Originally featured in the May issue of Builders Merchant News, Simon Wharton, Business Strategy Director at PushON highlights how eCommerce can help merchants deliver an enhanced customer experience.

The construction industry was hit hard by the pandemic with UK construction sites experiencing productivity losses of around 35%. While we are returning to some semblance of normality, issues including materials shortages, price hikes and delays mean builders’ merchants now have to work much harder to remain competitive. Paramount is the ability to deliver an experience that keeps people coming back – be that trade customers or someone embarking on a DIY project.

eCommerce stores provide a means of widening the potential pool of customers and making it easier for merchants to deliver direct to consumers, improving the browsing and purchasing experience. eCommerce platforms will be a significant focus for the 75% of construction professionals planning to invest in digital transformation projects this year.

Here, Simon Wharton discusses some of the benefits of an eCommerce platform and how those taking the leap can make it a success.

Exploring the benefits of digital

The building and construction industries have historically been somewhat laggard when it comes to online retail and eCommerce. And yet the closure of bricks and mortar showrooms caused by the pandemic forced many to accelerate their plans to enable product research and purchase in the absence of in-person interactions.

While many may have initially been reluctant to go digital, builders’ merchants are now realising that eCommerce platforms and other digital solutions can drive bigger opportunities than first imagined. You only have to look at the success of companies like Wickes who reported that two thirds of its sales were driven by digital after it introduced a virtual showroom experience.

When exploring eCommerce options, it’s important to find out what works for you. A fully integrated online store that allows customers to get real-time stock and price availability may be too ambitious for the size and nature of your organisation whereas an ‘order and collect’ service is a more realistic first phase. Whatever you decide, there are several areas that can help to elevate the online experience:

Can users find products easily? Product discovery is a key revenue driver with 30% of shoppers abandoning a site if they can’t easily find what they are looking for. There are several ways to help customers find and explore your products including text and visual search functionalities – in particular, the ability to suggest specific terms which help save time. For example, if a customer typed in ‘brackets,’ the search function may present the following options: ‘shelf brackets,’ ‘angle bracket’ ‘fence brackets,’ ‘sleeper brackets.’ For DIY customers who may have less knowledge, this feature helps to guide their search and pinpoint the exact product they are looking for.

Payment options. Nearly 50% of people will abandon a purchase if their preferred payment method isn’t available. Having multiple payment options available at the checkout such as Google Pay, Apple Pay and ‘buy-now-pay-later’ reduces the number of abandoned baskets and can lead to more repeat business in the long-term.

Re-engaging and communicating with your customers. It is significantly cheaper to re-engage an existing customer than to obtain a new one. There are a number of ways merchants can use an eCommerce platform to do this, including loyalty programmes, email marketing campaigns, new stock alerts and discount notifications.

Sustainability. Consumer awareness of sustainability has increased substantially with 65% of shoppers willing to spend up to 20% more on sustainable purchases. There is a great opportunity for builders’ merchants to appeal to this need while also mitigating their carbon footprint. Some steps may include signposting products on the site that are made with sustainable materials as well as offering more eco-friendly delivery options where part of the journey is completed on a bicycle or multiple purchases are grouped into one delivery.

Direct-to-Consumer (D2C)

The digital showroom goes further than helping merchants to create a better experience for existing customers – it also helps to attract new ones. Many who have previously focused exclusively on trade customers are now using eCommerce platforms to sell direct to consumers for the first time.

As well as being an additional revenue stream, one of the biggest advantages with D2C lies in the potential to ‘own’ the customer experience – namely, understanding your audience and their buying behaviour. What interests them? What makes them buy? Why do they remain loyal? When you have a direct relationship with the consumer, it’s much easier to obtain some of this information. This includes owning the transaction data which allows you to see who bought what, when they bought and what marketing offers or incentives may have led to the purchase. Armed with this information, you can then adapt the brand experience based on their preferences.

Selling to thousands of consumers via your website is a very different set of systems and processes to selling to a few hundred trade customers in-store or over the phone. Three key areas that you will need to assess include: processing an order for a single unit; dealing with customer queries; picking, packing and despatching individual orders to consumers.

When embarking on a digital project, it might transpire that you are further down the line than you thought, particularly if you’re already handling direct despatch and customer enquiries for your trade customers. However, to get the foundations right, it’s important that you understand your current capabilities and have early conversations with the accounts department, warehouse team, IT and customer services to understand where you sit currently.

The building sector has entered a new age of eCommerce which also means increased competition. However, by following some of the steps outlined here, builders’ merchants can ensure they are delivering to the highest standard and feel confident that they are creating an environment that prioritises the customer – and encourages them to return.

If you’re ready to start your journey into eCommerce and digitally diversify your marketing strategy, speak to a member of our team today.