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B2B distributors look at a digital future beyond COVID-19

The height of the ride up came in 2019, when B2B ecommerce for the nation’s 411,000 distributors grew nearly 22 times faster than both total and all-digital channel sales. B2B ecommerce also grew more than 20 times faster than sales by phone, fax, mail and distributors’ branch locations, according to data and analysis in the 2020 B2B Distributor 300 Report, a new research report from Digital Commerce 360 B2B.

The pandemic has permanently shifted more business buyer behavior online and accelerated the growth of B2B ecommerce.

Last year, business-to-business ecommerce sales for distributors, wholesalers and retail chains, such as Staples that sell online to business buyers, grew 22% to an estimated $870.0 billion from $712.8 billion in 2018, based on an analysis of market data by Digital Commerce 360 B2B.

But 2019 was a year ago and what now seems like a distant time. The B2B ecommerce roller-coaster that distributors of all sizes rode to the heights of an all-time online sales high is now in for a much more uneven ride. For some distributors and wholesalers in vertical markets, the ride will be to another year high in digital sales. For others, 2020 maybe their worst year ever for ecommerce sales.

For many distributors and wholesalers the phrase that best describes the state of B2B ecommerce in 2020 and 2021 is “whipsaw”—and the main reason driving that wild gyration is COVID-19.

Most distributors began 2020 with far different expectations than how the year turned out—and how they must proceed in maintaining and growing ecommerce in 2021 and beyond. At the start of the year, many B2B buyers and sellers were expecting an economic slowdown brought about by trade wars, a presidential election, a slowing global economy and other factors. But they also expected another year of strong B2B ecommerce sales.

But as COVID-19 mushroomed from what many distributors thought was a supply chain disruption from China into a full-blown global pandemic, the impact was a near shutdown in big parts of the U.S. economy and wildly fluctuating vertical markets. While digital sales increased for some distributors and wholesalers that sold cleaning products and personal protective equipment, sales tanked for distributors that sold to certain heavy industries such as automotive parts and supplies and iron, steel and other metals.

The pandemic has permanently shifted more business buyer behavior online and accelerated the growth of B2B ecommerce. When COVID-19 forced many companies to begin a rapid transition from an office to an at-home work environment earlier this spring, there was an immediate uptick in online business purchasing. Many traditional purchasing channels such as distributor branches were shuttered as a result of the pandemic. But one channel remained open: digital commerce.

COVID-19 also is accelerating the rate at which B2B organizations of all sizes will purchase online in 2021. “The reality is that distributors and wholesalers with ecommerce in place are managing better than ones without,” says Karie Daudt, senior commerce consultant with digital transformation consulting firm Perficient Digital. “The high demand is making it challenging for companies that underinvested in the digital channel in the past. Even digitally mature companies are having to make changes to adapt to demand.”

The Distributor 300 Report gives all the players a chance to read the scorecard and get into the game in a bigger way—or get left behind.

Sign up for a complimentary subscription to Digital Commerce 360 B2B News, published 4x/week, covering technology and business trends in the growing B2B ecommerce industry. Contact Mark Brohan, vice president of B2B and Market Research Development, at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @markbrohan.

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