How to get ahead with E-commerce

We are in the midst of historical change and as Charles Darwin wrote ‘it is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change’. BMF digital and technology forum chairman and BMBI eCommerce expert ANDY SCOTHERN explains the reason why he founded eCommonSense and how it has evolved to meet today’s challenges.

What have you learnt during the last 12 months?

How much I still don’t know! The more time I spend in digital, the more I’m learning, which goes to show how fast technology is moving. It’s tough to keep up with it unless you are actively keeping track of innovations. I guess that’s one area where we add value to our clients: We try to look over the horizon to see what’s coming, while they focus on what’s in front of them, so they don’t trip up.  

No one could have predicted the momentous changes that have taken place this year and how they would impact on all our daily lives and habits. However, I am sure that once things change, they never go back to the same as before. The same will be true of builders migrating to trading online, which have seen a massive uplift beyond even my most optimistic predictions. 

What has changed since you founded eCommonSense?

It’s been eight years since I started the company and the world back then was a very different place. After working as Jewson’s Director of eCommerce and Digital and an eCommerce consultant for retailers, I decided to focus solely on the merchant sector. Using all my savings, I began by working from my kitchen table to design an eCommerce solution that I felt both merchants and builders wanted. After many years of development and over £2 million invested, our software solution has evolved along with the company. We have grown the team, which is just as well, given the unprecedented demand that we have witnessed recently. The lockdowns have jolted even the most traditional merchants into a recognition that change has to happen and that they need to digitise their business to stay relevant in the coming years.

What are the ingredients for success when merchants digitalise their businesses?

The merchants who do the best are the ones that don’t just bolt on a website to the current business and change nothing else. They are the ones that evaluate and modernise their entire business model, reviewing their pricing, product data management, back-office systems and delivery operations. The recent troubles of Philip Green’s Arcadia provide a valuable lesson to others in that one of the problems with the group was their failure to build a compelling online offering or invest in the brand by listening to customers. Arcadia is now paying the price for this lack of focus on the consumer and its ability to keep pace with the changing expectations of customers. Haldane Fisher of Ireland is an excellent example of one of our clients who have committed entirely to this process of renewal and reinvention and they are now seeing the benefits. 

Should builders’ merchants be hopeful about the future?

Change is a huge challenge but presents lots of opportunities. Builders’ merchants were identified recently by the London Stock Exchange Group as part of their ‘1,000 Companies to Inspire Britain’. We were pleased to see that two of the builders’ merchants chosen – Building & Plumbing Supplies of Leamington, and South Coast Building Supplies of Bournemouth. Both are clients of eCommonSense and use our solution. Their willingness to innovate and grow revenue by creating new income streams resulted in their recognition as leaders. To be featured in the report, businesses had to demonstrate strong revenue growth and outperform their sector peers, creating a unique list of the UK’s most innovative SMEs. 

Why aren’t there few credible eCommerce solutions for builders’ merchants?

There’s a lack of awareness of eCommerce within the industry, as hardly anyone outside the sector understands the complex business requirements. Some people understand the technology, and some understand the industry, but few understand both, which is how eCommonSense has been able to add value. We also have the benefit of speaking to merchants and deepening our understanding because we talk to them daily. 

Is there anything that you would have done differently with the benefit of hindsight?

There are always things that we could have done better and given that our clients are merchants, they are not slow at coming forward and telling us when we have got it wrong. I have always taken the view that what is best for our clients’ business is best for ours, so I put myself in their shoes and value the feedback. That’s in the DNA of eCommonSense – no matter how big we get, we will always keep listening, learning and evolving.

What have been the critical milestones for eCommonSense?

Winning the Digital Initiative of the Year award with Inter-Line at the last MBN awards was a crucial point in the company’s development. We already knew that we had the best solution on the market, but this meant that suddenly other merchants began to take notice. Also, becoming the BMBI expert for eCommerce & PIM provided further validation of the value of eCommonSense’s experience. Being nominated to be the Chairman of the BMF digital and technology forum was also great, as that will provide a platform for me to share my passion for and knowledge of digitalisation with more of the BMF members.

When we signed up the companies run by three of the BMF directors, it showed that we were attracting the very best merchants around. Finally, we recently started working on projects with The National Timber Group and Topline Buying Group in Ireland, which proves that our solution is fit for large merchants and buying groups alike.

 What’s next for eCommonSense?

We are scaling the business up to cope with the recent surge in demand, and that has caused us to go through our growth curve and increase our efficiency, while still improving the platform. The speed to go live with our solution is improving all the time. Earlier this year, we achieved our fastest ever launch in just a matter of weeks for a timber merchant. We’re starting to work with suppliers who want to implement our product data management solution (PIM), so they can easily publish their product data to our client merchants. By connecting into our systems, suppliers can benefit from the additional sales and reduced product data administration that this will create for them. 

We always aim to be ahead of the curve, respond quickly to change and ensure that we offer merchants and suppliers a cutting-edge solution that will increase revenue, open up new markets and protect them from the emerging online competition. That’s what keeps me excited about what we do, and long may it continue.