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4.1 The Characteristics of Business-to-Business (B2B) Markets

Learning Objectives

  1. Identify the ways in which business-to-business (B2B) markets differ from business-to-consumer (B2C) markets.
  2. Explain why business buying is acutely affected by the behavior of consumers.

Business-to-business (B2B) markets differ from business-to-consumer (B2C) markets in many ways. For one, the number of products sold in business markets dwarfs the number sold in consumer markets. Suppose you buy a five-hundred-dollar computer from Dell. The sale amounts to a single transaction for you. But think of all the transactions Dell had to go through to sell you that one computer. Dell had to purchase many parts from many computer component makers. It also had to purchase equipment and facilities to assemble the computers, hire and pay employees, pay money to create and maintain its Web site and advertise, and buy insurance and accounting and financial services to keep its operations running smoothly. Many transactions had to happen before yours could.

Business products can also be very complex. Some need to be custom built or retrofitted for buyers. The products include everything from high-dollar construction equipment to commercial real estate and buildings, military equipment, and billion-dollar cruise liners used in the tourism industry. There are few or no individual consumers in the market for many of these products. Moreover, a single customer can account for a huge amount of business. Some businesses, like those that supply the U.S. auto industry around Detroit, have just a handful of customers—General Motors, Chrysler, and/or Ford. Consequently, you can imagine why these suppliers become very worried when the automakers fall on hard times.

Not only can business products be complex, but so can figuring out the buying dynamics of organizations. Many people within an organization can be part of the buying process and have a say in ultimately what gets purchased, how much of it, and from whom. This is perhaps the most complicated part of the business. In fact, it’s a bit like a chess match. And because of the quantities each business customer is capable of buying, the stakes are high. For some organizations, losing a big account can be financially devastating and winning one can be a financial bonanza.

How high are the stakes? Table 4.1 "Top Five Corporations Worldwide in Terms of Their Revenues" shows a recent ranking of the top five corporations in the world in terms of the sales they generate annually. Believe it or not, these companies earn more in a year than all the businesses of some countries do. Imagine the windfall you could gain as a seller by landing an exclusive account with any one of them.

Table 4.1 Top Five Corporations Worldwide in Terms of Their Revenues

Company Sales (Billions of Dollars)
Royal Dutch Shell 458
ExxonMobil 426
Walmart Stores 405
British Petroleum (BP) 361
Toyota Motor Company 263
Note: Numbers have been rounded to the nearest billion.

Generally, the more high-dollar and complex the item being sold is, the longer it takes for the sale to be made. The sale of a new commercial jet to an airline company such as U.S. Airways, Delta, or American Airlines can take literally years to be completed. Sales such as these are risky for companies. The buyers are concerned about many factors, such as the safety, reliability, and efficiency of the planes. They also generally want the jets customized in some way. Consequently, a lot of time and effort is needed to close these deals.

Unlike many consumers, most business buyers demand that the products they buy meet strict standards. Take, for example, the Five Guys burger chain, based in Virginia. The company taste-tested eighteen different types of mayonnaise before settling on the one it uses. Would you be willing to taste eighteen different brands of mayonnaise before buying one? Probably not.Michael Steinberg, “A Fine Diner,” Financial Times, November 21–22, 2009, 5.

Another characteristic of B2B markets is the level of personal selling that goes on. Salespeople personally call on business customers to a far greater extent than they do consumers. Most of us have had door-to-door salespeople call on us occasionally. However, businesses often have multiple salespeople call on them in person daily, and some customers even provide office space for key vendors’ salespeople. Table 4.2 "Business-to-Consumer Markets versus Business-to-Business Markets: How They Compare" outlines the main differences between B2C and B2B markets.

Table 4.2 Business-to-Consumer Markets versus Business-to-Business Markets: How They Compare

Consumer Market Business Market
Many customers, geographically dispersed Fewer customers, often geographically concentrated, with a small number accounting for most of the company’s sales
Smaller total dollar amounts due to fewer transactions Larger dollar amounts due to more transactions
Shorter decision cycles Longer decision cycles
More reliance on mass marketing via advertising, Web sites, and retailing More reliance on personal selling
Less-rigid product standards More-rigid product standards

The Demand for B2B Products

Even though they don’t sell their products to consumers like you and me, B2B sellers carefully watch general economic conditions to anticipate consumer buying patterns. The firms do so because the demand for business products is based on derived demand. Derived demandDemand that springs from, or is derived from, a secondary source other than the primary buyer of the product. is demand that springs from, or is derived from, a source other than the primary buyer of a product. When it comes to B2B sales, that source is consumers. If consumers aren’t demanding the products produced by businesses, the firms that supply products to these businesses are in big trouble.

Fluctuating demandDemand that fluctuates sharply in response to a change in consumer demand. is another characteristic of B2B markets: a small change in demand by consumers can have a big effect throughout the chain of businesses that supply all the goods and services that produce it. Often, a bullwhip type of effect occurs. If you have ever held a whip, you know that a slight shake of the handle will result in a big snap of the whip at its tip. Essentially, consumers are the handle and businesses along the chain compose the whip—hence the need to keep tabs on end consumers. They are a powerful purchasing force.

For example, Cisco makes routers, which are specialized computers that enable computer networks to work. If Google uses five hundred routers and replaces 10 percent of them each year, that means Google usually buys fifty routers in a given year. What happens if consumer demand for the Internet falls by 10 percent? Then Google needs only 450 routers. Google’s demand for Cisco’s routers therefore becomes zero. Suppose the following year the demand for the Internet returns to normal. Google now needs to replace the fifty routers it didn’t buy in the first year plus the fifty it needs to replace in the second year. So in year two, Cisco’s sales go from zero to a hundred, or twice normal. Thus, Cisco experiences a bullwhip effect, whereas Google’s sales vary only by 10 percent.

Because consumers are such a powerful force, some companies go so far as to try to influence their B2B sales by directly influencing consumers even though they don’t sell their products to them. Intel is a classic case. Do you really care what sort of microprocessing chip gets built into your computer? Intel would like you to, which is why it runs TV commercials like the Homer Simpson commercial shown in the video clip below. The commercial isn’t likely to persuade a computer manufacturer to buy Intel’s chips. But the manufacturer might be persuaded to buy them if it’s important to you. Derived demand is also the reason Intel demands that the buyers of its chips put a little “Intel Inside” sticker on each computer they make—so you get to know Intel and demand its products.

Video Clip

Intel Animations Over the Years

(click to see video)

Does this commercial make you want to buy a computer with “Intel Inside”? Intel hopes so.

B2B buyers also keep tabs on consumers to look for patterns that could create joint demand. Joint demandWhen the demand for one product increases the demand for another. occurs when the demand for one product increases the demand for another. For example, when a new video console like the Xbox comes out, it creates demand for a whole new crop of video games.

Video Clip

The History of Pong

(click to see video)

Watch this video to see the first video game ever invented, Pong, and learn about its maker. Of course, Pong got old pretty fast, so more games were quickly developed and continue to be, especially when new gaming systems hit the market.

Key Takeaway

B2B markets differ from B2C markets in many ways. There are more transactions in B2B markets and more high-dollar transactions because business products are often costly and complex. There are also fewer buyers in B2B markets, but they spend much more than the typical consumer does and have more-rigid product standards. The demand for business products is based on derived demand. Derived demand is demand that springs from, or is derived from, a secondary source other than the primary buyer of a product. For businesses, this source is consumers. Fluctuating demand is another characteristic of B2B markets: a small change in demand by consumers can have a big effect throughout the chain of businesses that supply all the goods and services that produce it.

Review Questions

  1. Why are there more transactions in B2B markets than B2C markets? Why are there fewer buyers?
  2. Explain what derived demand is.
  3. Why do firms experience a bullwhip effect in the demand for their products when consumers demand changes?