E-commerce is not only about reducing cost and automating transactions; it is also about using it as a channel to exchange better and larger amounts of knowledge with business partners.
If I were to say that competition in the packaging industry has been based all along primarily on knowledge, most of you will agree but only after some thought.
Some of the recent hype about “knowledge management” may give an impression that it is something new. In the packaging industry, we have been doing it all along without necessarily using a very formal name and process.
Even while selling a basic package, a successful salesperson typically talks less about the actual package and more about how it will protect the product, provide aesthetics and reduce cost. This salesperson will also probably bring along a technical professional who can help the customer’s manufacturing group implement all of the above.
This sales team has not only used knowledge to sell the product, it has actually sold knowledge and got paid for it (through stronger customer relationship).
At the other end of the spectrum in the packaging industry are suppliers who sell using a catalog approach — standard products, service, price, terms of contract and limited or no knowledge to share. With the recent trend to provide e-commerce capabilities, packaging companies need to be extremely careful in not becoming catalog type suppliers. This is especially true when products are sold through an e-marketplace.
Participation in an e-marketplace is almost a must for most companies, but it may also result in erosion of product value and eventually commoditization, which is a serious problem if your products are not inherently commodities. Thus, suppliers of value-added packaging materials have to make sure that the bond with their customers that has been built on sharing of knowledge does not weaken as more business is conducted electronically.
Sharing the knowledge
Suppliers of value-added packaging materials typically dedicate considerable resources to working together with their customers designing customized packages. In fact, most companies end up offering these services for free as a means to strengthen customer relationships and boost sales. Apart from helping customers design better packages and, of course, allowing them to use their materials, this relationship also works as a means of sharing knowledge since suppliers pick up intelligence from the marketplace, get exposed to competitive technologies and better understand unmet and emerging needs.
E-commerce presents opportunities for reducing cost of selling and reaching a wider pool of customers. The downside is that companies are so focused on selling that their sites are turning into electronic catalogs. The e-marketplaces are even worse since their value proposition is based on product standardization and thus encouraging price-based competition.
E-commerce is not only about reducing cost and automating transactions; it is also about using it as a channel to exchange better and larger amounts of knowledge with business partners. As companies employ the latest tools for knowledge management within the enterprise, the program has to be designed to include business partners in the loop as well so that this knowledge can be shared with them and used to strengthen virtual bonds.
Recommendations for an e-commerce strategy
An e-marketplace would work fine for those products that are manufactured by more than one supplier and have attained some degree of standardization in the industry. Fortunately, in the packaging industry, there are not too many of them. Customers continue to demand high degree of customization even if it is in printing of the package. Thus, companies have to segment their customers into essentially two groups.
The first group comprises those customers that seek standardized products with minimal technical support. Suppliers should steer these customers to an e-marketplace if they participate in one, or the supplier should have its own e-commerce site for them.
The second group of customers demands customized designs, technical support and even a dedicated team to assist them. Suppliers have to take special care of these customers because these will not only be the supplier’s most profitable customers, but they are more likely to reward the supplier with additional business as they simplify their supply chain and start treating the supplier as a provider of turnkey packaging solutions. The supplier will need to build a private network for them that will provide a virtual space for collaboration on product and service development and gather intelligence on markets, products and technologies not only about the supplier itself but also the whole industry.
The basis of competition in the future will be predominantly knowledge, and as packaging suppliers’ customers increasingly use it as a competitive weapon, suppliers need to do the same.
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