Merchants and the Coronavirus crisis

Having been classed as ‘essential’ by the government, builders’ merchants are leading the fight to carry on trading and protect their staff and customers during the current coronavirus pandemic.

As the Coronavirus crisis escalates, many builders’ merchants are rightly worried about the future and how it will affect their business going forward. They should be, as merely closing down for the next 3 or 4 weeks will not be sufficient to remove the risks associated with the crisis.

Andy Scothern, managing director of digital solutions provider eCommonsense has been rounding up some of the best practical steps that merchants are taking around the UK and Ireland today.

“An article by MIT Technology Review suggests that Covid-19 will be to builders’ merchants what the 9/11 terrorist attack was to airports, which led to wholesale and profound changes in the way they operate. The encouraging thing is that after the initial shock of those changes, we adapted and airports work just fine now,” he says, adding that the

Builders Merchants Federation is regularly publishing up to date government guidance on its website, if merchants are in any doubt about how to operate.

“While there remain many unknowns, one thing is absolutely clear: If you are solely reliant on a face-to-face branch business model and don’t have a fit-for-purpose digital operation, you will be exposed if branches are forced to close,” Scothern says

“We have seen many merchants rushing forward their digital launches ready for this eventuality, and online sales are hitting unprecedented levels. Also, the new consumer behaviour of ordering online is likely to become ingrained, so even after the pandemic crisis is over, this side of the business is likely to remain strong.

“However, even if your online operation is not where they would like it to be, there are plenty of practical steps that merchants can take to keep trading, while keeping both staff and customers safe.

Practical steps that merchants can, and probably should, take:

  • Safety of staff and customers must come first. Take steps to protect them. If you can’t, then you cannot remain open at this time. If you can, then issue the appropriate PPE to staff members.
  • Use common sense coupled with washing hands, cleaning regularly touched surfaces e.g. door handles and card machines and social distancing of at least 2metres.
  • Reduce contact risk by keeping customers out of your branches and, if you can still deliver, out of your yard too. If you do deliveries, call ahead and make sure customers know to keep away from your delivery drivers and remove the need to sign paperwork.
  • Use any communication channel you have available to make customers aware that they don’t need to order in person. Remote ordering remains the safest way for builders to order materials at this time.
  • For collected orders, take payments online or over the phone and encourage customers to stay in their vehicles by telling them to call ahead or allocate collection time slots to them.
  • Put up a notice at the entrance asking that only the people who need to be inside your branches are there.
  • Put someone on the door to regulate entry and to ask what products customers need. Then direct them to minimise the amount of time spent wandering around the branch.
  • Make sure that customers are aware of what is acceptable and what is not. Put up posters informing them of the rules during this time.
  • Implement a one-way system marked on the floors of the aisles with arrows that will prevent people from passing each other where there is a significant chance of close contact.
  • Install sanitiser stations and direct people to it immediately on entering the store and by the payment terminals, as keypads are likely to be a hotspot for virus transfer. Better still, encourage them to use contactless payment.
  • Provide clear advice to customers on where they should stand when ordering in your branches. This can be a simple matter of marking out the floor with tape along with clear instructions such as ‘wait here’ and ‘order here’. When marking out, keep in mind the 2-metre distancing rule.
  • Install Perspex screens at order desks to protect your staff and customers. Your frontline staff will be at greatest risk, as they are likely to come into contact with the greatest number of people during the day.
  • Communicate the steps that you are taking to all of your staff – this will give them the confidence that you are taking their health and safety seriously.
  • Keep your back-office staff safe. Your business needs the back office to remain viable,. Split your teams up so that this risk is minimised.


Scothern says: “All of these practical steps are relatively quick and easy to implement – it is not overstating it to say that they won’t just save your business; they could help to save lives. We have been offering a free marketing toolkit during this period to all of our clients to make sure that builders are aware of merchants’ ecommerce options. If your online operation is not as advanced as you would like it to be, then bolster your phone sales lines in the short-term.”


An extended version of this article will appear in the April issue of Builders Merchants Journal.

directions sanitiser stationsafety posterinbranch signs web

tjmahony external images courtesy of TJ O Mahoney

BraDFORDS 1 image courtesy of Bradfords


About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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