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Using Builders' Merchants

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I had an interesting morning with a group of builders’ merchants recently. They'd asked me to give a presentation on self and custom build, focusing on how they could position themselves to meet the needs of the industry. It was a useful session, and I learnt a fair bit about how these firms operate. They also picked up a few tips from me about how to approach selling to self-builders.

For old-school contractors and tradesmen, builders’ merchants are a home away from home, often full of all sorts of weird materials and tools that few outsiders would recognise. You never see a price tag on a pallet of bricks and for most of us, the first time you know what the actual cost will be is when the printer spits out the sales receipt.

Regular trade customers will be expecting a significant discount, while those of us who only venture in there occasionally will be paying full whack – or will possibly be delighted with 10% off.

Last year's introduction of the Right to Build (RTB) initiative has crystallised the government’s stated aim to double the number of self and custom build projects from 10,000 to 20,000 by 2020. So there’s potential for a lot of trade to head in the direction of builders’ merchants.

What retail establishment would turn away a customer with £10,000s to spend? Yet when I asked for a show of hands, not one of the representatives at the meeting was aware of the RTB legislation and the impact it will have. You won’t be surprised to learn that I was able to correct that before they left!

The merchant sector is feeling the heat. Competition from the internet and trade counters at DIY outlets means the model that's worked in the past is under threat, and independent retailers are becoming rarer as they get gobbled up by chains.

Autonomous businesses still have much to offer self-builders – local knowledge, approachability and quick delivery, for instance. So I like to put as much custom as possible their way, in return for good service.

We have more choices now, and builders’ merchants need to think about how to attract and keep our business. I explained to them that the typical self-builder is a fairly switched-on client, but one that still needs help and advice. They will have done their homework on product and material options, and by the time they come to the merchant they’ll be ready to talk money.

Retailers who are hungry for your trade should be ready to capture your custom with the offer of trade accounts, technical advice and discounts based on both your current and future potential purchasing power.

To keep your custom throughout the project, the best ones should be thinking about offering an estimating service for free, or throwing in a subsidised Standard Assessment Procedure (SAP) test and airtightness package.

If you receive service like that, you’ll be far more inclined to show a bit of brand loyalty and keep business coming in. You have tremendous buying power, so make sure you exercise it to get the best deal you can.

Image: David Barbour

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