Updated: Mar 19
Timber in the blood
After the best part of 40 years in the industry, Andy Ferguson knows a thing or two about timber. Straight from school he worked for a major timber importer in Liverpool before setting up Beaumont Forest Products 1986, a business he ran successfully for nearly 30 years before selling to Buildbase in 2014, part of the Grafton Group. As part of this £2.2bn turnover group, Andy became the Timber Director with responsibility for developing a timber sales strategy for over 160 merchant branches, before moving to create his own digital timber marketplace in 2018. Andy has always had a bias for doing things differently and so WoodScanner was born!
We caught up with him, along with Woodscanner Product Manager Maria-Christina Antoniou, to chat about Woodscanner, the state of the market, and how merchants can prepare for what’s to come.
Woodscanner – the who, the what and the why
Woodscanner is the UK’s only wood comparison marketplace, a simple-to-use platform that allows users to find timber, locate new suppliers, compare stock and prices, check availability and place orders. From a seller’s perspective it opens the door to a wider but very targeted audience with complete flexibility and control over what you list.
“I’ve always liked to do things differently,” says Andy. “Since I first started out, I’ve worked hard to innovate and find new and better ways of doing things, I’m never satisfied with just “how things are.” It’s always been frustrating to lose out on business because you aren’t carrying the right stock, and right from the beginning I always felt there was a place for a service like Woodscanner. It’s just taken a lot of years for the technology to catch up!”
Andy’s inspiration was driven by merchanting experience, and wishing he had a tool like this back then. “I’ll never forget a particular visit to a Buildbase branch in Grimsby, many years ago. There I was, looking over the fence at the docks, where I could clearly see shipments of timber and so on. Not long afterwards, a lorry arrived from Tilbury in Essex, delivering exactly the same timber I could see behind that fence, just metres from the merchants. It made no sense – I knew there had to be a better, more efficient way to manage logistics and supply, to connect the dots of what stock is where, and help people to access it from more local markets.”
Woodscanner does exactly that – it connects the dots of supply and demand. It enables buyers to find available stock at the right price faster and more conveniently, and allows sellers to reach a wider but more targeted market simply and directly.
“Woodscanner was never intended as a replacement for merchants,” says Andy. “It’s an additional channel, a digital tool to connect the buy/supply community, creating new partnerships and enabling our selling Partners to deliver an enhanced service for their customers. It helps merchant buyers to find the stock they need conveniently. It’s that simple.”
Woodscanner at a glance
Simple selling for Partners, driven by demand
“Simple” has been a central theme in the platform’s development, making sure it’s easy to use, offering the functionality that merchants wanted.
“The user experience was a really important aspect of development, so that’s where we started,” says Maria. “A lot of time and effort has gone in to creating Woodscanner so that it’s easy and intuitive to use. We have really listened to what merchants want and built the solution that meets that need.”
Every Woodscanner Partner that lists products gets their own secure dashboard to manage their account and fully control the inventories they list – 24/7, 365.
“Our Partners can manage their page however it suits them,” says Andy. “They don’t have to put every product line on there, and they have complete control over pricing and product descriptions so it’s really flexible. Some might choose to list just a few highlighted products, others might have the entire stockholding – it’s up to them.
We support quality, reliability and responsibility, and we can widen the reach for Partners that want to find new customers. Our aim is to only allow sustainably sourced products to be listed on the site because this is such an important subject for the timber industry and one that we fully support
"As well as inclusion in our indispensable directory with a bespoke profile page and product listing flexibility, WoodScanner provides Partners with a range of digital marketing services, with personalised company emails going out to our database of over 1000 merchants, product launches, postings on social sedia and market alerts to advise buyers of deals or offers."
What’s in it for the buyers?
Woodscanner is a B2B marketplace, so it’s reaching a very specific, targeted audience, keeping it 100% relevant. Naturally, having products listed on a platform being searched by merchant buyers is going to have a higher conversion rate to purchase than a generic marketplace or Google search, but Andy says there are a lot more advantages as well.
“It’s a bit like a private members’ club,” he says. “We give members access to an online central marketplace that connects them with new opportunities across multiple product categories – all in one place. It will also help them turn more enquiries into orders when looking for stock to quote on or when there is a gap in their own stock and an order needs fulfilling. No more phoning around and waiting for call backs.
When existing supply channels are unable to meet demand, having access to a wider view of availability across the UK could be an invaluable tool.
It’s not all about the lowest price
“Contrary to popular belief,” says Andy, “Online pricing is not just a race to the bottom. People will pay more for the convenience. I have never been interested in selling the cheapest products. For me, it’s about quality, range and responsibility. I have always found that people are quite happy to pay more for good quality products, reliable service and convenience.”
Meeting the demands of a changing market
There are many factors currently causing challenges for the industry. The impact of Covid and lockdown is huge, of course, but it’s far from the only issue.
Brexit is causing import and export delays, and there is a fundamental shortage of materials, particularly timber. On top of that there is a growing threat from retailers like Amazon increasing their share of the merchant market, supply chain models are becoming more streamlined, and of course, there is an increasing shift in customer demographic as the digital native generation represents a growing proportion of the market.
“Going digital is inevitable,” says Andy. “Technology holds a lot of the answers and enables more efficiency in operations – it helps you get more from less, so you get a better return from less investment. But it takes time, and it has to be done well. You can’t afford to do digital badly, and you need to be willing to invest in it properly.”
“At Beaumont, we had ecommerce years ago, before everyone else was doing it, and people thought we were mad!” he recounts. “But I had so much confidence that this was how people would want to shop in the future, that they would want the ease of being able to browse inventory online, without being hassled by a well-meaning salesperson or unable to check an item’s appearance because the shelf was empty. It’s not a replacement for traditional in-branch merchanting, but it’s a necessary extension of it these days. It’s another way to get your products in front of the right people, and that can only be a good thing. But more than that, it’s what customers expect, and if you’re not providing that service, eventually you’ll lose out.”
Online is becoming a baseline expectation
The demand for digital is not just driven by customers and end users – it’s rapidly becoming the norm for B2B as well, which has been massively accelerated by the pandemic.
“Merchants are, on the whole, becoming more and more familiar with the online experience,” says Andy. “But we’re also now seeing importers start to embrace it more too, partly because that’s what merchants are coming to expect, and partly because they are seeing the very real benefits and efficiencies that digital systems can provide.”
Digital systems and online service create efficiencies, and while there may be a fear around that costing jobs, it doesn’t necessarily have to.
“What it does,” says Andy, “Is give businesses more flexibility in how they deploy the resources they have, so people aren’t wasting time on time-consuming, repetitive tasks, but focusing on the areas they can add real value.”
So what does the future hold?
We’ve already highlighted a lot of the challenges facing the industry, and many of them will continue to play a part. Technology will continue to streamline existing processes for supply chain, logistics, merchanting, payment systems and more.
“Customers expect faster, better service and without digital, importers and distributors won’t be able to meet that demand,” he says. “So it’s really important that they embrace the modern business tools available – eCommerce, digital ERP systems, better payment systems for customers and suppliers – the whole infrastructure can be made more efficient so you can get better returns and provide better service.”
Sustainability will continue to play a huge role and responsible sourcing, processing and delivery of materials needs to be high on everyone’s agenda.
“I’ve always championed environmental issues and I see Woodscanner as having a real role to play there. Thinking back to Grimsby, it amazes me how much wasted haulage must be happening every day. Those logistics systems could be so much more efficient if buyers could see that the stock they wanted was actually available on their doorstep! The potential saving, and environmental impact, is huge.”
“Success comes from the amount of effort you are willing to invest”
So what is Andy Feguson’s advice for merchants?
“Be fearless! We should be fearless and bold, we need to take chances and evolve and move forward. But we need to be willing to make mistakes, because that’s where we really learn. There is no quick fix, no silver bullet, and it takes time to get strong, sustainable results. We believe Woodscanner is a huge opportunity for the buy/supply community but it’s a long game. For those who invest the time and effort and take advantage of the tools available, it’s a valuable investment.
Get your information out there, be in the right places at the right times with the right products – always in the skin. The more channels you operate in the more opportunities you have to be found, to sell your products, the more likely you are to succeed. Cast greater visibility on your product portfolio, give it time, take an active role in managing your profile and the business will come. Have confidence, but remember it’s a long game.
"Any business that’s still doing things the same way as it was 40 years ago when I started out needs to take a long hard look at itself, because everything around it IS changing, and we all need to meet those changing demands, or risk losing out.
Talk to the younger people in your organisation, your younger customers