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Chris Jones explores the changing dynamics of how we shop and looks at how it affects the plumbing and heating trade

With a number of chains disappearing from UK High Streets in recent years – Woolworths, Comet, Blockbuster, Toys R Us and BHS, to name just a few – it seems that Napoleon’s famous comment about Britain being a nation of shop keepers is now wide of the mark.

Some consumers have expressed dismay that their town centre is dominated by bookies, charities and coffee shops, but, with so many of us now shunning the trolley and basket in favour of a quick and easy online transaction, it’s only a matter of time before a lack of ringing tills starts to have repercussions.

There’s no getting away from the fact that retail outlets are in decline, but can we assume that traditional building and plumbing merchants will go the same way?

The merchant brings a lot more to the party

Chris Jones PHAM News Chris Jones Editor of PHAM News

Knowledge and banter

The average footfall at the nation’s trade counters might well have declined, but it would be wrong to conclude there’s no role in the future for the bricks and mortar merchant.

Sure, like their own customers, installers might be attracted by the occasional online bargain and convenience of out-of-hours purchasing, but most will recognise that the merchant brings a lot more to the party.

Many installers work alone and appreciate the opportunity to share news and a bit of banter with trade counter staff and the local competition.

The knowledge and technical support available from merchant staff is another reason why installers are repeat visitors.

The breadth of range – the ability to purchase everything you need for a job from one source – and the ease with which most installers will be able to open a trade account with ready access to credit, all help to cement the bond between the merchant and the trade customer.

These are not groceries

Of course, the merchant/installer relationship is only one part of a longer supply chain that has manufacturers and consumers at either end.

While advances in digital communications make it so much easier for manufacturers to market their wares direct to end users, products still have to be delivered and installation arranged.

Over the last few years a number of businesses have sprung up looking to offer an online matchmaker service on behalf of homeowners. With a few clicks of a button the consumer is promised that everything will be arranged, including the price, but will heating and plumbing work prove to be as straightforward as a grocery delivery?

There’s no doubt that many people are prepared to pay more for convenience, but you have to wonder if it’s a model that will ensure that they’re getting the best possible advice from the installer.

Does it present the installer with an opportunity to discuss alternative, more energy efficient, options that were not previously considered by the homeowner?

Physical presence

There’s more than one way to provide installers with the products and technical support that they need.

Like their retail counterparts, many merchants now provide their customers with the option of purchasing products online, but likewise, digital platforms such as Screwfix have recognised that having a physical presence is key to achieving further growth.

There are clear benefits to widening the number of ways business can be conducted, but with more transparent pricing and rising expectations when it comes to service and delivery times, retaining customer loyalty becomes only more challenging.

Ultimately, the all important thing is to respond quickly to a fast evolving market.

Equally crucial to the continuing profitability of any merchant business is to keep on top of market trends and technological advances.

If the country is to move away from fossil-fuel based heating systems, merchants cannot afford to be mere bystanders when installers seek out the low carbon solutions that will meet their customers’ needs.

In fact, as heat pumps and other renewable products become more mainstream, the opportunity is there for the merchant to make themselves almost indispensable to any installers lacking in knowledge or confidence.

The future is bright for merchants if they continue to move with the times, but one thing will remain constant – the supply business is all about providing customers with want they want and when and where they want it.  

Chris Jones is editor of PHAM News