• Alison Folwell

Out of time: why merchants must adapt to meet the changing needs of their customers


The editor’s message at the start of this month’s Professional Builders’ Magazine really struck a chord. It talked about the changing pressures on construction firms as the market has become more pressured. In short, it concluded, builders simply don’t have time for multiple collections or wasted trips to merchant branches – they need to know exactly when and where they can get the products they need, fast, efficiently and conveniently.

“In a construction boom, busy tradespeople are simply not going to return to old habits which will now cost them precious time and money.” Professional Builders' Merchant

We’ve blogged before about the need to consider what your customers want (check out this post, for example) but this article really highlighted how much the market is changing, and how merchants will need to flex their approach to meet that shifting demand.


Access to online information is becoming essential. With days consumed by on-site project work, construction leaders often work late into the evenings to source products and materials and, as cited in PBM, simply don’t have time to be calling multiple merchants to check availability or sort out payments. They need instant, 24/7 access to the right information – and in order to be able to meet that need, merchants need to ensure their own data is up to date, accurate and seamlessly integrated across their own business.


Merchants in the middle


Merchants are being squeezed on both sides of the equation: customers expect a faster, more accessible service, and are able to shop around more easily to find what they need. And on the other side of the issue, there is increasing competition from non-specialist online retailers like Amazon competing for their core business. Unfortunately, in many cases convenience is winning. If merchants can’t match the 24/7 service, readily available information and convenient delivery or collection options that other retailers can offer, they risk missing out.


How can merchants make their customers’ lives easier?


Builders are under pressure and trade is booming. But supply chain issues and fluctuating prices are making life pretty stressful. The more a merchant can do to make buying easier, quicker and more convenient the better.


So what does that look like?


Stock availability


This is probably top of the list – what stock do you have, where is it, and how fast can your customer get hold of it. If your customer can see that online and be able to trust that information, great. But in order for your eCommerce platform or click and collect service to have that information, you need the right digital ERP system powering it to provide that information.


Product data and information


Traditionally, builders and tradespeople relied on merchants for expert advice and guidance. These days, people tend to look online for that information. If the information is good, it builds trust and credibility. But with product data standardisation becoming a hotter topic and ERP / PIM integration becoming more common, product information is less of a differentiator than it may have been in the past. Readily available, accurate and comprehensive product information is becoming a baseline expectation, not a cherry on the top – and if you aren’t set up for people to get that information quickly and easily, you’re likely to miss out.


Of course the other side of product information is pricing, and these days it’s very easy for customers to compare prices across the market. But don’t make the mistake of thinking cheap pricing will always win the deal – convenience, range and quality of information tend to rank higher in purchasing decisions than price. In other words, if a builder can get more of what they need from you, faster and more conveniently, they may well be prepared to pay more to minimise the number of collections they need to do. That’s often why availability is a much higher priority than pricing.


Equally, you need to know your pricing is competitive but also that you’re not losing money by undercutting rapidly fluctuating buying prices. Again, using responsive software that can track base price changes can be worth its virtual weight in gold.


Service


While there may still be customers who much prefer the in-person interaction of buying in-branch, an increasing number of customers prioritise convenience and ease. But don’t mistake that for a lack of service. If anything, a higher level of service is expected these days but it looks different – it’s often about ease, reliability, speed and convenience – not necessarily depth of knowledge or a personalised experience.


Another aspect to service is seamless delivery. Gone (or rapidly going) are the days where one account manager would look after a particular group of customers and hold all their information. Now, if someone is off sick, on holiday or out of branch for any other reason, it’s vital that anyone can pick up a customer query and resolve it fast. Having access to that integrated information across the business makes that feasible, meaning you can deliver a higher level of service no matter who is out of the business when the query comes in.


Administration and communication


Information is critical. Your customers need to be able to check the status of their orders, payments, delivery info and any relevant issues instantly and reliably, from wherever they are. Having this info to hand online makes dealing with you easy and quick. The more obstacles that are put in the way, and the more work your customer has to do to access their information, the less likely they are to repeat the process next time.


Online helps offline


A final point on this to note is that successful online operations have been proven to have a positive knock-on effect on offline trading. A good website can widen reach, enhance communication and brand profile, and increase in-branch numbers and trade customers. While digital transformation is an inevitability, it doesn’t only affect online trading. Keeping up with the digital needs of your customers is essential for the whole business, while the improved efficiencies that digital ERP can bring to your back office processes and staff experience will also boost productivity and profitability.


To cut a long story short, it’s vital to keep your customers happy.


And what your customers want is changing – so be prepared to keep up.


If you'd like access to the free online demo system of Merchanter, our easy-to-use ERP system for merchants, just click here to request login details