Deep in discussion.

Sustainable conference plays to a packed house

Published:  01 February, 2010

SOLIHULL: The Builders' Merchants Federation's Sustainable Conference last week showed the real hunger merchants have to learn about 'sustainable' and 'ecological' products and services, writes Lisa Arcangeli.

Over 150 merchants attended the one-day event at the National Motorcycle Museum in Solihull last week. And, such was the eagerness to find out more, the Q&A panel session over-ran by 45 minutes, as delegates could not bear to tear themselves away.

Chris Pateman, managing director of the Builders' Merchants Federation set the scene for the market. Selling green products was not dissimilar to selling other types of goods, but merchants had to have training in order to launch themselves into this market.

"Where new products come to market, they will find direct routes. As the market evolves, new partnerships will develop," he said.

In a year where every new revenue stream needs to be explored, sustainable products will offer a strand for merchants to expand.

The overall message of the conference was that merchants must not lose this growth market to competition from the energy companies, the DIY sheds or suppliers selling direct.

Sustainable development, it stated, will chiefly be driven by legislation, regulation and to a lesser extent, shareholder pressure.

"Utility companies are PLCs and they need to make market share," Mr Pateman explained. "That is why BMF is talking to merchants about taking control of this market. Merchants need to be clear about their objectives. And, we all need to make others aware of the value of builders' merchants in the supply chain."

Although consumer interest is growing, it is only in niche markets where consumers will add sustainability to their decision-making criteria and even then, it will take second place to value, location and function. Merchants needed to balance this when making decisions as to which types of products to sell.

"Merchants must facilitate the enquiry. Don't just give your customers a supplier's telephone number or you will lose that sale. You must make the phone call. Keep control of your sales," said George Matthews of Thermasol, whose presentation looked at what merchants needed to do to keep retain market share.

Sustainable technologies covered during the day included insulation, groundsource heat pumps, solar panels, water recovery and greywater products.

Legislative matters impacting on the industry were presented by Charles Phillips from the Department of Energy & Climate Change. He set out the Government's Community Energy Saving Programme which came into force on 1 September 2009 and requires gas and electricity suppliers and electricity generators to deliver energy-saving measures to domestic consumers in specific low income areas of Great Britain. CESP has been designed to promote a 'whole house' approach and to treat as many properties as possible in defined areas.

He also explained HESS (Heat & Energy Saving Strategy), designed to reduce the UK's emissions and increase the use of renewable energy in line with the demands of the UK's carbon budgets, its renewables target and ultimate target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050.

Threats by large distributors, the internet and other retailers were also examined, as was training for merchants and their teams.

Chris Ingram, director of UHMA, the trade association for surface heating and cooling, urged delegates to take advantage of the training made available by his supplier members. "All that is needed is a venue and one day of your staff's time," he said.

"Because sustainable development extends from what is built, how it is built and where it is built, influencing all of these aspects requires a co-ordinated contribution from everyone in the supply chain."

The BMF's own training programme was also well equipped to assist merchants and their staff how to present sustainable products and services to the customer in a straightforward way, said Mr Pateman.

A panel discussion rounded off the day. Among the questions lobbed at the presenters were those about carbon credits and how to get them; issues concerning biomass boilers; legislative drivers for future construction projects and whether smart meters were good or just gimmicks.

The key 'upsell' products for merchants, the panel said were: rainwater harvesting – that allowed for ancillary sales; insulation and fixings; ventilation and extraction products and keeping pace with the needs of the consumer.

"The UK is leading the environmental agenda worldwide, so where the UK goes, the rest will follow," said Mr Ingram.

Chris Ingram: UK takes the lead on sustainable products.

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