Clicks or bricks?
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Clicks or bricks?

It seems like hardly a day goes by without a story about a UK retailer in trouble. High street staples like Debenhams and Laura Ashley look wobbly and face the possibility of following what are literally high street names like Mothercare, Pound Land and Maplins down the slippery slope to closure.

So is that trend being reflected in the building products market? It would seem not as bricks and mortar still seems to beat clicks when it comes to buying, well,  bricks and mortar. Independent builders merchants in particular are expanding and opening new branches and the way that private equity firms are eyeing the sector – and investing in it – would seem to suggest that these physical businesses still have plenty to offer.

Take Screwfix. Yes they have a great web site. Yes they are the kings of click and collect. Yet the rise and rise of the Screwfix brand, once based entirely on catalogue and web sales, has been constructed firmly on its ever expanding network of branches from Inverness to Penzance, and from Enniskillen to Lowestoft.

Perhaps rather unusually for a woman, I love visiting builders merchants. I’ve visited two just this week, in London and Essex. Two very different businesses but with a very similar ethos. A similar way of relating to customers – on a personal level, often over years, decades. In both businesses I was greeted personally, helped with what I needed and left happy. The sort of service that’s become rather a rarity in other parts of the retail sector. That personal relationship, built on trust and understanding of each other’s business, can only really be established face-to-face, between actual human beings with real knowledge and expertise to share.

One of the very real ways that very real physical businesses can and do beat online purchasing is delivery times. If a plumber needs a fitting for a burst pipe, he needs to go and get it. Now. Not wait for even next day delivery. How many builders merchants have had calls for customers who are literally standing in a hole, needing a pipe or whatever, and needing it pronto. Small to medium sized builders tend to be very “just in time” about buying building products and yes, that is a polite way of saying they’re a bit disorganised! Builders merchants, who usually hold many many thousands of lines of stock, win hands down here. Same day delivery to site is the norm in the trade – something that can only be achieved if there’s a truly local depot with stock on the ground.

That’s not to say that the online world isn’t important in the building products trade, especially as millennials start to build up purchasing power in the sector and want to buy in more “modern” ways. Every merchant now knows that his customers will have compared prices of key commodities like cement online before they get out of the van. And that they also use Click and Collect from companies like Screwfix for buying sundries, forgotten items and last minute items when traditional merchants are closed. Merchants need to start getting on board the online train to supplement and complement their bricks and mortar businesses. The sector has, it’s fair to say, been a slow adopter of technology in general but the trend for comparing, sourcing and shopping online is firmly established now and will only go one way. Merchants must – and are – finding ways of making bricks and physical depots work alongside clicks and online growth.