Industrial Marketing Blog

E-commerce for manufacturers and distributors

E-Commerce for Manufacturers and Distributors—What You Need to Know

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Historically, e-commerce for manufacturers and distributors has been lagging with some exceptions. I know of two industries that have adopted e-commerce quickly—distributors of industrial automation products and electronic components.

However, times have changed. Industrial manufacturers and distributors are poised to dive right into e-commerce. The pandemic has accelerated the trend towards online sales.

According to an article published by PwC, “Two-thirds of U.S. manufacturers (66%) agree that implementing digital marketing and sales over the next two years is a “high” or “very high” priority.” (See chart below).

Industrial e-commerce for manufacturers

Why are industrial companies jumping on the e-commerce bandwagon?

The pandemic has disrupted supply chains for many manufacturers, and there is still a lot of uncertainty about the long-term impact of the COVID-19 outbreak.

The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) surveyed its members on the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak from February 28 to March 9, 2020, and reported some telling facts.

COVID-19's impact on U.S. manufacturers

Supply chain disruptions had a significant impact. When commenting on supply chain disruptions, respondents noted issues with parts arriving late and delivering to customers late as a result. While some say these disruptions are “manageable at this point,” they do create “some additional costs.”

Many mentioned having to find “alternative suppliers,” and while disruptions are characterized as “minor now,” they are expected to become more serious “if slowdowns continue beyond next quarter.”

So what does all this have to do with e-commerce for manufacturers and distributors? Glad you asked. Here are some positive statistics on this trend: (Source: Statista).

Total manufacturing B2B e-commerce sales in the United States from 2016 to 2018 (in billion U.S. dollars)

Total manufacturing B2B e-commerce sales in the United States

E-commerce as percentage of total manufacturing shipments in the United States from 2010 to 2019

Percentage of manufacturing e-commerce sales

More statistics from Statista:

  • Manufacturing revenue amounted to 354 billion U.S. dollars in B2B e-commerce sales, with a growth rate of 23 percent from 2017 to 2018.
  • In 2019, e-commerce sales accounted for 67.8 percent of manufacturing shipments in the United States, up from the previous years.
  • In 2019, e-commerce accounted for almost 64 percent of total shipments in the machinery manufacturing sector.
  • In 2019, e-commerce accounted for over 67.6 percent of total shipments in the chemical manufacturing sector.

Those are some big numbers, and one can’t just ignore them.

Changes in industrial buying dynamics

How have all these changes affected the industrial buying process? To understand that, I went to the source – UPS, after all, that’s “where the rubber meets the road” and downloaded their 2019 Industrial Buying Dynamics Study. They reported some interesting findings, many that were broken out by age groups.

Millennials, Gen Xers, and Boomers all rely on a vendor’s website for information in the Research phase of their buying journey. Millennials supplement that source with social media, whereas the Boomers tend to reach for Sales Reps.

The differences in buyer behavior by age don’t stop at the research phase. It influences the buying pattern too. Millennials are far more likely to purchase from manufacturers and online marketplaces (68 percent) than are Gen Xers (62 percent) or Boomers (54 percent). An online marketplace is an e-commerce site that connects sellers with buyers.

You may be thinking that Boomers are quickly reaching retirement age, and you don’t need to market to them much longer, think again!

A 2018 Gallup poll revealed that 41 percent of Boomers expected to work past age 65. (In 1995, only 13 percent of Boomers stayed on the job past 65.)

You already know that Millennials are growing in numbers. However, they don’t have years of experience and the final buying authority like their senior colleagues. So for all practical purposes, Boomers will continue to wield buying influence, even if in diminishing numbers.

I have written several posts about the importance of understanding the age difference among engineers. Read some of them if you want to learn more about this topic.

It is not just age differences that influence the source of industrial purchases. The product type also matters in choosing the source, as seen in this chart from the UPS study.

Product type influences e-commerce for manufacturers and distributors

Looking beyond the numbers for industrial e-commerce

Statistics are great for planning and strategizing, but what do those numbers mean in the real world? In other words, what are some of the advantages of online sales for industrial companies?

Let me summarize what I have found based on several articles that I’ve read from trusted sources. But, more importantly, these findings align very well with what I’ve seen first-hand working with my manufacturing and distributor clients who have implemented e-commerce.

  • Add an extra revenue stream to your existing sales channels
  • Reduce the cost of selling
  • Scale up without increasing the size of your sales team and improve efficiencies
  • Use a mix of purchasing models – 100% online (research and buy online) and RoPo (research online, purchase offline)
  • Build stronger relationships with direct access to your customers
  • Provide a more personalized experience by tracking how site visitors shop online
  • Sell 24/7 and globally
  • Initial e-commerce sales can lead to bigger projects in the future

Pitfalls to avoid in e-commerce for manufacturers and distributors

I don’t want to make it sound like adding e-commerce to an industrial website is all there is to it. There are many moving parts to mesh together and take care of many details. I say that from my own experiences of creating e-commerce websites for manufacturers and distributors.

Some of the challenges that I have seen are:

  • Integration – this is a big one, especially for distributors. Most use an ERP system to run their businesses. However, integrating the front-end site with the back-end ERP system usually requires custom programming, outside consultants, and sometimes, buying an API license. These costs can quickly add up; none of them are cheap and will take much longer to launch your e-commerce site than you expected.
  • Complex pricing structures – It is easy to add quantity discounts to a shopping cart. However, I’ve seen many manufacturers with very complex tiered and negotiated pricing structures. Most off-the-shelf e-commerce apps cannot handle these easily.
  • Channel partners – You could easily upset existing channel partners when selling directly to end-users. Therefore, one has to plan how you will continue to support your partners without cannibalizing their sales. At the very least, you may need to create a secured and private area accessible only to your authorized distributors and not visible to the public and search engines.
  • Business rules – Planning for MOQs (Minimum Order Quantities), shipping, payment processing, and sales tax can be time-consuming if you sell nationally and/or internationally through your online store. You also have to plan for regulatory compliance, return policies, and support (This may result in hiring and training more inside sales and support people).
  • If you build it, they will come  – This one is a classic mistake that I’ve seen companies make. Don’t build an e-commerce site unless you understand your customers’ journey in their buying decision. Read my post, Industrial Customer Journey and the Digital Experience for a good overview.

To see examples of industrial e-commerce, read these two case studies where I worked on setting up e-commerce for my clients. The first one is for a manufacturer and is a straightforward e-commerce example, and the second one is for a distributor with ERP integration.

  1. Manufacturer Uses Online Sales to Add a New Source of Revenue and Grow Sales
  2. E-commerce Website for Distributor

This post provides a good overview of what is involved in e-commerce for manufacturers and distributors, but there’s a lot more to it. So let’s talk if you are interested.

Achinta Mitra

Achinta Mitra calls himself a “marketing engineer” because he combines his engineering education and an MBA with 35+ years of practical manufacturing and industrial marketing experience. You want an expert with an insider’s knowledge and an outsider’s objectivity who can point you in the right direction immediately. That's Achinta. He is the Founder of Tiecas, Inc., a manufacturing marketing agency in Houston, Texas. Read Achinta's story here.
Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  1. Thanks for sharing this types of informative post…

Ready to Start a Conversation?

Let’s start with a free 30-minute consultation to determine if this will be a good fit for both of us. It will be a friendly chat to get to know each other better, not a high-pressure sales pitch.

Post Categories