11 March 2019
B2B Sector 15 Years Behind Current Wave of E-Commerce Innovation
Companies in the business-to-business sector have a lot to learn from their more consumer-oriented counterparts when it comes to fully capitalising on the many possibilities offered by the latest developments in the e-commerce sector.
As the co-founder and Director of Business Strategy for PushON, one of the UK's leading B2B e-commerce agencies, Simon Wharton has strong views on how to nurture a digital hub, the likely impact of Brexit on Britain's online economy, the short-sightedness of certain business proprietors and the shortage of properly trained personnel that is hampering the growth of the global e-commerce sector. HKTDC Research caught up with him at the recent eCommerce Show North event, where he had again been invited to be one of the keynote speakers.
"The problem is the schools. They think it's all about tech. In fact, people in general tend to classify e-commerce as tech when it clearly isn't. Digital marketing is also a big part of it, but most educational institutions haven't got a clue about that and don't want to have a clue. They don't want to think outside the box.
"Part of the problem is that they don't seem to be interested in actually helping students develop the kind of skills that will make them an effective part of the workforce. Most still seem to think: 'This digital thing? Well, it's not real work, is it?' We're based in Manchester, in the northwest of England, and, while most people are unaware of this, it's actually the second-largest digital hub in Europe. As a result, there's a huge amount of work available here, much of it at stupidly high wages. It's very much the future. Yet, it's still not easy to recruit.
"We've been working with local universities for quite a few years now in a bid to help overcome this particular problem. Our role has been to assist them when it comes to turning out the right people with the right skill-set. That's been reasonably effective and we've found that there are some real superstars out there.
"Another thing that has played a substantial role in helping the region develop as a digital hub has been such initiatives as the eCommerce Show North, events that have helped bring the whole sector into focus. They've allowed us to come together as a community, albeit a competing one.
"To that end, though, it's not about attracting huge volumes of people. Instead, it's more about attracting the right people. Through such events, we've got to meet people who are very, very knowledgeable, as well as people who need our services and are happy to enter into a dialogue about what we might do together. It's also a chance to meet up with our peer group and to learn from them. The importance of such initiatives should never be underestimated.
"Looking beyond our own immediate region, however, I have to concede that UK business as a whole is lagging behind somewhat when it comes to fully exploiting the possibilities of e-commerce, with many companies yet to fully embrace it.
"While it's always going to be a matter of degree, in terms of comparing what's happening in the UK to what's happening in the rest of the world, I would have to say we're falling behind. While I'd say there are genuinely huge opportunities out there at the moment, a lot of B2B businesses – in particular – just aren't making the most of them.
"While the majority of such companies will have a website, are they really doing all the things their B2C counterparts are doing? I would argue that, in most cases, they clearly aren't. As a rule of thumb, the B2B business sector, overall, is about 10 to 15 years behind what it ought to be doing. The resources already available are absolutely transformational, especially in terms of how you can make businesses more accountable and more efficient.
"On top of those shortcomings, British business is also haunted by the spectre of Brexit, which is getting ever closer and which has already begun to impact on the e-commerce sector. The overall sentiment is that Brexit has already slowed the development of the UK's e-commerce sector and is almost certain to damage it still further.
"I would say that about 95% of the business people I know think Brexit's a stupid idea. Europe's our closest market, so it's a divorce that makes little sense. From a B2B point of view, we'd really like to have frictionless relationships with businesses throughout Europe. While we've already got European clients, I would certainly like a lot more.
"Brexit aside, though, there's still good business to be had and most of the e-commerce companies local to us are continuing to grow. We all know one another and, it's fair to say, we're all busy. The problem we all share, though, is a lack of resources. Like many others, we cannot get enough developers. Despite that, we're growing, but we could probably grow faster."
Established in 2005, PushON is an award-winning, Manchester-based full-service e-commerce agency and consultancy, as well as an official Magento Development Partner.
Catherine Jones, Special Correspondent, Manchester