While most e-commerce conversations tend to be consumer-facing, the shift to online is shaking up business-to-business (B2B) transactions with implications for the produce industry.
With its headquarters in Stockport on the outskirts of Manchester, Business Computer Projects (BCP) Software has been adapting to this changing environment through the development of its Oporteo e-commerce solution.
With around 150 functional extensions that build on what BCP’s business development division head Andy Pratt describes as “best-of-the-breed retail solutions,” Oporteo attempts to deal with complexities that are unique to the food industry.
Customers BCP serves include James Hall & Co, a major wholesaler and distributor to Spar supermarkets in northern England, as well as the likes of food-service operator Thomas Ridley and Irish wholesale distribution and food-service playerMusgrave Group.
“We started to see that the shift from the users in the marketplace is moving more towards needing that intuitive online experience rather than the old-style clunky business-to-business portal experience which is fairly prevalent in our market,” says Pratt. “Our market, in my experience, they have been slow adopters of the technology. I think business-to-business has been slower than the retail side to adopt online as a channel.
“Traditionally people are nervous about moving customers onto an online channel, but the customers are now starting to demand it because they see the benefits of being able to order online.”
He says the feedback from customers is that they are now seeing contracts that have online as a perquisite to doing business in their tender documents. Quarterly surveys conducted by BCP have shown 24-25 per cent growth in online food transactions in B2B within the UK and Ireland.
“So the demand is there,” says Pratt. “We’re hearing people are moving to competitors who offer online just because of that online convenience. People are moving that way just to really keep the competitive angle and stay ahead of the game really.
“The thing that makes it attractive is where you can provide self-service and kind of automate the customer-service and ordering functionality.”
But the approach to online in B2B in fresh produce — whether it’s for independent grocers, hotels, caterers, restaurants or wholesalers — is quite different to consumer-facing channels.
“We find that a customer might have a set range of products that they order on a regular basis to suits their menus and their requirements,” says Pratt. “So when they visit the site, they’re interested in getting onto the site and off the site as quickly as they can. Their role in life isn’t to spend their days browsing on the website; it’s to get stuff ordered and crack on with whatever they’re doing.”
But there are some similarities with the trends being seen in online retail, including the convenience to order when you want.
“You’re busy. You want to order your products whenever you want. You want to be able to order them on your mobile phone first thing in the morning or at night when the supplier is closed,” says Pratt. “There are much higher levels of convenience for the customer in shopping online, and that’s really starting to be recognised now.”
Pratt uses Musgrave as an example of how setting up an online-for-business-to-business is about much more than just buying and selling.
“One of the sides of the business is providing pure customer service and invoicing statements – they’re not doing hard selling through the website; they do paperless invoicing for example,” he says. “The driver will show up and get a signature on a handheld device, and then the invoice will be placed on a portal for the customer to pick up.
“It’s the whole customer-experience scenario, which again comes back to convenience to the customer and cost savings for the supplier in serving the customer.”
Despite the increasing availability of online as an option for B2B, Pratt says most of BCP’s customers’ customers are still generally engaging through telephone channels.
For him, the trick is not for online to replace the telephone but to make the offerings and results through all channels consistent.
“They are buying in products in reasonable bulk, so they are relying on their supplier to deliver the quality of product that they expect,” he says. “So whether they’re engaging online or on the telephone, the experience and the resulting product quality is equal.”
This ties into Pratt’s definition of what omni-channel really ought to mean in philosophical terms.
“It’s giving that complete and utter consistent experience across all the touch points with the customer, and that’s something which is challenging,” he explains. “We use a concept called ‘headless commerce’ which basically means that in the core business system which looks after your stock, pricing and all those kinds of things, we actually extend that functionality and make it available on the website. The customer gets the same information wherever they are, and that’s really what omni-channel is to me.”
So with a technology that is receiving attention in the British Isles and passionate ideas around omni-channel B2B e-commerce solutions, does Pratt think the operation will expand into continental Europe?
“We are really geared up for the UK and Ireland. We have a solution which is certainly re-sellable and could be implemented by a partner,” he replies. “More modern web solutions are open to customisation and design by a number of parties, so we can provide a web solution, we can implement it for the customer, we can do the initial look and feel design of the site and leave it to the customer to bring forward.
“Or they could bring in a partner, or they could have a partner in Europe to implement the solution, and we provide the business logics and the engine of the website; there are opportunities for that.”
On 12-14 November, The Amsterdam Produce Summit will gather the best and the brightest for education and interchange to understand and to help create a new tomorrow for the produce industry. This title of this year’s conference is: Retail Strategies: Seizing Success in the Omni-Channel Future.
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