Hannah Foley, Director of Digital, Wolseley Group, argues that the digital evolution of merchants is a mammoth task.
Retail has been more impacted by the onset of the web as a platform for doing business than any other sector.
In the mid-1990s we could barely imagine a world in which people would buy so much of what they consume every day online and it would stand the test of time.
Across building merchants though, the change to how professionals find, source and procure products saw a slower pace of change than in the consumer retail sector. That is changing rapidly and digitising how the building trades browse and buy has become a more complex task.
In fact, it’s a task that will never really be complete, as new technologies will be introduced that offer new ways to serve customers, supply products and, crucially, provide expertise and guidance as an alternative to traditional direct interaction.
We are going through a continuous process of digital evolution which is seeing us stay at the forefront of digital capability across the sector.
As a trade merchant, our specialists have always been at the heart of a great customer experience, and the colleagues behind our trade counters have a different relationship with our customers than those at a high street supermarket or clothing store. They really know our customers, and our customers in turn have immense trust in them as they enable them to keep running their businesses well.
Our challenge is not how do we replace colleagues, but how do we complement them and provide that same expertise through our digital channels to give our customers the ability to do what they need to do 24/7 when our colleagues aren’t available, or when they don’t need that human interaction.
We are striving to give our colleagues more time to share their expertise, rather than spending time on tasks that are not adding value to customers, through digital innovation, and at the same time giving a customers a new route to help them be more effective and efficient in their own businesses
There are parallels with many retail or consumer sectors but one of the better examples is the banking sector. High Street banks have developed digital channels that allow customers to access not just basic banking, but also many of the services, that used to be only available in a physical branch.
While there are fewer of them, the role of the physical branch remains and bank employees have been able to capitalise on the time freed up to create more engaging, humanised experiences that now reflect the interactions that require trust and emotional support.
This is only possible now that the mechanical aspects of service are available via an alternative means. The evolution of both the digital footprint and the in-store footprint are complementary and support customers using digital for transactional needs while environments are now warm and welcoming to take away the ‘seeing the bank manager’ fear.
Being able to put together the right package of products that are compatible and provide a complete solution to any job or project from a trade specialist is no mean feat. Wolseley alone offers more than 400,000 products and so our challenge is how best to replicate that level of specialist service and expertise provided by our in-store teams in a digital environment.
The starting point has been the basic function of making rich, searchable content available for all of our products – this has been a significant achievement where we have had to materially enhance data available from the product manufacturers.
But the real innovation has been building on this to deliver greater value-added advice and service through a combination of direct digital and a digital gateway for contacting our personnel, seeking more information, and accessing technical data.
You won’t find robots at the end of our Live Chat, you’ll find knowledgeable colleagues who want to support our customers just like the teams in our stores do.
It’s a good illustration of why trade merchants need to be committed to wholesale digital evolution, not just ‘one-off’ transformation to upgrade certain aspects of the business.
Technological evolution and the rate of change have meant that embracing digital technology is no longer just about keeping pace and meeting customer expectations, but about an evolution of the business to the point where new technology becomes part of its operational DNA and reflects how our specialist customers want to do businesses rather than a neat new ‘add-on’.
The reality is that technology will continue to offer innovations that improve business for our company and our customers. But we must consider carefully how best to apply it, as the specialist nature of Wolseley demands a specific approach that is right for the customers who depend on us every day and for our people who serve them.
And that is a mantra that we must sustain not just as we go through the rapid change that we’re currently undergoing to continually improve product search, ordering and purchasing online, but to the ongoing evolution of our capabilities to help our customers run more profitable and efficient businesses.
It is no mean feat, as it requires us to do much more than just convert our ‘shop window’ from bricks and mortar to digital. We have had to listen hard to what our customers want from a more digital experience with us, and fine tune how we introduce those technologies accordingly.
We have had to instil knowledge of digital platforms and understanding of how customers can shop among our own teams, so that they can help to provide a seamless online and offline experience, helped by a network of ‘digital champions’ we’ve developed with a digital advocate in each branch.
The take-up of these digital platforms and tools across our customer base is also an evolution. We are already seeing some customers embrace a fully digital purchase to pay experience, to the point that some only buy from us and talk to us through digital means.
Many more use a combination of digital tools and conversations with our teams, both in-store and online, to gain advice. Other customers prefer to shop with us the way that they always have in-store, but often use our digital platforms to do tasks like settle account payments online, or download paperwork for their accountants in the evenings and at weekends.
We expect that to evolve as more digital capabilities are introduced and digital administration becomes more prevalent within their own businesses. We also see that the impact of Gen Z and their influence on the business owners they work for will really impact this adoption over the next couple of years.
The digital evolution of Wolseley is about far much more than introducing an improved web site, though we have done that recently too. It is about examining every aspect of how we can do business better with our customers, to improve their business horizons and ours.
Trade merchants may be digitising many years after their consumer retail counterparts, but with such complexity involved, and a need to retain direct engagement with customers to add new options on top of the personal service and expertise they’ve come to expect from us in our branches, we have taken on an enormous task.
But one that we expect to drive multiple advantages as we continue to evolve. Ultimately the digital services will help customers be more effective in the way they operate, be more efficient, win more business and be more profitable.