learned lessons, experieinced only through delivering an iteratively improving experience to customers. That experience is about technology stacks and processes that reduce friction for customers.

Those lessons take time to learn (and this may create the biggest barrier of all).

Disruption & B2B

Several years ago, a distribution buying group commissioned a study that sited digital disruption as the greatest threat to its members. Since then, that organization has implemented an eCommerce content program that, among other things, has likely ensured the long-term relevance of its members.

Partners for decades, manufacturers and distributors are each being sucked through transforming business models. While manufacturers try to understand how they best support channel partners and end-user B2B customers, the rules are still being written about what models and partners will exist in the end.

As I mentioned in a recent Digital Commerce 360 article, distributors will be wise to understand how they continue to add value—and to assume that won’t include digital, seems a stretch.


While the recent pandemic has certainly provided a once-in-a-lifetime perspective, I’ve been witness to tipping points in several markets.

So, how long before this tipping point causes real casualties in the B2B space?

Anyone’s guess, I suppose. But I wouldn’t bet more than maybe 18-24 months. Those who haven’t made the commitment to digital by that time may be better suited getting out while there’s still time. At the very least, it should mean getting ‘committed’ now…or soon.

The good news? There’s been no better time to invest in B2B platforms than right now (my opinion).

But the penalties for remaining on the sidelines are likely to be more permanent very soon.