Technology is helping merchants take on the challenges of the modern marketplace.

he pressures on the construction industry are, to use the year’s most overused word, unprecedented. Covid has disrupted the market and accelerated the take-up of digital transformation, but it’s not the only factor driving it; with Brexit exacerbating supply chain issues, tough sustainability targets, threat from retailers and shifting customer expectations, merchants are under pressure from all sides to adapt. Fortunately, new technology is emerging fast to help merchants do exactly that. Digital is, increasingly, what customers are coming to expect. With new generations of digital natives joining the market, merchants will need to pay attention to how they want to buy.

As Andy Scothern, founder of eCommonSense says: “Covid has lit the digital fuse, and any business not on board is going to get left behind. An increasing majority of customers want the convenience, choice and ready information of eCommerce. There’s a whole new generation who have grown up with the internet in their pocket – that’s their baseline expectation and anyone not in that arena just won’t get a look in.” That need for convenience is currently being met by retail competitors moving into the merchanting space, and merchants currently represent a shrinking share of the market. “Two big concerns are discounted pricing, and cannibalising branch sales,” he continues. “The truth is though, eCommerce can attract more new customers than any individual branch, and a good website attracts people into branches. Think of the website as the hook and the branch as the net – both work in isolation, but work much better together. Plus, eCommerce generally operates at a higher margin than branches. People are willing to pay for the convenience of online, so it can add value, not detract from it.” It’s also important for businesses to maintain relevance as employers, and that same digital native generation buying stock will also be the next generation of workforce. To attract and retain talent, businesses must remain relevant and digital infrastructure is a big part of that. A successful eCommerce platform requires strong digital roots to sustain service levels, and a new breed of flexible, cloud-based ERP software is now available to help merchant businesses scale their operations accordingly.

Ian Oldrey, managing director of Ten-25 Software, says: “It’s not only the end users who expect more from technology. Every member


of the workforce should be able to use simple, integrated software to make every day easier, information more accessible, and processes faster. Systems like Merchanter can be used from anywhere on a smart device so merchants can offer seamless customer service more easily.” Advanced stock control, better forecasting, simple and flexible trading options and efficient administration are just some of the advantages of digital ERP systems.

“Customers and users expect more now,” says Oldrey. “Traditionally, ERP systems were clunky and complicated, but people don’t want that. Anyone should be able to hop on and pick up an order or find the right information. Technology is an amazing tool with so much potential for merchants.”

Digital ERP offers choice and flexibility for internal processes. As Scothern notes: “Modern ERP systems should be designed to integrate, not solve every problem, so merchants can select best in breed solutions. If you can integrate with Xero or Sage, you don’t need your own accounting system because chances are, it won’t be better than the specialist solutions.”

Collaborative tools

While confidence in the market appears to be on the rise, the logistics of meetings the challenges ahead remain daunting. Demand is certainly not an issue, but supply is becoming more of one, with long delays on transportation and severe materials shortages, particularly for timber, having an impact on lead times and pricing. One of the greatest advantages of digital technology is easier access to information and greater visibility across the market. Customers, both individual and business, can connect the dots much more easily, source more responsibly and find greater efficiencies for logistics and operations. Other platforms are helping to raise stock visibility too. Founded by Andy Ferguson in 2018, Woodscanner allows buyers to search beyond their usual network of suppliers to source timber both locally and nationally, while offering sellers instant access to a targeted buying audience. “Woodscanner is a digital platform that provides merchants with greater visibility of the market,” says Ferguson. “It connects product availability with merchants demand, creating new partnerships and helping merchants turn more enquiries into orders. It’s that simple.” It’s another example of the emerging technology merchants have at their disposal to

create the ultimate convenience for customers and a user-driven experience.

Efficiency and useability underpin good digital technology, allowing users to achieve more with less effort and systems need to be simple and intuitive to use.

“It’s a critical concept in modern business,” says Ten-25’s Oldrey. “The sheer scale of data would not be feasible to process manually, but systems like Merchanter make it incredibly quick and incredibly easy, freeing up the time being wasted on repetitive or frustrating tasks and allowing merchants to focus on areas where people can add real human value, so productivity and profitability go up while time and effort reduce.” Ferguson agrees, adding, “Customers expect faster, better service and without digital services like Woodscanner, merchants won’t be able to meet that demand. It’s so 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.” As e-Commerce’s Scothern says, “Merchants need to realise that the longer they wait to adopt digital, the harder it’s going to be to compete in that sector. It might feel intimidating getting into the ring with the likes of Screwfix or even Amazon – but it’s better than missing the fight altogether. If you’re not in the ring within the next five years, I suspect it will be too late to get even a ringside seat.”

Going digital is time-consuming and requires investment and shift in business culture, but the message is clear: it’s also inevitable, and the cost of ignoring it will be far greater. Technology is moving fast and merchants can benefit greatly from the efficiency and scalability it can provide. But more than anything it’s about meeting the demands of customers to keep the industry relevant and competitive, and ensuring that merchants are not swallowed up in the rising tide of general retail. BMJ April 2021

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