The building trade is one of the last industries to be disrupted, according to Built, a digitally-enabled builders merchant, based in Birmingham. Open seven days a week, the new retailer uses an eCommerce platform to power both its in-store and online business.

“Observing the trend in the market, the building merchants have had it unchallenged for decades if not hundreds of years” said Built's founder and MD Nick Thomas, describing the high barriers to entry and the incumbent businesses which target the trade with retail cash and carry models.

“These massive incumbents get all their profitability from scale, but they’re massively inefficient and don’t manage the supply chain in an architected way,” he added.

“No one has taken on the whole builders merchant [model]. But we had an opportunity to build a new business from scratch and make it relevant for the future”

Thomas described Built as a “digitally-relevant cash and carry builders warehouse”, offering a range of building essentials with scheduled delivery. He said the retailer is accommodating for a generational shift in the industry, where more digital natives are becoming business owners, and buying properties to renovate, but the experience they have buying building products is completely different from the experience they are used to on their smartphones.

Because the supply chain used by building merchants has changed very little, customers can easily use their smartphones to find better deals elsewhere. Thomas also noted how there is often a sense of urgency when buying building materials, which cannot be upheld by the current industry model.

“We’re a start-up business, who have seen an opportunity in the builders merchant space to digitise the retail model and improve the service levels builders face when sourcing from suppliers,” he said. “We’ve redesigned the supply chain and builders warehouse format, but on top of that we’re launching a truly omnichannel business, and we’ve had an opportunity to do that with a blank canvas.”

This is not Thomas’ first foray into digital. The entrepreneur moved into eCommerce and set up the fashion footwear business, Cloggs, building it to a £12 million business by 2011, he also created a multichannel strategy for The Works, before becoming group digital & eVentures director at Travis Perkins in 2014. Travis Perkins has a vested interest in Built, but the new start-up is an independent business.

With Travis Perkins’ investment, Thomas chose to build this “truly omnichannel business” with Netsuite, using its unified cloud commerce platform including eCommerce, point-of-sale, order and inventory management, CRM and financials. Built only began as a concept 12 months ago, yet it opened its first retail store in Birmingham in September, with two more in the pipeline and the vision to expand into cities around the UK.

Streamlining the customer journey

By starting from scratch and using one single solution, Built has a single view of both its customer and stock. “It gives us stock accuracy and visibility you can stay true to.”

Thomas described how a customer might place an order online and drive to the store to pick up the products. When they arrive, number plate recognition identifies the customer and guides them to a collection parking bay where the order is loaded into the vehicle immediately.

Meanwhile, an in-store customer who simply turns up at Built is treated the same as an immediate click & collect customer. Built has no POS system, instead the order is made through the eCommerce site on an iPad Mini and then located in the store to be fulfilled.

“This is the industry leading bit of it – Screwfix says they have one minute click & collect, but it really is seven minutes. But if you come in and place an order through Netsuite, it’s immediately burst to a colleague near the product. It’s as quick as you can get.”

He added: “It’s possible to say that, but it’s difficult to have people believe it because the customer is used to false promises.”

He says he struggles to compare the customer journey with that of the Apple Store because it seems to alien to the sector, “but that’s what you can do in our branches – there isn’t a POS and that’s the integrity of having one system.”

Thomas says the industry has so far struggled to provide the customer a transparent and consistent service because it has a serious data problem.

“You have to be a master of your data and have one version of the truth,” he said.