Marketplace Trends

5 B2B Ecommerce Trends Shaking Things Up for 2024

headshot of Nautical Commerce team member Nicole Kahansky
Woman in orange in front of a whiteboard talking about top ecommerce trends

B2B commerce is in the middle of a tectonic shift. Buyers have become increasingly indistinguishable from consumers, adapting similar attitudes, behaviors, and expectations. This isn’t exactly surprising in the golden age of Amazon:

  • 70% of buyers want their suppliers to provide an “Amazon-like” experience.
  • 67% of buyers report having switched to purchasing from vendors that offer a more “consumer-like” experience.
  • 75% of B2B enterprises claim customers are demanding online purchase options.

But what happens when products in your inventory or lengthy sales cycles are at odds with those easy, breezing shopping experiences buyers want? You’re not exactly selling tupperware here. From where we’re standing, you have three options:

  1. Scramble to keep up with customer demands
  2. Bury your head in the sand and continue business as usual
  3. Embrace the opportunity to stand out with a best-in-class customer experience, even if it means switching things up.

Heading into 2024, we’ve noticed a recurring emphasis on customer-centricity in B2B ecommerce. This indicates distributors working to reconcile their vendors’ complex products with rapidly evolving customer expectations. Here are three B2B ecommerce trends we’re most excited about — and how they can help you get ahead of the competition.

B2B ecommerce trends to watch 

Trend #1: Leveraging third-party sellers

Trend #2: Unlocking deeper customer insights

Trend #3: Overhauling product data with generative AI

Trend #4: Reimagining commerce for sustainability

Trend #5: Consumer-style shipping and delivery

1. Leveraging third-party commerce

B2B ecommerce adoption has skyrocketed right alongside buyer expectations — 51% of businesses that report at least $1 billion in revenue have ecommerce capabilities. 

However, it’s not just the scale of ecommerce expanding, but the actual order size. Leveraging third-party sellers enables distributors to expand their product catalogs, without taking on the inventory risk.

Two primary models — dropshipping and marketplaces — bypass hefty distribution costs, logistics, inventory, and potentially poor market-fit decisions. At the same time, businesses can expand their offerings and establish long-term relationships with suppliers to secure discounts on products, reducing the cost of goods, and ultimately boost profit margins.

In fact, the study we commissioned with Forrester Consulting found that, on average, distributors who launched a marketplace saw:

  • 44% growth in customers
  • 42% growth in revenue
  • 36% growth in Average Order Value (AOV)
Year-over-year growth after launching a marketplace

The good news is dropshipping and marketplaces aren’t mutually exclusive. Depending on what makes sense for your business, you can leverage one or both of the models. 

2. Unlocking deeper customer insights with AI

Seventy-seven percent of businesses are already using or exploring AI — and for good reason. It’s the only way to meet buyer demands at scale. According to Salesforce, 73% of all customers expect companies to understand their unique needs and expectations — up from 66% in 2020. 

This can be a tall order. Buyers and consumers may share the same desire for hyper-personalized, effortless, shopping experiences, but the actual order process is dramatically different. Just think about your typical B2B purchases. We’re talking:

  • Longer sales cycles
  • Product complexity
  • Order complexity

Subsequently, B2B companies are now looking at their ecommerce function with more nuance than mere shopping cart transactions. B2B ecommerce sites play a much more significant role than facilitating checkouts — from driving leads, sustaining extensive research, and ultimately generating sales, even if the final touchpoint is offline.

With such a varied and vast array of customer interactions throughout the sales cycle, it’s impossible to offer truly personalized experiences using traditional data analytics.  Just 8% of B2B organizations are set up to deliver highly personalized marketing and sales. That’s where AI comes in — specifically, Machine Learning algorithms capable of collecting, measuring, and analyzing infinite data around customer engagement and behavior. These deeper, richer insights can significantly boost the customer experience through:

  • Personalized product recommendations, specified for the individual buyer based on prior or even real-time activities (i.e. searching for a type of product)
  • Customizable pricing, based on anything from account and company size to applicable use cases
  • Tailored content on the most relevant topics according to individual engagement history across multiple channels

3. Cleaning up product data with generative AI 

Generative AI — algorithms that can create and modify data — is another innovation gaining serious ground in B2B commerce. Sure, it’s still early days. ChatGPT, arguably the most famous generative AI application, was only released in 2022. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a game-changer for businesses — especially when it comes to product data.

Only 7% of distributors are “extremely satisfied” with the quality and completeness of their product data. Part of the issue is that expansive product catalogs make it difficult to ensure data quality and consistency — especially with manual inputs. Another challenge for marketplaces specifically is that with multiple vendors, each is individually responsible for providing and maintaining their own product data.

The result can turn into a perfect storm of:

  • Inconsistent labels
  • Missing information
  • Inaccuracies
  • Duplicate listings

Lackluster data doesn’t just cause administrative bloat, but can directly undermine the customer experience — for instance, if a buyer places an order based on incorrect product dimensions. AI can help mitigate these risks by automatically:

  • Generating product titles, descriptions, and attributes
  • Referencing specific guidelines to approve new product listing
  • Applying metadata (“data about data”) to provide more context and improve the relevancy of search results

In fact, generative AI can supercharge your entire marketplace search function. 

4. Reimagining commerce for sustainability

Sustainable practices improve efficiency while simultaneously reducing waste, risks, cost, and overall damage to the planet. This is becoming increasingly critical as more governments establish regulations to hold businesses accountable for their operations and reduce pressure on natural resources. One of the better known examples is the  circular economy action plan implemented by the EU in 2020.

This model turns the traditional production cycle on its head, shifting from take, make, and dispose to reuse, recycle, and recover. Sustainable commerce offers numerous benefits, including:

  • Minimal environmental impact: Emphasizing product durability, reparability, and recyclability enables organizations to reduce their carbon footprint.
  • Business growth: 69% of buyers work at organizations with defined sustainability goals, including requirements to purchase from sellers that follow sustainable practices. In addition to accessing a larger market, distributors who implement sustainable commerce can significantly boost resource efficiency, minimize waste, and ultimately decrease operational costs.
  • Compliance: Implementing sustainable practices ensures compliance with emerging regulations and legislation, instead of forcing businesses to start and stop every time they want to expand.

Marketplaces are often a vehicle used to drive circular economy practices, as the platform model offers the opportunity to connect buyers and sellers. Take Toyota’s “Certified Used” program for example. The company’s resale marketplace for used vehicles reduces waste while also allowing Toyota to capitalze on the resale market. 

5. Consumer-style shipping and delivery

Traditionally, B2B fulfillment has meant bulk orders delivered on a fixed schedule. However, buyers now expect the same level of convenience and flexibility they receive from B2C online stores. As consumers, we're accustomed to last mile delivery — which looks like shipping providers like DHL, UPS, or FedEx dropping a package off at your door. Whereas B2B relies on third-party logistics which typically offers full truck load or less than truckload (LTL) carriers.

Fortunately, many solutions for last mile delivery are popping up, enabling B2B companies to meet the demands of their customers. Plus, LTL carriers are doing a better job providing consistent updates on delivery status.

This allows B2B distributors to expand their shipping options to offer:

  • Expedited delivery, often facilitated through logistics partners
  • Scheduled deliveries that enable customers to select different dates and locations
  • Multiple carriers at different price points
  • Real-time tracking and updates

Back to you

Words of wisdom have repeatedly cautioned us: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. While this may be sage advice in some scenarios, rapidly evolving buyer expectations turning B2B ecommerce on its head isn’t one of them. In 2024, customer experience is the name of the game — now more than ever, with an overcrowded market. There are more than 26 million ecommerce sites globally — more than double than in 2020.

As the lines between B2B buyers and consumers become continually blurred, innovating new ways to meet or exceed expectations will be critical. 

So how do you know which strategy or solution will be the right fit for your business? Start by asking yourself:

  • What are your business goals for the year?
  • What will have the most positive impact?
  • What are your competitors doing?

The good news is that there’s no wrong answer — and many roads lead to Rome.

Just remember, if you don’t provide an outstanding customer experience, someone else will.

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