Draw from even more

BMN magazine, June

Published: 20/07/2009 00:00

Sales enquiries and customers through the door are crucial for any business at any time but in the current recessionary period it stands to reason that enquiries are harder to come by and converting potential leads into actual sales requires an even greater effort. Here BMN takes a look at how Finnforest, the sponsor of the Builders Merchant of the Year Awards’ Marketing category, tackles this from the supplier’s point of view, with benefits for the merchant. Tom Tong, Sales and Marketing Director of Finnforest, explains.

In a time of downturn, businesses become increasingly reliant on their marketing function, more so than in perhaps more financially affluent times, as companies strive to maintain their profile and continue to attract repeat business. Often with constrained budgets, for some it is difficult to know which blend of marketing tools are likely to provide the greatest return.

With the main aim being to generate footfall into the merchant and a resulting sale, the correct choice of, for example: advertising, merchandising, direct mail and/or PR, is vital. In such an increasingly competitive market, where customers continue to focus on price and still expect a high level of service and support, this puts added pressure on merchants and the supplier alike. With this in mind it is important to realise that it is the differentiators that can really help sales staff at the branch when aiming to clinch a sale.

Factors such as quality of service from informed and helpful staff, with a wide range and good availability, underpinned by general value for money can be the deciders for the trade professional on where to take their business. How these stand-out services are communicated to the customer is key to enticing them through the door and ultimately getting them interested in making the purchase from one branch, over that of a competitor.

The majority of builders’ merchants’ staff are dedicated to the core business function of buying and selling building materials. Therefore there is often limited time and also budget to set aside for any communications or other marketing activities.

On the other hand, the products sold by merchants tend to be carefully marketed by the companies supplying them through the Channel, with clear insight into their target audiences, research into the demand and significant investment in product development to ensure that these demands are met.
By drawing on the expertise of dedicated marketing functions and tapping into the promotional activities that suppliers undertake for their products, merchants stand to benefit from the focus on driving demand and therefore sales. By tapping into some of the tactics used by supplier partners and in effect getting ‘on the back’ of these marketing campaigns, efforts can be integrated to pull on one another with positive commercial effect, at little or no extra cost to the merchant.

Formulating a ‘pull-through’ sales and marketing strategy to support its merchant partners, Finnforest’s marketing activities focus on driving interest and enquiries from the trade professional and end users, who are then directed via the merchant to make the sale. This symbiotic relationship benefits both Finnforest as the supplier and the merchant as a distributor, and can be seen very much as a partnership approach to the market.

Achieved through a carefully balanced blend of mechanics, all designed to create awareness, drive demand and support sales of its products, Finnforest’s marketing function is focused on pulling the trade professional and self build customer into the branch. In addition, Finnforest targets the specification market through product seminars, direct mail, PR and exhibitions, which subsequently add further fuel to the ‘pull-through’ strategy.

An advertising campaign reaches out to the market, targeting over 100,000 readers of the leading professional trade magazine. Combining this with carefully targeted direct mail of the Finnforest Timber Trade Guide – a handy booklet of timber measurements and metrics – alongside log cabins and decking literature to Finnforest’s own comprehensive database of 15,000 contacts, with regular editorial activities in all key publications, helps to keep the merchant’s customer up to date and reliably informed of the Finnforest proposition.

A network of regional Key Account Managers is significant to any successful marketing campaign. They underpin the marketing function and provide advice and support to merchant customers on a daily basis, managing the account and acting as the interface between both parties.
Staying on top of market demand and understanding what drives the buying decision is a key part of planning any campaign. Finnforest has in the recent past undertaken market research in the form of focus groups to identify how the trade professional buys, why they buy from a merchant and the reasons why they return to the same merchant. As a supplier Finnforest is now able to deploy this kind of information, influencing the way it communicates with these customers.

New product literature is complemented by a freshly designed website which provides potential customers with an overview of all the products and services available. In particular the site features the Finnforest ranges of machined softwood, decking and accessories and Finnlife log cabins. Each product is clearly presented for easy browsing and the clean design enables the visitor to print off relevant product information efficiently at the click of a button, so not having to request and wait for literature.

Virtual tours of log cabins with 3D interactive software provide a valuable sales support tool, enabling the merchant to direct customers to the site for a thorough overview of products in the range. Here they can get instant access to almost any relevant literature and valuable technical support, such as installation guides, floor plans and relevant legislation issues surrounding CE Marking and environment certification.

The new website also features a new look stockist locator driven by Google Maps - ensuring potential customers are directed to their nearest merchant. Meanwhile for more information the user can fill in an online form to request brochures, price lists, samples and an all-important list of local stockists. Finnforest fulfils on average some 500 literature enquires per month and as standard practice aims to fulfil these within a 48 hour timeframe.

Once the customer is at the merchant branch, Finnforest continues to support its merchant partner in driving the sale of its products. Knowledge is key to the successful sale of timber products and it is important for staff to be able to relate to customers in order to provide a higher level of service. Professional tradesmen rely on their local merchant for product knowledge and, as research has proved, are more likely to return to the same branch if the overall range and level of service is right.

The Timber Academy, now in its eighth year, has trained over 1,650 delegates. As part of the service provided to merchants, delegates from all levels of the builders merchant’s business are educated on grading timber, understanding its positive environmental claims, storing and displaying timber products and identifying the potential for cross selling timber products with other complementary items.

With knowledgeable staff, confident in selling the benefits of timber products, according to the trade professional or self build customer’s requirements, Finnforest continues to help in-branch with effective point of sale and merchandising tools. For example informative posters alerting customers to the latest legislation and clear signage and product information on displays all help to inform the customer’s purchasing decision whilst increasing the level of service at branch. Recently Finnforest was one of the first suppliers to support the Channel with up to the minute advice on the latest legislation surrounding CE marking for structural timber panel products. Point of sale material and free information guides were distributed to Finnforest’s merchant partners throughout April and May this year.

Constantly evolving its support activity, later this summer Finnforest will launch an initiative to provide selected partners with a deep range of off-the-shelf dual-branded point of sale and direct mail material to provide individual and tailored account support. A ‘silent salesman’ merchandising unit has also been on trial to promote garden structures, decking and log cabins in-branch, where there is limited space for displays of the products themselves.

Finally, Finnforest helps to get its products out of the branch efficiently too. Limited space is a challenge when selling any large item such as log cabins or deck bulk packs and Finnforest understands this. Its highly praised home delivery service means that when a customer places an order, Finnforest handles the rest, meaning that the merchant can reap the profit benefits, with none of the hassle or handling and delivery costs. Once an order has been taken in store, Finnforest takes on all responsibility for its fulfilment - contacting the customer to acknowledge the order and ascertain a convenient date and time for delivery. Finally, Finnforest monitors customer satisfaction to ensure that the service is constantly evolved in line with consumer expectations.

With a comprehensive product portfolio, Finnforest’s core range features machined softwood, panel products, decking and log cabins. With an unrivalled depth of range in each category the merchant customer is able to provide the trade professional with the broadest selection of timber products available on the market  For example, through research and development the depth of the decking range now encompasses six different deck board materials and a wealth of balustrading options with accessories aimed at providing full solutions to the market, whilst supporting merchant margins.

Underpinning this range of supply chain solutions as a very robust approach to sales is the seriousness with which Finnforest, as a supplier, takes its corporate and environmental responsibilities. As a vertically integrated timber supplier Finnforest manages the complete supply chain, from forest ownership and responsible forest management through to the harvesting, production and sale of timber. This is a benefit for merchants in this current time, when pressures on supply can create pressures on product availability for others. Finnforest supplies fully certified and chain of custody accredited timber, audited to guarantee it has been taken from an environmentally sustainable source. Environmental awareness is reflected in all areas of its business practices – from identifying opportunities to reduce packaging to improving its logistics operations and therefore cutting down on carbon emissions.

Merchants who understand the power of a carefully planned approach to marketing will be able to identify those suppliers who undertake this function to add value to the supply chain for the merchant’s customers and for the merchant themselves. Tapping into this resource opens up a whole area of sales support that can be used to improve profitability over the long term.