Relationships Trump Comparisons for B2B Shoppers

Although comparison shopping motivates many a consumer to shop online, it’s second fiddle for small businesses shopping on the Net, according to a study released by JupiterResearch last Friday.

The most significant factor governing purchases on the Web by small businesses is previous experience or familiarity with the seller, said Sonal Gandhi, the study’s lead analyst.

Although 25 percent of small business buyers surveyed by Jupiter gave equal weight to relationships and comparisons as factors influencing their online shopping, Gandhi told the E-Commerce Times, some 62 percent of respondents revealed they base their shopping choices solely on familiarity or previous experience.

Change Coming

“That’s likely to change over time,” Gandhi maintained. “Newer businesses are comfortable doing business online and are spending more of their budget there. They will comparison shop more because they don’t have existing relationships.

“The higher the comfort level business decision makers have with purchasing stuff online, the more likely they are to shop around,” she added.

Nevertheless, cultivating relationships will remain important in attracting small businesses to shop online.

“You have to continue to build your relationship with your shoppers,” suggested Gandhi. “You maintain customer service. You have to ship on time and make it easy to return things. All those relationship-building tactics remain important. Increasingly, though, you have to provide comparative information.”

Comparisons Fuel Sales

Comparative information was the No. 1 factor shoppers cited as a reason to buy more online, Gandhi noted. “If it’s easy to compare others’ products with your products, it will help get shoppers to buy from you.”

They’re also more likely to buy from you if they understand how your product will help their business, she maintained, pointing to the product adviser tool used by Dell computer as a good example.

The adviser asks a series of questions to tailor its product recommendations to a buyer. “It makes it relevant for them, and that makes a difference for a decision maker,” said Gandhi.

Building Communities

Another tactic for boosting sales is establishing an online community around your products, as Intuit has done for its financial software.

Intuit’s product is sold largely through its channel partners, she explained. These partners — many of whom are accountants — influence the purchasing decisions of their clients. “Intuit uses its Web site to influence influencers because the accountants are telling the small businesses what software to buy,” she reasoned.

Small businesses, especially startups, can feel out of their comfort zone when it comes to financial software, according to Scott K. Wilder, manager of Intuit’s small business online communities.

“If you start a bike shop, you’re an expert on bikes, but when it comes to buying financial software, that’s a little bit different,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “In that case, word-of-mouth or talking to somebody who has expertise in that area is really important.

“One of the things we try to do at the site is bring together the accountants and small business owners,” he added.

A search tool at the site, for example, allows users to type in their ZIP code to find accountants located in their area.

Local Attraction

Marketers have also taken a more direct tack that is driving small business traffic to their Web sites, added Scott Healy, vice president of marketing for Buyerzone.com, a business-to-business purchasing site headquartered in Watertown, Mass.

They’ve been promoting “Web-only” specials through direct mail, e-mail or broadcast ads, he noted.

“Instead of the message being, ‘Come to our store’ or ‘Call us,’ it’s something to drive people to a Web site — something with Web-specific offers or advantages,” Healy told the E-Commerce Times.

He added that there’s also been an uptick in dollars spent on marketing in locally focused online media.

“There’s been a surge in the last year or two in the growth of local online directories where, as an advertiser, you can run ads at the local level, which tend to hit more small businesses,” he said.

Buyers Helping Buyers

Healy is quick to point out, however, that relationships with offline sellers don’t necessarily translate to the online world.

“What buyers are tending to do these days is rely less on relationships and more on the input of other buyers like them,” he observed. “They’re doing that through a lot of the online services that offer ratings and reviews of different suppliers, retailers and manufacturers.”

Forty-six percent of respondents to the Jupiter study said they read online reviews before making a purchase. “That’s a fairly significant number,” Gandhi said.

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