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World-wide-web worries

Carry on any enterprise as if all future success depended on it.

When The Internet really took off, plenty of us wondered how it would really affect us in the day jobs.

The headline worries were that it would:

1. Spell the end of traditional printed media

2. Ravage the High Street as we all shopped on the sofa in our dressing gowns

3. Ditto the large supermarkets

4. Kill off traditional builders merchant trade counters.

Thus far, happily, none of the apocalyptic predictions above have really come to pass, for various, jolly sound reasons. Until they make a totally water-proof (and clumsy, butter-fingered child-proof) iPad, traditional print still has its place in our lives.

Shopping in your dressing gown from the sofa is fine until you order the wrong thing and have to return it (my local post office gets a bit funny if you turn up in your slippers) and no matter how much you spend on the online shop, there’s always something you’ve forgotten and have to dash out to get anyway.

The merchant branch acts in the same way, plus, of course, offering all the useful things like stock-holding, delivery-service and the all-important credit.

I brought up this topic with a bunch of merchants the other day and we all agreed that, like most things, the internet is as much of a threat as we let it be. For most of us, a website – whether transactional or not – is simply another way that we communicate with our customers.

For some of them it simply offers shop window, for others it’s a valuable transactional add-on, bringing them customers they might not have otherwise attracted. It’s also, in some ways, a way of keeping those easy, no-hassle transactions that just require a few clicks, net payment and delivery details, leaving the trade counter free for more complicated sales or for customers who do require the hands-on approach.

Getting those transactional websites right involves a massive investment, both in terms of time, money and expertise. At a BHETA seminar the other day, Travis Perkins Ian Preedy was talking about the investment TP is making in some of its group IT. The Toolstation website, for example, works as well as it does because of the huge back-office investment in ensuring that it’s as easy to search the website as it is to flip through the catalogue. You can even take a picture of a part, send it in and the website will be able to find it. That’s technology doing what it should be, making out lives easier.

Preedy also said there are other ways the group is making use of technology but that sometimes, the best use of it is the old-fashioned ways.

“Our customers use their smartphones a lot now to communicate with us as a company. Smartphones have this great function on them, it’s called ‘being able to ring someone up and talk to them’,” he said. “Allied to this, we use a ‘flexible data interface system’, which is otherwise known as ‘a bloke who knows what he’s talking about’.”

Merchanting is full of blokes (and ladies!) who know what they’re talking about and it’s why the internet is an add-on rather than a massive threat.

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Fiona Russell-Horne
Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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