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Author's profile photo Pedro Ahlers

The 20-Year-Old Web Shop: Standard Solution, Please

In the early 2000s, many chemical companies started launching webshops, digital sales platforms for B2B buyers. Decisions were easily made from the top-down and because plenty of companies were already equipped with a large number of developers. Under these circumstances, why wouldn’t they go for an internally developed, bespoke webshop?

There was no need to ask users, as standards were not defined. The market was not providing relevant B2B solutions, but customers were already asking for 24×7 access to information with an Amazon-like shopping experience, so this was how many projects started. Typical sales buzzwords such as “order when you want” and “download information when you need it” were working, as people started using the webshop model more and more.

To make the webshop a success, companies started to calculate e-share, the percentage of orders taken through electronic channels, into the sales and customer service targets. This approach went through the roof, and suddenly every customer was a webshop-qualified customer.

While 2005 was like fuel for webshops in the chemical industry, nothing stays the same for long. This approach remains a challenge today, barely 15 years later. Most of the complex and sophisticated webshops have continued running, like a robust, everlasting machine. The user interface often throws us back in time to the old AOL and Yahoo experiences using the Netscape Navigator browser. The navigation, the search functionality, and yes, the complete customer experience, was clearly designed for another time.

Webshops then and now

Since customer experience matters and can be measured, it’s a crucial influence on overall business strategy, and companies are starting to invest again in their webshops. Technology and expectations have changed dramatically, but sadly, companies’ approaches to webshops often haven’t.

In the past, what a customer thought about the webshop wasn’t considered very important, but today, successful shops are built from the user’s perspective. Starting with the limitations of internal processes and questions about integration, looking to the past is not really the best way to get webshop overhaul rolling.

Parallels to the iPhone

Times have changed quite a bit, as 20 years in IT is like nothing. Do you remember what happened on January 9, 2007? Apple debuted the iPhone, at a time when many still considered the internet as hype. Today, smartphones are part of our everyday life, and it’s hard to remember life before the iPhone. But you may be reminded if you open a webshop, even from a larger chemical company, on a new smartphone. Quite a few are still a relic of the old times. It is game of pinch and guess, and many customers still play this game daily as they use their mobiles to search, check, and order chemicals.

There are parallels between webshops and iPhones: time, evolution, and speed.

Companies that are thinking about replacing the old beast they built in-house (mainly to serve internal aspects and with e-share being the only relevant KPI) with a state-of-the-art solution may assume they’ll be safe for the next few years. But they should consider a different perspective, one built around today’s cloud era, which brings benefits as well as some limitations – and that is good.

Today, there are many new things companies need to consider in the world of e-commerce. For instance, the old fight with double-order entries. A customer’s willingness to accept that they need to create an order in one system, then key in the same information in a different system, is dropping fast. Remember that more than 50% of B2B buyers are part of Generations X and Y.

The game has changed, as more and more customers want suppliers to put themselves into customers’ shoes. They want suppliers to key certain information into their portals. Self-service became more than entering orders and downloading invoices. It includes starting and tracking non-conforming processes; submitting easy cross-portfolio requests for quotes; connecting contracts to products; accessing supply chain and logistics information; and, of course, helping get work done fast and easy, maybe even including bidding in auctions.

Culture plays a major role, as always. Forcing customers to use a non-value-adding tool ends in a mess. Instead of forcing them, why not go the way of understanding, adapting, and changing?

Another thing that’s strongly underestimated is how the channels are orchestrated; in other words, omnichannel orchestration. The purpose is to gain control over offers and who buys what on which channels. If you don’t have this under control, you might run into risks and trouble; for example, if the channel conflicts with your customer experience channel, your salespeople may be surprised.

Since 2016, chemical marketplaces are upending the conservative world of chemicals. Most of them are located in China: In 2018, China had total sales in the chemical industry of €1,198 billion, compared to €1,341 billion in the next nine countries combined, led by the United States with €468 billion. Ask yourself where you see business growth, and consider what that means for your e-commerce strategy.

There is also the concept of the customer. Companies love to put them in drawers; cluster them in segments like A, B, C; or give them functional names such as “Price Buyer” or “Product Innovator.” Price Buyers love commodities, and commodity business is being disrupted by marketplaces – now, at this very moment. And Product Innovators may not be interested at all in using your commerce system, as they know they are very special to you. They’d love to see the red carpet.

Selling has become more complicated, and your webshop, as part of your overall strategy, needs to fit into the new world and solve problems and challenges for its users.


Oversimplifying the fact that your once-specialized webshop can be easily transferred into a standard (ideally cloud) shop raises the question of what the standard is. It turns out that many chemical companies aren’t e-commerce ready. The beast was working as designed, but times have changed. Technical migrations are not what you should be aiming or.

Webshops need to be seen within an overall sales strategy, part of a bigger picture where marketing and communications are well represented, where the complete organization is aiming for mutual understanding of success and customer-centricity.

A webshop needs a soul that reflects the company’s footprint, as it is the tool customers should be using every day with happiness and satisfaction.

There is nothing wrong with being awesome in the chemical industry. #DareToBeBold

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      Author's profile photo Michelle Crapo
      Michelle Crapo

      "Oversimplifying" a web change is well oversimplifying it.  First let me say I agree - they should be re-written.

      There are just so many things to consider.  One of the big things would be the customer.  I think you already said that.  Are they used to the current design? Even though you give them the red carpet - Will they be happy with the change?  Or will you lose some customers while they are having more trouble navigating it.  While it may help them in the end - learning curves always mean they take a while to learn the tool.

      Just some things that went through my head as I read this.

      Author's profile photo Pedro Ahlers
      Pedro Ahlers
      Blog Post Author

      Thx Michelle!

      Really appreciate your feedback. The thing with the customer is, that this group in most cases are not even asked. I hear your concerns often when it comes to this topic in our discussions with customers. They often think it works, not pretty, not fast, but still it brings a significant eShare.

      You have to see, that a typical category buyer in the chemical industry, usually has around 50 products to buy from up to 200 suppliers. Every supplier has a different process and way of interaction. more than 50% of todays buyers in B2B were born between 1981 and 1996, what makes them between 24 and 39 years old. Typically these persons are not interested in getting recommendations and having a lot of options in the shop, as their only task is to key in the order, coming from an ERP system, into the system asap. Every additional click is a waste of their time.

      If you look at smaller distributors, the roles differ.  Sellers might also be buyers. Especially in regions like Middle East these roles are way more opportunistic. They want to see more than others, having more interaction as their role is different.

      This is what I mean with red carpet service. One size fits all is not working any longer. Understanding the customer and the job to be done is imperative to deliver a real value adding shop.

      What do you think?