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The NSBRC Guide to buying at a Builders Merchants – An interview with Bradfords

Bradfords is a leading Building Supplies specialist in the South West. NSBRC Managing Director, Harvey Fremlin, sat down with two members of the Bradford’s team, Regional Sales Manager Rich Thick, and Showroom and Design Manager Lizzie Cull, to find out what a self-builder should expect from a modern builders merchant.

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Harvey: Talking to visitors at the NSBRC, I often find people have this perception that if they haven't got a hard hat and boots on, then a builders merchant is not for them. Is that the case - and what can we do to try and encourage our self-builders to be more confident in using merchants like yourself?

Richard: Certainly 23 years ago, when I started in the business, it was the perception and it still is to a degree. We have introduced things like Trustpilot into the company, to provide people reassurance, and we are now seeing more and more reviews from retail customers that are coming into our stores for the first time and leaving reviews on how helpful, friendly, and professional our service was.

There are still concerns around asking for ‘trade prices’, or that they were going to be laughed at coming into the counter, but to be fair, that wasn't happening here 20 years ago - we welcomed everyone then, and we still do.

How do we go about changing the perception? We work on things like marketing and providing articles and advice our website, alongside various promotional offers online and giving customers the ability to place orders online making the experience even easier, which is becoming more important to us. I think once people have picked up the phone to make an enquiry and are invited to come in, or find that they can get those trade prices, that is helping to change perceptions.

Harvey: Do you think that Bradfords have an advantage over the big national merchants, because you're a smaller, regional merchant, allowing you to be more flexible and do things a bit differently?

Richard: We have got the flexibility definitely. It sounds cheesy, but Bradfords is like a family. It has been a family business since 1770 and those original values still stand, which is very refreshing.

The big nationals face the same challenges we do, but when we bring in employees who have perhaps worked for the nationals for 20 years+, they are really surprised when they come to us, that they can pick up the phone and get an answer from someone at the top of our business. So yes, we’re very approachable.

As a family run company, we would like to think we are more welcoming and flexible in tailoring our services to customer needs.

Harvey: In terms of what Bradfords can offer people, we can see from your fantastic new display at the NSBRC, that it goes well beyond bricks, blocks sand, cement. What range of products can you supply to self-builders and people renovating their homes?

Richard: Our range is always evolving. We are a business that moves with the times. We respond to changes in demand. For example, recently at the NSBRC we’ve shown high-end kitchens and bathrooms. We also supply cheaper, ‘trade’ kitchens and bathrooms, but we can now offer the higher-end product for individuals with slightly bigger budgets, who want nice furniture, trusted brand names and outdoor living.

We noticed, especially during the pandemic, that landscaping has been a big thing for us, with everyone updating their outdoor living spaces and gardens, and we are now also offering outdoor kitchens. So many visitors at the recent NSBRC show spoke to us and said they would never expect to come to a builders merchant to buy an outdoor kitchen! I have even walked through one of our branches today and noticed compost on sale. I've never seen compost in a merchant before - and it just proves that there's lots of different things that we can offer.

The expertise Bradfords offer is an asset. Our staff are trained to deal with enquiries, whether it be from trade or retail customers. It’s always changing and evolving, and we like to keep up with this. Probably the biggest breakthrough is the move towards renewable technologies and sustainable options, alongside high-end kitchen and bathroom design, and this is where Lizzie comes in.

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Lizzie: I would say that the trade environment does sometimes put people off. If they're building a beautiful house they will want to install quality products. So it's the perception that you're not necessarily going to get that from a merchant.

However, we just need to expand people's mind-set. We've noticed that at the NSBRC people that want design-focused products will give us a list of products (e.g, toilet, basin, shower unit etc). There's a difference between simply supplying a product and supporting people with their designs. People just go in and expect a ‘bog in a box’ sort of mentality, rather than the fact they can actually come to us and speak to some of the great people across our region who are really talented designers. I think it's making sure people realise the talent and knowledge that can be found within builders merchants.

Harvey: People often bring in their plans and drawings to the NSBRC to help with discussions at our helpdesk. Would that be something that you would recommend people do in your branches?

Lizzie: Absolutely! We can also work remotely, working off plans, but we'll always do a site visit to measure up to fine tune. I understand what it's like when you're working on a long term project. You want to know the final figure, as it's all coming out of one finite pot of cash. The enquiries we receive from the NSBRC vary, with some projects more imminent, and others typically 12-18 months down the line, but they all still need some sort of guidance to ensure they make the right decisions.

Harvey: In a merchant, prices often aren't displayed, or perhaps not displayed in the way that you would expect from a traditional retail outlet. What's your advice to ensure people are getting the best pricing when they're looking to buy from a merchant?

Richard: The best way is by talking to the staff directly. Obviously, you can now go on the internet - which is getting increasingly competitive all the time - order something and it can be delivered to your door from a warehouse with no personal interaction whatsoever. By coming into a merchant however, you can get the expertise, and make sure you're getting the correct product. You can also make sure you're getting something suitable for the job at hand. The staff are trained, the products on Bradfords shelves are priced, so I'd always recommend just speaking to a member of staff – after all, that's what we're here for!

Lizzie: I know for my side of the business, kitchens is quite a saturated market, where you can source kitchens from so many suppliers, and people will naturally shop around. That’s the nature of the beast. But, when doing that, its crucial to ensure that quotes are ‘like for like’ because the amount of times someone will come back to us and say, “ah, well actually, supplier A is coming in ‘x’ amount cheaper”, and when we look at it, it's often an inferior product, so it's not a comparable quote.

It’s a balance with trade accounts because we are trying to be reflective of a valued trade customer, who might give us years of custom, but we’re also having to keep in mind online prices for companies that just have huge warehouses and stock high but offer very little support or advice.

I've had experiences where customers are monitoring online prices every minute of the day, and expecting us to price match each item, and we’d just ask that people are understanding that I may have put in hours’ worth of work to create a bespoke design plan, and the client will then say they’ve found an item five pounds cheaper online - it gets a bit frustrating! I suppose that would be the thing - just to be transparent with people because I'm committing all this time to you – and it’s a relationship we’re building, not just a transaction.

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Richard: That's the thing, it’s the personal touch and the added value factor. Visitors can expect a warm welcome, we welcome any enquiry really, and we’ll always look after our customers. If you go and order anything online and it arrives damaged, good luck getting that replaced in a satisfactory timeframe.

It's what we pride ourselves on, so you know that in traditional garden centres you can go there for your compost, or whatever you need. But if you're looking to do a project and you need advice, if it's advice on insulation, U values, or whatever the query, even if the person behind the counter doesn't know, we're set up to find out and will often involve other experts within the industry so our suppliers all have their network of contacts. There's a huge range of products and a lot of different categories that we cover, so we don't expect our staff to know every single thing straight away - but we will always go and find the answers for you.

Harvey: That’s a similar approach that we have on our help desk here at the NSBRC, because as you can imagine, we get asked a million and one questions and it’s impossible for our team to know everything, but I agree that as long we can find out the answers and come back to people – that’s providing a good customer experience.

What kind of paperwork, ID or documentation do people need to enable them to set up an account with Bradfords?

Richard: We are very proud of the fact that we are the only builders merchant in the whole country, that you can easily set an account up online (you just visit our website via bradfords.co.uk and it's there on the homepage straightaway). We actually set up a number of accounts for visitors during the NSBRC’s most recent show - and moving forward on our display stand, it will have a touchscreen where people can open an account there and then. The application will be processed by our team and then you'll get a follow up email from DocuSign which will ask for a couple of identification documents, your passport, driving licence etc. Once that has been submitted then then you get your credit limit and off you go. We can then help evaluate who is best within the Bradford’s team to look after that account depending on the project and what stage it is at.

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Harvey: One last question... With regards to the pricing, there can often be a typically British nervousness around negotiating on prices! Is it still the logic that the more a customer is going to be buying with you during a project, the better overall pricing will be?

Richard: I'd say we're always fair on price - and always competitive. Obviously, if someone is going to order two lengths of timber, or two-hundred lengths of timber, then you stand a better chance of getting a better deal if you're buying in bulk, and you can take that quantity from the self build side of things.

We do understand that self build can be a relatively long process, so if you're undertaking or simply planning a project, please feel free to visit your local branch - everyone's welcome.

You’ll get a free coffee in the branch as you walk in, along with expert advice. It's really not just aimed at people in the trade, you're not going to walk in there and just have a room for the builders, that isn't the case anymore. Everyone is always very welcome.

Harvey: Richard and Lizzie, thank you so much for your time, it’s much appreciated and we look forward to the official launch of the Bradford’s showroom display at the NSBRC very soon!

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