Stewart Pierce and Charlotte Graham-Cumming: "Why merchants can't ignore online sales"

Published:  20 June, 2016

Stewart Pierce, financial and commercial director of Parker Building Supplies, and Charlotte Graham-Cumming of marketing business Ice Blue Sky, advocated online sales as a vital new channel for builders' merchants at the NMBS Conference.

"We face the threat of eCommerce these days," began Mr Pierce. "People expect fast-track, next-day and same-day deliveries, things you can get as standard on so many consumer websites. They never close and they can take their customers' money 24/7, so we don't we?" he asked.

He pointed out that the threat to builders' merchants from the digital world isn't just coming from websites, as there is also now a growing trend for businesses who were previously online only, or even mail-order catalogues, to open traditional branches of their own, moving directly into what was traditionally the domain of the merchant.

"We have to overcome and move forward," he warned. "Amazon tops the chart of the 10 online retailers in the UK, but the following nine entries on that table are all multi-channel retailers such as Tesco, John Lewis, Next and Asda."

These businesses, he said, can all sell their products to customers through a number of different channels, making themselves available to customers any way they choose to purchase. But, despite the difficulties inherent for merchants who wish to go online, some merchants are already enjoying online sales success, such as Beatsons in Scotland, and SterlingBuild in the South East.

Others, Mr Pierce pointed out, have chosen to launch online sales portals under entirely new brand names, helping to reduce the difficulties that can arise around pricing when selling online.

"As an industry, we can't bury our head in the sand and ignore this anymore," warned Mr Pierce. "How long is it going to be before Amazon goes multi-channel in the UK? We have to move with the times and tailor our business to what our customers want."

He went on to highlight what can happen to businesses who stand still and fail to adapt to the changing markets. There have been a large number of household name retailers who have gone into administration in recent years, such as Focus DIY, Woolworths and most recently BHS, all of whom failed to react to their customers' changing expectations.

Mr Pierce believes that every merchant has a huge asset base among its staff, and urged the delegates to take a closer look at just what skills their staff have and what they're capable of.

"How many of your staff really understand what happens in your other departments? Do we actually know what our staff can offer us? We have to maximise their potential and find a career path for them - especially when it comes to digital knowledge and things like social media, about which younger members of staff will often have far more experience. Reverse Mentoring can help to pass that knowledge on to others in the business," he concluded.

Charlotte Graham-Cumming, managing director of marketing business Ice Blue Sky, offered delegates some tips on how to maximise the potential of their online sales portals, simplifying the customer experience and encouraging them to purchase.

She began by revealing that of all the people who put goods into a basket when purchasing online, only 49% of them get to the 'checkout' stage and, surprisingly, only 16% actually complete that transaction.

"There's an average 69% abandonment rate for online shopping," she explained, "and every potential transaction has a lost monetary value. Do you know what your online figures are?"

According to Ms Graham-Cumming, the biggest reason that people abandon purchases is because of unexpected shipping costs, but it's often not the cost itself that puts people off, but their expectation of that cost. So, for example, a website that advertises on the homepage 'free shipping on purchases over £50' is also, indirectly, making it clear that there is a charge for smaller transactions. This can result in fewer customers abandoning their transaction than a site where they only learn about the shipping costs at the end, because they were already subconsciously expecting to be charged.

Another tip on how to reduce levels of abandonment is to have a running total of the customer's basket clearly displayed as they're shopping, so they are aware of how the costs are adding up as they move through the site.

The second biggest reason for people to leave a site is being asked to create an account before they purchase. While it's understandable that a company wants to collect as much data as they can on a potential customer, Ms Graham-Cumming warned that people often don't respond well to this strategy. Instead, companies often fair better if they find other ways to capture the data, such as offering incentives and online competitions.

If people do get as far as the checkout stage, when they are entering their data, how the forms are laid out can also have a big impact on final sales. Customers will often find they have filled in an entire form, but that form is then rejected because an email address is wrong, or a field hasn't been filled in correctly. If this results in them being asked to start the form again, many will simply give up and go elsewhere. Instead, set the form up so that each field is validated as it is entered, making it less likely that the user will get discouraged.

Ms Graham-Cumming concluded by revealing the different types of people who visit a website, which she outlined as:

  • Product-focused
  • Browsers
  • Researchers
  • Bargain hunters
  • One-time shoppers.

She advised delegates to prioritise which of these groups they wish to target ost and then design their website in the best possible way for those particular users.

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