Nick Oates, Managing Director of National Buying Group, explores the impact of challenges caused by COVID-19 on Independent Merchants and why collaboration has been key in helping NBG Partners remain resilient.

The past six months have seen significant and rapid challenges across our sector, with the operations of every independent merchant across the country feeling some impact.

Government-enforced lockdowns meant that customers were unable to access branches as previously, with operations adjusted to incorporate social distancing measures. The sudden introduction of new procedures and changes to IT systems – for example to enable online orders to be taken – and ensuring teams were fully trained to use them, provided another obstacle to both the operation of the branch and the mental wellbeing of their teams.

One of the central pillars of the National Buying Group (NBG) Partnership is an open exchange of ideas and communication of best practise across more than 100 independent merchant businesses.

From the outset, we wanted to keep communication channels open between our Partners and Suppliers, keeping the exchange of information as seamless as possible. In addition to holding meetings virtually via Zoom and Teams, we launched Live Zoom Presentations providing Suppliers with an opportunity to keep Partners up to date with new product launches and key business updates.

Using technology we may not have previously relied on has become integral and enabled us to continue to maintain relationships, discuss impacts on our businesses - for example of government legislation - and most importantly support one another through some difficult times.

NBG Partners and Suppliers have worked with one another through the NBG network to determine what has been working and what has not, helping one another through operational changes and improvements.

This has highlighted one of the great advantages of the independent sector in our ability to adapt. Unlike many of the larger nationals, our Partners have remained agile and able to react quickly throughout the pandemic.

There have even been many positive stories that have emerged from our Partners. PGR Builders & Timber Merchants, for instance, saw the creation of eight new jobs to support two new branches. Elsewhere, QS Supplies secured a new branch, a new website has been launched by Kellaway and many others have seen their website ordering grow dramatically.

We’ve seen NBG’s priorities change over the period. Concerns at the onset of the pandemic were around cashflow, with Supplier payments prioritised and new systems and procedures were rapidly put in place by NBG to help Partners and Supplier maintain controls.

Now our major issue is one of ensuring access to supplies, with shortages across many product areas driven by high demand as sectors recover.

By regularly engaging with our Suppliers, we are able to get a far more holistic picture of the industry and create a more collaborative environment between Suppliers and Partners.

We have also seen three general sales trends in terms of the response across the industry. Geographically South to North; Partners in the south either remained open throughout or have been quickest to come back, whereas in Scotland legislation forced merchants to remain closed. Second, sector based heavy to light; the transition in demand from heavy side products, especially outdoor related like landscaping, to lightside products which are indoor based. Finally, the companies’ approach to legislation and risk, with those that have been closed the longest finding it harder to get going again.

When we look back over the last six months, the lessons that we’ve learnt and ways that businesses have adapted, we must also remember to keep one eye on the future. Many of our Partners have put in place more efficient systems and processes that will enable them to cope more quickly with future disruption, learning from honest mistakes made early on when decisions had to be made quickly.

We will continue to adapt and revise the ways that we work during the rest of this year and into the first quarter of 2021 as government guidelines and restrictions are likely to remain in place.

It is the development of a strong network of Partners and Suppliers, and the independents’ focus on good service and high quality stock that will be key in helping us to continue weathering this storm.