Many builders' merchants are leading the fight to carry on trading and protect their staff and customers during this coronavirus pandemic. Digital expert and eCommonSense founder, Andy Scothern, has collected some of the best practical steps that merchants are taking around the UK and Ireland today.
As the coronavirus crisis escalates, many builders’ merchants are rightly worried about the future and how it will affect their business going forward. They should be, as merely closing down for the next three or four weeks will not be sufficient to remove the risks associated with the crisis.
An article by MIT Technology Review suggests that Covid-19 will be to builders’ merchants what the 9/11 terrorist attack was to airports, which led to wholesale and profound changes in the way they operate. The encouraging thing is that after the initial shock of those changes, we adapted and airports work just fine now.
If you are in any doubt about how to operate, the BMF regularly publishes up-to-date government guidance on its website:
While there remain many unknowns, one thing is absolutely clear. If you are solely reliant on a face-to-face branch business model and don’t have a fit-for-purpose digital operation, you will be exposed if branches are forced to close.
We have seen many merchants rushing forward their digital launches ready for this eventuality, and online sales are hitting unprecedented levels. Also, the new consumer behaviour of ordering online is likely to become ingrained, so even after the pandemic crisis is over, this side of the business is likely to remain strong.
However, even if your online operation is not where you would like it to be, there are plenty of practical steps that you can take to keep trading in your branches while keeping both your staff and customers safe.
As the MD of a company that produces websites for builders’ merchants and a regular attendee of BMF events, I spend a lot of my time talking to our clients to see how we can support them. This means that I get a good overview of what is happening out there.
In the last few days, I have heard of some great examples on some of the steps that merchants have taken. The matter is so important that I wanted to share these practical examples. None of them are difficult to implement in your branches; many of them will be necessary in the post-crisis world.
The first thing to state is that the safety of your staff and customers must come first. That means that you have to take steps to protect them. If you cannot, then you cannot remain open at this time of national crisis. If you can, then issue the appropriate PPE to staff members.
The risks can be managed if you get all of the following measures in place:
If you do allow customers inside your branches:
All of these practical steps are relatively quick and easy to implement - it is not overstating it to say that they will not just save your business; they could help to save lives.
I have a friend who is a senior NHS consultant and is involved in the set-up of the 2000-bed intensive care hospital in the Excel centre. He told me that they don't just need hospital equipment; they also need building materials. If all the merchants close their doors, the NHS will struggle to get what they need, resulting in a situation where lives may be lost due to the industry seeking to remove risk instead of doing what it does so well, which is to manage risk sensibly. The message being that there is justification for staying open if you can do so safely, which is in line with the current government guidelines and advice published by the BMF.
Another case I heard about yesterday came from a builder who has an unfinished job where the homeowner has no kitchen or boiler. If their local merchant were to close, that homeowner (one among many with incomplete projects) will have no cooking or heating facilities for at least an additional three weeks. That creates a tangible risk to the welfare to that family. I am sure the arguments will rage both ways and there is some validity in both.
The interesting thing about all these social distancing restrictions is that they have a negative impact on the convenience of the in-branch experience and since 'convenience is the new loyalty', it will not be long before customers take their business to the nearest online merchant.
One thing to bear in mind is that experts believe that Covid-19 may be around for as long the next 18 months, so there seems to be little doubt that, like the airports with their enhanced security, merchants’ branch operations are going to have to adapt and do so quickly.
Whether you choose to stay open or close, every merchant can help with the crisis by participating in the initiative being spearheaded by the BMF to provide any spare PPE equipment to the NHS. Contact your local BMF manager for details.
It is clear that this is not going to end anytime soon. Anyone thinking that this will be something that we get through and everything will return to how it was before is mistaken.
All builders’ merchants need to be rethinking their business model now and making fundamental changes that will remain long after the crisis ends. History shows that as consumer behaviour changes, it rarely reverts to where it was beforehand.
Any merchants that do not start planning now for the new future will be severely disadvantaged both during the crisis and, importantly, once we come out the other side.
So do not think the traditional business model will still work in this brave new world – it is time to prepare for change now as the future is already staring you in the face.