Movers & Shakers Q&A – Nick Thomas, founder, Built

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Nick Thomas, founder, Built

  1. What is the greatest opportunity for your business?

E-commerce in the building materials sector has many challenges and complexities, not least that most building products are heavy, bulky, low margin and costly to move. To resolve these difficulties, we devised a new builders’ merchant format which supports an assisted, time of choice, assisted collection or delivery service which is enabled through a single fully integrated digital business platform. And as a result of proving the model is popular with the target customer, we now have a huge opportunity to bring a new way of buying building materials to a wider audience.

It’s a genuinely consistent online and offline retail model which offers a highly accessible, convenient and transparent way to source a full range of building material essentials. We’ve made transacting much easier than in a traditional merchant, and stock, prices, order placement, booking a collection or a delivery slot and retrieving your customer information are all accessible through your smartphone around the clock, online and up to date in real time. By giving certainty of supply and a specified time of fulfilment we offer significant time savings to general builders when compared with traditional alternatives.

Most importantly, we’ve had incredible feedback from customers. With a steady Net Promoter Score in the 80s, our greatest opportunity is to make our service experience locally available to more of the building trade and serious DIY customers by opening more branches

  1. What is the biggest challenge to your business?

Our target customer – the general builder – is trained to buy materials in a very traditional way. Many still expect to be able to negotiate prices face to face with us. The merchants themselves also rely on forging long-standing relationships with customers over years. Customers have also been conditioned already to distrust buying from websites or online services like ‘click and collect’ because of bad experiences from merchants that find it hard to support e-commerce properly. As a new brand, cutting through and breaking down those perceptions and bonds has been difficult, although once the customer comes into our store, the experience speaks for itself and word of mouth has been a really important factor in our growth.

  1. With the benefit of hindsight what would you have done differently so far?

We have learned things about how the customer has responded to our proposition that means I would have focussed more of our bandwidth and energy on building simpler foundations around what have proved to be the most popular elements of our service model such as the ability to book a specified time of delivery and our assisted collection service. We made innovative leaps across a number of areas of the business – across our range, supply chain, systems, processes and format – but on reflection, we didn’t need to take on so much and spread ourselves so thinly. We may have benefitted from focussing all our energy on the development a couple of fundamental points of difference and evolved or innovated in other areas more selectively from there.

Nick Thomas: Founder, Built

  1. What is the future of the physical store and the high street?

The High Street will remain fundamentally important but its role and shape will adjust away from a place to find and buy mass merchandise. More space should be taken by service or experience-based businesses over time and I can see there being more temporary lets giving access to smaller independent businesses with niche or unique ranges which are worth the trip.

Retailers used to add value just by making merchandise accessible, but the internet has changed how businesses can remotely access and influence shoppers. A new generation of shoppers now use an array of genuinely useful innovations to compare prices, organise lists, order goods at the push of a button or voice command. Subscription services mean deliveries are free and shoppers now don’t even need to pay for goods until after they’ve received and returned any items not wanted. So, high street retailers have to find other ways to add value by meeting customer needs that the online-only retailers can’t meet as easily.

Click & Collect – and the format, processes and technology to support it properly – has proved very popular but I think stores should also consider delivering online orders from store inventory too. Store staff need to be agnostic about where the final transaction takes place with their business, as long as they play their part in the customer purchasing decision – that means stores don’t need to fulfil the sole purpose of transacting. Stores can collect data, showroom, engage customers with their brand, offer collection points and so one. Stores will need to adapt environments and how they operate to capture or recognise their customers quickly and easily, personalise their in store experiences, reduce or eliminate transactional friction and be integrated and consistent with their online identity.

  1. What technology-related plans have you got for the next 12 months?

We will continue to make it easier and faster to order building supplies in branch and online and we will enhance our delivery service to provide improved information around predicted delivery time and vehicle tracking. We want to expand our click and collect offer beyond our main distribution facility to smaller locations. We are also working on some task productivity applications which are aimed at reducing our cost and time to serve customers.

  1. With the issue of digital wildfire how do you understand and control your growing digital landscape?

We have found the best way to communicate our points of difference and benefits to other potential customers is to let our existing customers speak for their experiences. We publish and share all our customers’ feedback throughout our website, in store and through social media and are striving to develop a transparent, consistently validated and authentic reputation. We also engage with social comments positive or negative so that we make our brand feel accessible and genuine.

  1. What other retail business do you admire?

There are many but I like to see businesses that strive to raise the bar to new levels and are innovating in ways that are useful to the end user. I particularly love the whole Gymshark story and how they pioneered growth through social influencer marketing.

  1. If you hadn’t been a retailer what would you have liked to do?

I would like to have learned to code not for its own sake but because of how important that skill has become for the way the world is today and will be tomorrow – and that would still have satisfied my drive to develop new ideas, be creative and entrepreneurial.

  1. What marks out of 10 do you give yourself so far for achievement?

It’s satisfying to have launched a brand new concept which has been received so well by customers and to have overcome so many hurdles in order to achieve that. But I still feel like we have so much left to do to finish the job. Ask me again when we’ve opened our 100th branch!

  1. Who would you place in the Top 25 Movers & Shakers in Retail?

I think Ross Bailey, CEO and Founder of Appear Here, deserves a place for seeing opportunity and developing a solution for the vacant space that’s increasingly prevalent on high streets. Like an Airbnb for retail, he’s created a marketplace for short term retail lets which connects landlords to brands and small businesses that is expanding worldwide.


This is one in an ongoing series of Q&A’s with individuals that are featured in the annual ‘Retail Insider Movers & Shakers in Retail Top 100‘ report.