Robin Somerville: showing merchants how to trade online with ease.

Super sales driver

Published:  25 November, 2011

eBuildingSupplies is handing power to merchants with an online trading solution that acts as the conduit for sales between merchants and their customers. Robin Somerville, the pioneer of this service, explains how merchants can take advantage of a solution that requires minimum effort. Lisa Arcangeli reports.

Robin Somerville is both well-known and well-respected within the merchant industry. He is a pioneer in the development of web design and online trading for the builders’ merchants sector.

His company, eBuildingSupplies has created an online trading platform that connects buyers and sellers of a wide range of building, timber and landscape products and materials for Unimer merchant members.

It advertises its own website aggressively online. On average, advertisements are displayed over three million times a month, attracting over 100 000 visitors to the site. “Over £1.5m of sales and enquiries are generated from those visitors for our partners every month,” says Mr Somerville.

“All those partners are independent Unimer merchant members,” he points out. “All visitors are qualified; they have to register their name, email address and telephone number, the site address that they need the building materials for and full list and quantities of what they require.

“The partners who cover a particular postcode will receive the details of that enquiry, some of which are already actual sales.” he explains.

“Most of what we generate are enquiries. That enables the merchant to close the deal with the customer.

“Every enquiry is guaranteed to be genuine and legitimate.”

It is completely free to become a partner. There are no fixed monthly costs nor any lock-in period. eBuildingSupplies charges a small commission on each order or enquiry which is typically less than 1%.

Mr Somerville points out that eBuildingSupplies differs from some other internet traders because it doesn’t trade in its own name.

“We are connecting the merchant and the customer. We’re not buying from the merchant and selling on to the customer.”

The entire concept was born from a number of dialogues Mr Somerville had with merchants. Many suggested that Unimer would be a good partner. That organisation now holds a stake in the eBuildingSupplies business in exchange for marketing the site to its members.

In addition to its own site, eBuildingSupplies also has a solution that powers merchants’ own websites, helping them to generate more business.

There are currently 10 000 products to choose from on the site in over 1000 categories – all integrated into the merchant’s own site with the potential to be linked to their existing computer systems. Most products are illustrated and feature customer-friendly descriptions.

“The intention with our ‘Own Brand’ solution is to capture the value in merchants’ own sites,” Mr Somerville explains, with pricing intelligence from around the UK to help both online and in a merchant’s traditional business.

“We learned a number of lessons over the last few years about how to convert people that come to a website into cash-paying customers and we wanted to share what we had learned with builders’ merchants and manufacturers to help them to convert their own visitors into customers.

“We held six training Masterclasses around the UK. They were interactive and, based on attendance, I believe there is scope for more events.”

A recent Masterclass was held at the Builders’ Merchants Federation’s London headquarters and was packed to the rafters.

“We show merchants just how easily they can trade online and we show them how effective conversion can be when sales leads are followed up correctly,” Mr Somerville relates.

“We show them solutions to their content problems and how to advertise on Google, something not many merchants currently do. We also show them how to optimise their websites for search engines.

“For those merchants who missed the seminars, eBuildingSupplies is holding a number of free ‘webinars’ – seminars conducted over the internet which can be shared with merchants whatever their location and from the convenience of their own office.”

The first is being scheduled for 3pm on Wednesday 19 October. Merchants wishing to ‘attend’ should send an email to for their ‘passcode’ to logon.

Merchants have changed dramatically over the last couple of years. “I get a sense that they would like to participate and are thinking about the best ways to do so,” Mr Somerville says.

“Two years ago there was no real appetite to make the effort to go online,” he states. Now that the cost of technology has fallen significantly, this is no longer a hurdle for anybody.

“At the same time the volume of customers searching for materials online has significantly increased.

“The main problem merchants experience is content. It is very expensive to create a sufficient level of content on a builders’ merchant website across the whole range to make it worthwhile.”

eBuildingSupplies’ solution is to provide both the technology and the content – pictures, descriptions and categories. “We can integrate that into merchants’ own websites.”

The charges for the ‘Own Brand’ product are £2000 to set up and then £200 a month to maintain the site. “There are merchants who have chosen to do it all for themselves. They have employed people to manage the site full-time. This has cost them at least £20 000-£30 000 a year. Our solution can save them both time and money.”

The merchants’ mood for IT has changed. “The people I have spoken to say that they are prepared to spend on IT,” says Mr Somerville. “Merchants are getting better at IT, but they are still a long way behind other industries,” he admits.

As to the future, he reports that EDI is still not happening in any appreciable way in merchanting and very few merchants appear to be trading aggressively online.

“Most IT systems these days do quite a lot. It is no longer about the technology, it is all about connecting through EDI and marketing online where merchants are far behind,” says Mr Somerville, adding that “it can be complicated to get EDI set up.

“Merchants prefer to be merchants rather than IT people,” he states.

By acting as the resourceful middleman, eBuildingSupplies can let merchants do what they enjoy and leave the technology to the specialists.

For manufacturers, the company has just launched an opportunity for suppliers to advertise their products for free on the eBuildingSupplies site.

This article first appeared in the September 2011 edition of Builders' Merchants News.

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