Everyone in the industry has had to quickly adjust to new ways of working over the last three months. PBM caught up with two branch managers and the Marketing Director at Graham Plumbers’ Merchant for their perspective on how the business and its customers have been adapting.
In response to the announcement of the UK wide lockdown, all Graham branches closed for 24 hours on 24th March to assess how they could operate safely and to swiftly put measures in place to ensure the protection of staff and customers.
The branches that could do so safely then reopened, but with adaptations in place, to serve the plumbers and heating engineers who have been working throughout the pandemic to carry out emergency work and ensure the safety and comfort of people’s homes, as well as the continued operation of vital facilities.
Ian Kenny, the plumbers’ merchant’s Marketing Director, explained: “From the beginning, safety was the factor that drove all the decisions about which branches would open. We quickly formulated a range of ‘Trade Safer’ measures and procedures that would allow us to meet the needs of customers while minimising the risks as far as we could. The branches that could implement these new measures had to significantly reduce the number of staff working at any one time to allow sufficient social distancing.”
These ‘Trade Safer’ changes included operating a phone ordering and collection or delivery service for Graham trade account holders only. This was due to the difficulty and potential risks of taking cash and card payments.
The branches that reopened created collection points in suitable places on site where customers could pick up the items they had ordered. When placing an order, customers are told where the collection points are and asked to back up to the designated bay when they arrive, remain in their vehicle and phone the branch. A member of the team then takes the items out and places them on the collection point. Once the Graham colleague is clear of the area, the customer can get out of the vehicle and load their items.
“Overall, the changes we made were quickly embraced by the customers and the collection system has worked very well,” said Nick Bott, General Manager at the Bromford Lane branch in Birmingham. “It doesn’t allow the same level of personal interaction that many of our long term customers are used to, but they all understand why these procedures have been put in place.”
Ian continued: “Following the initial reopening of branches, one of the biggest challenges was ensuring that customers knew how and where they could get the products and materials they needed. We utilised every channel of communication to get the message out including text messages, email, social media, the website and crucially, the branch teams. They are the ones with the relationship with their customers so their efforts to keep customers up to date with all the changes were invaluable.”
As the advice from the Government evolved to allow more people to return to work, including tradespeople, Graham has been slowly reopening more of its branches, many of which have been redesigned to allow safe working. In the last few weeks, Graham trade counters have begun to reopen, but with new processes in place, allowing customers to safely visit branches.
“We are limiting the number of people who can enter the branch at one time and have created a one way route through the store with zones marked to allow social distancing,” said Donald Somerville, General Manager at the Hillington Branch in Glasgow. “We have also installed screens, reduced the number of till points and added signage so customers understand how to use the branch safely. It has allowed them to go back to purchasing from us in the way they know and it has also enabled customers to ask questions and for our team to provide advice again, albeit from a safe distance.
“We have also made significant changes to the warehouse and staff areas of the branch. To allow our team to work safely we have established one way routes through every part of the building, including the offices, warehouse and staff break areas. In sections of the warehouse that are not wide enough for social distancing we have closed off one end of the aisle and implemented a strict one in, one out policy.”
Ian added: “At the end of April we had just 27 branches operating. One month later we had over 130 open and we are now at the point where almost all locations are now trading.”
The Graham teams have also faced other challenges, as Nick explained: “Ensuring good communication with my team has been a priority, for those already back in the branch and also those who have been placed on the furlough scheme. I wanted to make sure that we maintained the same team spirit although we were not together.
“Simple things like regular video updates and keeping in touch with the wider team have proved to be really good ways of keeping everyone connected. We also hold daily team meetings in the yard of the branch where we can discuss any issues and make sure that everyone is happy.”
In terms of the next steps for the industry to return to normal, Nick commented: “With many of the big housebuilding projects either still on hold or only recently restarted the industry still has some distance to go before it returns to full strength. Like many businesses, to some extent we are simply waiting for the construction sector to get back up to speed and we will do what we can to help.”
Ian picked up the point: “We know that all parts of the sector need support in getting back to work so we have looked at how we can help our customers rebuild their businesses and part of this is something we are calling ‘Trade Kick Starter’. This includes freezing prices on key products from the Always Available and Trade Saver ranges until October, next day delivery on Always Available range products through ByBox lockers across the UK and the introduction of a new Graham Plumbers App.”
Donald concluded: “While this has been a huge disruption to the industry and the wider economy, we are already looking at what we can learn from this to improve the customer experience. For example, introducing more call and collect services to help customers save time waiting in branch.”