NMBS has significantly expanded its digital offering during the COVID-19 pandemic. Commercial Director Andy Hextall explains why the changes were made, and how they are helping members and suppliers to grow their business.
The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent social distancing regulations have created a whole new way of working for the industry. Face-to-face meetings and queues at trade counters have now been replaced by video calls and digital ordering platforms, as advances in technology have helped businesses continue to trade despite the ongoing uncertainty.
In response to this growing reliance on digital technology, NMBS has introduced a number of new systems to help our members and suppliers, as well as introducing virtual events to temporarily replace the physical events that have always been so popular within the industry.
For example, our recent Virtual Exhibition for the Power Tools, Tools, Fixings and Workwear sector was a great success, helping to connect hundreds of independent merchants with more than 25 key suppliers. We made the decision to introduce the Virtual Exhibition — the first of its kind for NMBS — after we were forced to cancel April’s Annual Exhibition, which is our flagship event for independent merchants.
We wanted to find new ways to help our members and suppliers engage with each other, rather than just waiting until the restrictions on physical events were relaxed, and this Virtual Exhibition seemed like the most logical step.
We knew we couldn’t completely replace the experience of a live event, nor the face-to-face engagement that we all thrive on as an industry, but the Virtual Exhibition allowed members and suppliers to arrange video conferences and group meetings, as well as giving members access to promotions and additional rebate for the month of November.
It is still early days, but we hope to expand this concept out to other sectors during the first half of 2021. We want to continue to look at how we can support members and suppliers through digital platforms because, irrespective of what happens when we come out of this COVID-19 situation, I think the digital element of the industry will now remain strong.
OnePlace for online orders
Another digital offering that NMBS put in place during 2020 was the OnePlace B2B ordering and PIM platform. The system was first introduced back in March 2018 as a way for NMBS members to order from Worcester Bosch after BCG exited the market, but we quickly realised that it had much more potential and have been working on expanding the platform ever since.
In 2019, with many more suppliers onboarded, we made a commitment to transform OnePlace into a central source of product data for all NMBS members, so they could use that data to update their own back office platforms, eCommerce solutions and catalogues, as well as a place where they could order product and ensure a seamless transfer of clean validated orders to suppliers.
This upgraded version of OnePlace was relaunched in May 2020 and has been very well received, and we will be constantly working on expanding the platform going forward.
The pandemic has made eCommerce more prevalent in the industry, and at a much faster rate than we ever expected, as more merchants turn to eCommerce as a viable channel for selling their product, whether that is a fully integrated system which links into their back office, a standalone platform for selling products, or a simple click-and-collect solution.
We want OnePlace to become the central platform for independent merchants that incorporates everything relating to product data and purchase orders. The platform already provides access to orders, acknowledgements, delivery notes, product data and images. In the future we will be adding functionality to display stock information, order tracking, invoices and enable integration with merchants back office platforms, to create a more efficient ordering process.
Looking to the future
Although in this current moment the industry cannot have the same level of interaction as we did before the pandemic, the way everyone has embraced platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom has shown us that we can still have good interaction through all these different channels.
From the NMBS perspective, we moved our whole IT infrastructure into the cloud a month before the national lockdown, which effectively allowed our team to work from anywhere, meaning we were able to adapt extremely quickly when the need to work remotely arose.
Ultimately, no-one anticipated the pandemic and I think merchants have risen to the challenge and have done what they do best — been innovative and reacted quickly, adapting their business to ensure they can continue to trade. That’s reflected in the performance across the board from July onwards, and the bounce back we saw during the second half of 2020.
For more information about the NMBS, go to https://www.nmbs.co.uk/