While COVID-19 disrupted many businesses, the pandemic has created a unique opportunity for builders’ merchants to emerge with a more flexible approach to selling, says our Sales & Marketing Director and BMBI Expert Mike Tattam.
The builders’ merchant sector is bouncing back stronger than any of us could have forecasted, or hoped, and the Government’s ‘Build Back Better’ mantra is kickstarting construction. It’s giving everyone in the supply chain a much-needed boost.
The green shoots of recovery?
After the precipitous drop in revenue in April, with many branches closed or partially closed because of lockdown, the easing of restrictions in May set sales and confidence on an upward trajectory. By June, branches operating on skeleton staff were rushed off their feet and most of our merchant customers had returned to full capacity to cope with the uplift in demand from the building trade.
Home improvements buoyed merchant sales as a range of projects around the home proved popular among households with extra disposable income. But it would be naïve to think we are out of the woods and there is an air of caution as we head towards the final quarter. The Pulse report from July, produced by MRA Research, found that while merchants were generally upbeat, half of the merchants surveyed were less confident than in June, unsure whether the surge in sales was indicative of a V-shaped recovery or just the clearing of a backlog of orders which built up while branches were closed or semi-operational.
It’s difficult for us to see the full picture, particular for showering spaces as they are large, difficult to store items that builders normally order job-by-job. This lag skews the true pipeline of orders for suppliers and merchants.
Realistically, there could be more challenges in store for the sector. Regional lockdowns, like those in Leicester and Blackburn, could severely impact individual branches, while the end of the furlough scheme (anticipated in the Autumn) is expected to result in widespread redundancies which will impact consumer spending and overall market confidence. And this is all before we reach Brexit at the end of the year!
It’s impossible to predict how all these factors will affect the industry, which makes future proofing and planning even more of a challenge. It’s at times like these that merchants and suppliers need to pull together.
We’re all experiencing the pain of supply chain issues and meeting customer demands while adhering to safe working practices. Clear communication, a collaborative mindset to tackle the problems and a little understanding all go a long way.
If anything positive has come out of this pandemic it’s the push for innovative solutions, which will change the builders’ merchant marketplace for the better.
During lockdown, we all immersed ourselves in online and digital ways to live and communicate – from Teams calls with colleagues, and Zoom pub quizzes with friends, to unprecedented levels of online shopping and ordering in.
Merchants were quick to jump on the increase in online shopping, switching their traditional business models to establish themselves as click and collect or transactional sites.
In July, Lakes launched a pioneering online showroom concept, which gives installer and homeowner customers a showroom experience from the comfort and safety of their own homes. The showroom is hosted within the merchant’s own website, so all the leads and enquiries go to them to close the deal.
The industry response has been overwhelmingly positive because – after two years in development – it’s landed at just the right time. But while purchasing behaviours are changing, and at a pace accelerated by lockdown, there is still a firm place for physical showrooms in the post-COVID world.
Our online showroom provides a way for merchants to warm up casual browsers into warm leads for showroom staff to covert. It’s a space for customers to research products and get in touch with our stockists directly. Realistically website visitors are not going to commit to buying a big-ticket item without seeing it first. They still need to visit a merchant showroom to touch and test the product for themselves, feel the quality and speak to informed and friendly staff about whether its right for them.
We hear from our merchant customers that their showrooms are increasingly busy, which is encouraging. And as post-lockdown customers now visit showrooms on an appointment basis, they come with more serious intentions to buy.
The future of merchant selling is not only online. The steps and sequence of the customer journey have changed, but we mustn’t underestimate the value of human interactions in that journey. The future of showrooms is omnichannel, incorporating the best in online and offline selling, to deliver a holistic and safe customer experience. That’s the ‘new normal’ and it’s here now.