The Metcash-owned Independent Hardware Group (IHG) held its 2019 Expo in Adelaide on 19-20 March. HNN attended the plenery session at the start of the Expo. According to IHG, there were 852 delegates/staff attending, as well as 893 supplier personnel, for a total of 1745 in all.
Perhaps the best way to begin our coverage is through the lens provided by two endings. The first marked the end of a heartfelt, warm and at times very funny presentation by one of Mitre 10’s founding members, John Clennett. In part this was in recognition of the group’s 60th anniversary.
But, just before we get to that, let’s hear about Mitre 10’s founding moment, as Mr Clennett related the history, which took place in 1959 in the grand tradition of the founding of hardware groups (Hardware & Building Traders followed a similar path):
The four of them got together in a small weatherboard home in Union Road which still stands in Surrey Hills in Victoria. It was the home of a chap called Reg Buchanan who ... was the main driver and there were the four players Reg, Tom Danaher, Jack Womersley and Ian Davey together with Ian Nisbet. They had quite a number of meetings and then ... they said look we’ve been buggering around with trying to do something together, let’s have a big luncheon, let’s get legless, and finalise some decisions.
Reg was very keen to sell paint, so he said, “Bugger it!”, threw $5000 on the table, and said to the others, “Well, are you going to join me or not?”
So, before you could say “Jack Robinson”, they had $20,000 and then went off to a paint company and they were able to buy the paint at really less than half the price that they ever one of them [had paid before].
At the close of this interesting review of the earliest history of Mitre 10 (which began as “Mitre 8”), Mr Clennett offered these remarks, reflecting on Mitre 10’s history, and IHG’s present:
A lot of us remember when we as members ran the business. That was a time when co-operatives were reasonably successful. Those times are gone, and you’ve heard ... how important it is for all of us as small retailers to be supported by, in our case, Metcash is a publicly listed company with a real commitment to people ... and your individual businesses. So whatever you do, understand that Metcash actually care for us all and you need to support them, and you need to demand from them what you want from them. Thank you very much.
We can match that up with the closing remarks of IHG CEO Mark Laidlaw, at the very end of the Expo’s plenary session:
So, guys, it is time to unite. We’ve been spending too much time fighting each other amongst the brands. It doesn’t matter whether you are Home, Mitre 10, Thrifty or True Value. The thing that unites us is that we’re all independents. And Metcash for its part and IHG can add enormous value, as you’ve heard today in those areas that it’s hard for independents to do. We will invest in the brand. We will invest in store development. We’ll invest in the digital. We’ll invest in the warehouses, and we’ll invest in people — probably the most important.
We will also — now that we have started to get our model together — reach out to those other independent groups such as HBT and Natbuild. It is time that we all unite. They don’t have to come under our brands but we do need to get together.
We have great respect for Bunnings. But in this time, when the consumer is changing so rapidly, will they be flexible and adaptable enough to change with that? Time will tell. For our part there is a great opportunity to unite and become a genuine opportunity for Australian shoppers. Thank you very much.
These closing summaries suggest a similar basic rationale: the market has changed in such a way that independent retailers will likely be able to better survive and prosper when they are in some form of partnership with a corporate entity, such as Metcash.
Mr Clennett based his statement on what is likely a very genuine “gut feeling”, and many years of experience. Mr Laidlaw’s closing statement was more definite. It listed a series of activities that IHG would undertake:
- Brand investment, including advertising, etc
- Store development, which is likely a reference to the Sapphire program, and IHG’s “paintbrush” store ratings system
- Investment in the digital aspects of retail business
- Investment in warehouses, for the distribution of goods
- Investment in people, such as training and/or hiring IHG staff
This has become a familiar argument over the past five years or so. Mitre 10 and then IHG has presented itself as a “safe haven” from the market dominance of Bunnings. Much of that “safety” has come from its belief that its warehouse-based consolidation of demand across limited brands, which provides better bargaining power and therefore lower prices from suppliers, was one way of diminishing Bunnings’ dominance in low pricing.
The counter-argument from buying groups such as HBT and Natbuild has been that the costs associated with IHG’s model are high, while they have very low costs, a difference which diminishes the pricing efficiencies of IHG’s model. The buying groups also provide a less-hierarchical, flatter model, where individual members really can see suppliers they discover become part of the group.
It is the need to make these points and demonstrate them that drove most of the plenary presentations that Mr Laidlaw and IHG’s general manager - merchandise and operations, Annette Welsh, delivered. Mr Laidlaw concentrated on achievements to date, and the development of the organisation, while Ms Welsh provided an insight into innovations, and the direction IHG is taking towards markets and customer engagement — what Mr Laidlaw labelled “the sexy future stuff”.
Ms Welsh also outlined some possibilities that, if developed further, could really help change the independent hardware retail sector, across all buying groups.
Past and present
Mr Laidlaw’s delivery of the latest news to members is quite distinctive. It’s very far from, for example, an officer reporting HQ’s view of the battle to the troops. It’s more like a battle-hardened sergeant in a behind-the-lines bunker letting his comrades know what the last battle was like, and what he expects from the next one. He projects a sense of physicality, that at times leads you to expect he would, given half the chance, be willing to wrestle some of the more recalcitrant graphs and numbers to the ground.
There is certainly no doubt about his passion, and, as with all the top staff at IHG, there’s a clear sense that he is preoccupied not with his own success, but rather with that of the enterprise. It’s a passion that, while very welcome, can also lead to some over-statements. Perhaps that’s because Mr Laidlaw is seeking a balance, somewhere, between the strategic value of a percentage point, and the awareness that these numbers mean something also to the welfare of a family, to the value of a life spent in hardware retail, out there in the crowd of members gathered in the half-dark of the amphitheatre of the Adelaide Convention Centre.
So, what is it that Mr Laidlaw is so passionate about? In terms of IHG itself, two main, linked concerns he has are the cohesion of the group, and its potential for growth. A good place to start to pick this apart is with what is commonly accepted as the bellwether for the group’s health, the store numbers.
Not that Mr Laidlaw is terrifically keen on these numbers himself. As he commented:
We’re a public company. Couple times a year we front the analysts, we front our shareholders, and the first question that the analysts always tend to ask as they roll it into their modelling is, oh your store numbers, you’re closing stores, store numbers are going down. And that is true. So what we’ve done here, we’ve measured store numbers since we took over the business in 2010 and in the independent sector they actually have declined 28 percent. It’s worth having a look at that change.
At the actual results announcement in December 2018, Mr Laidlaw made this response to the query about store numbers:
The other thing that’s important to note that there were a 170 stores called Thrifty-Link that we took out from Woolworths that are about 20% of the stores that represent 2% of the [wholesale sales] volume. Those stores will continue to close and [this] will have minimal impact on our EBIT and indeed on our sales. So I’m not hung up on those. The other ones are with the company stores. We had 41 company stores that we acquired from Woolworths. Today, we have 37. We have got out of four poor leases, which has actually added to our EBIT. We did lose one large customer. We lost a large customer in Queensland.
Looking at these numbers for the past couple of years, in Metcash’s proposal for the acquisition of HTH, the number of bannered stores was set at circa 740. A slide to 690 indicates a decline of 6.8% (over two years). That’s inline with the background rate of the 28% over eight years provided by Mr Laidlaw.
The other element to note (as mentioned elsewhere in this issue) is that figures from Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) show there was a net loss of over 1000 hardware retail businesses with annual revenues under $2 million during the same period. It’s also worth noting that the ABS figures show there were 6127 hardware retail businesses at the end of FY2007/08, and 5325 left at the end of FY2017/18. That’s a decline of 13%, though allowing for mergers and consolidations, the real decline is likely around 11%.
This has taken place against a background of an increase in overall retail revenue for hardware, according to the ABS, from $12.3 billion in FY2007/08 to $19.1 billion in FY2017/18, growth of 55.6%. Allowing for inflation, the increase would be from $15.2 billion in today’s dollars, to $19.1 billion, a market size increase of 26.0%
For Mr Laidlaw and IHG, the reason for that discrepancy, the increase in overall revenue and the decrease in the number of viable stores, can be explained by a single word of two syllables: Bunnings.
Equally, other buying groups have seen membership numbers increase. In terms of general comments in the industry, however, several seasoned veterans have told HNN that they have been surprised at IHG’s retention number, and had privately predicted the group losing around 10 or more further stores. Mr Laidlaw’s very hard work has produced results.
Yet those same observers see 2019 as being quite a testing year in this regard for IHG. These observers see IHG moving to increase pressure on HTH members to cross-brand to Mitre 10. There is some support for this notion in remarks made by Mr Laidlaw when addressing financial analysts at a Metcash Strategy Update in early March 2019:
Mitre 10 now has 22 stores in Tasmania. It used to be about 11 on both brands. We have made that a blue and white state.... We have used this as an absolute test bed where we’ve made it a blue and white state. And think of the synergies we’re going to get there because instead of running two catalogue programs you now run one catalogue program, instead of running two television commercials, we’ll be running one television commercial radio etc. So we really believe that’s the test bed to see what other synergies we can drive out of the business.
As HNN has stated in the past, and as Mr Laidlaw’s remarks make clear, this is a great move from a corporate perspective, as it will decrease costs and increase earnings. However, many observers are not confident that all HTH members will see these moves as an entirely positive development.
Quite rightly, Mr Laidlaw mentioned he was proud of the financial performance of IHG (formerly Mitre 10):
But our revenues — proud of this chart — only eight, nine years of being here we have grown our sales back... For full year 2011 financial year we were about a $750 million business. Very few of our stores were buying through us, our suppliers were going direct to the stores.
We developed a strategy. We stuck to it and through those next five or six years we continued to grow at about 5 percent a year and then fantastically and amazingly we took the opportunity to acquire the HTH business, and we doubled our revenues to $2.1 billion on a wholesale basis. We would expect of course the next couple of years that will flatten but then we’re confident that we’ll get a second kick after that.
The recovery of Mitre 10, and its transformation into IHG is indeed praiseworthy. The business of completing a merger between two separate organisations of near-equal size is complex, and many organisations fail.
The reason why IHG has not really received the recognition it deserves for this feat, however, is because — from the perspective of financial analysts — it has so far been more of a sidestep than a step forward. While revenues have grown, so has capital investment. Return, and in particular growth on return, is how corporations are judged.
Since the acquisition, IHG has returned considerable earnings before interest and taxation (EBIT) through additional efficiencies it has developed, but the company also announced that this kind of gain is almost over.
It’s very understandable, given the venue and the message that IHG had to deliver, that Mr Laidlaw not mention a recent, salient datapoint. The results from the first half of Metcash’s 2018/19 financial year were released in December 2018, and they are not encouraging. EBIT return was good, but overall revenue grew by only 1.25% — though like-for-like sales in bannered stores rose by 4.2%.
While performance in terms of savings are material and ongoing, the core question now is how the company can use its additional scale to create growth.
One of the slight surprises announced at the half year results in December was that IHG sees itself as having moved from around a 60/40 split between trade/DIY to a 65/35 split. In his session at the Expo, Mr Laidlaw did go some way to explaining that evolution, seeing it as an indirect consequence of the Woolworths/Masters business plan:
So Woolworths bought Danks first, and then they certainly acquired some of those other businesses. Hudson’s, Belmont, Tait’s, and they bought them 100%. And then, as we know, that madness stopped in 2016, and it was sold — [all] the businesses — and we took the opportunity to bring them together. And that’s why you then see today that we’ve moved to about 65 percent split between trade, 65% trade, 35% DIY.
Going back to the presentation for the acquisition from 2016, this shows that Mitre 10 had a 55/45 split trade/DIY, while HTH had a 62/38 split, and the projected outcome of the merger was 59/41. This new shift further towards trade indicates that, while the history is accurate, there is more than that going on.
To speculate, what is happening is that IHG has recognised two things: the first is that, for the moment, Bunnings has an almost unassailable position in DIY, and wresting marketshare away would be very tough — especially in the reduced demand situation of falling house prices and subdued activity in real estate markets. The second element is that Bunnings really is going into a situation of change, and it is possible that two years from now, a part of that market will be easier to take on.
Meanwhile, of course, IHG is working hard to experiment at expanding into new areas of the trade market. In introducing Metcash’s half-year results, the company’s CEO, Jeff Adams, said this in his prepared comments:
Our pilot trade store-focused stores are continuing to perform well. And we expect to have 12 low-cost, trade-only stores operating by the end of financial year 2019, growing to 40 by 2022.
That document also describes the “trade-only” store objectives:
The new Trade Only store was designed as a low-cost model to meet the Trade customer’s needs and attract new customers to the Mitre 10 brand.
Some more insight into the thinking behind trade-only was also provided by Mr Laidlaw in response to an analyst’s question at the half-year results presentation.
The traditional Mitre 10 business is a segment in the renovations. They didn’t deal with the big tier one builders, Mitre 10. It was good. It was a nice, safe place, and you make better margins in that area. So we have a large share of that 65% trade in the renovations. And then we also do have new dwellings, which is what we picked up with the big company stores. But we’re not in the multi-dwelling market.
Bunnings has recently commented that its trade market is confined to the trades renovator, and builders who do one to ten houses a year. The strategy with the Mitre 10 trade-only stores could be to capture more of the five to 15 houses a year builder market.
Sapphire/Mitre 10 crossbrand
At first glance, some of what we’ve said above about IHG “cooling” it on DIY for the next two to three years, while getting set for a later push, might seem to contradict the ongoing expansion of the Sapphire program. In Metcash’s annual report for 2018, it described the targets for Sapphire:
The success of the program to date has led to it being accelerated to target the completion of approximately 200 stores by 2022.
Mr Laidlaw commented on the program:
We’ve now completed 56 Sapphire stores. They are in three formats. We are at 27 stores at the time when we presented last year, so nearly 30 stores have been added. Some 37 are in that mixed-type business, they have a perfect mix ... maybe 55 trade 45 DIY now it’s the perfect mix of business. We also completed eight that are smaller convenience DIY stores.
This indicates that the company will pick up the pace of Sapphire conversions to around 42 a year, to meet its goal. This large investment in DIY (though trade also benefits from the program) might seem to not fit with the DIY strategy described above, but actually it complements it nicely. In terms of the strategy of a delayed push into DIY, IHG could be planning to make that push once it has a fleet of stores fitted to a higher standard.
HNN would predict that around 2021 Sapphire could further develop in two ways. There could be a new, higher standard introduced, which would relate more to the “connected store”, and internal infrastructure, as well as a “Sapphire Lite” program, which will help to improve the standard of amenity of more stores, without all the current requirements.
Mr Laidlaw also commented on the requirements for HTH stores which planned to switch over to the Mitre 10 brand.
So we may have confused a lot of people here last year when we talked about the opportunity to move to Mitre 10. And I think we left you thinking that to become a Mitre 10 you had to do Sapphire, you had to invest and you had to put in the core range that’s required under Sapphire. We had a lot of good discussion and debate with our National Advisory Council. We were very good and we developed a road map for the brand and it’s recognised that you do not have to make Sapphire standards to be painted up to Mitre 10.
He commented further that four stores had already been cross-branded, and that a further 30 would make the transition during 2019.
At the end of his presentation, Mr Laidlaw provided a quick overview of the market as IHG sees it developing over the next two years. Along with most in the hardware and construction industry, he sees the current “crash” as being somewhat oversold, and suggests that housing levels will likely come back to 2015 levels, but not below that. He pointed out that the market structure of IHG, as it stands currently, should adapt well to the shift in the market.
The other thing ... to talk about is that we believe our business is quite well balanced in the sectors of the segments that we operate in. So in other words, if we’re 35% DIY and we’re 30% in the renovations and alterations and we’re 30% in the detached housing [then] we are only 5% in the multi-dwelling, which is the area that will get smashed the most.
While that identifies how IHG has moved to protect its marketshare, and limit the effects of the downturn, what this doesn’t account for is the big question: where will growth come from?
That’s really the question that Ms Welsh set out to answer after Mr Laidlaw’s presentation, by outlining some of the ambitious plans that she, Mr Laidlaw and the management team at IHG have developed.
Future and growth
After a field report on IHG stores that were doing well against the competition, Ms Welsh began a discussion of the market as IHG sees it:
We know how hard it is for marketshare movement in the DIY side of the market. But where there is opportunity is in the trade side of the business. This is a $17.6 billion market in Australia and we compete evenly for share at this moment in time with Bunnings, and there’s a big piece of the market under the expertise of plumbing. But the remaining 62 percent still sits in a very fragmented way, and that’s where the opportunity is.
She emphasised the importance of this market, not only for stores that are already trade-focused, but also for those with an established DIY business:
Even if you are purely, at this moment in time, DIY, I’m going to ask you to keep your thoughts open over the course of the next couple of minutes as I talk you through the trade part of our business. And, potentially, encourage you to think about the opportunities you may have within this market.
In what followed, she emphasised a series of market insights and directions. These included: exploring market adjacencies in house construction (whole of house); prefabrication; alignment between suppliers through a hardware retailer to deliver a complete solution to a builder; expanding markets through digital techniques; and making use of what IHG considers to be data analytics.
Though that list really does not do Ms Welsh’s message justice. It wasn’t a message about expanding current practices to new areas, but rather developing new practices that encompass additional market opportunities. To go back to the statement by Mr Laidlaw with which we began, he said IHG “have started to get our model together”. What Ms Welsh outlined was what that model could do, and the direction in which it is headed.
Whole of house: five stages
One of the major areas of expansion Ms Welsh highlighted was a move to supply builders with products for all five stages of construction, which she called the “whole of house” strategy. Those stages would be:
- frame and truss
She introduced this strategy like this:
There are five stages to the build of a house. Most of you and everyone of you I’m sure in this room knows this better than I do. So, five stages to build a house. And historically, traditionally, as an independent group, what we’ve done is really focus our attention on the frame and lockup stages, with a particular focus on selling quality stick timber.
As Ms Welsh pointed out, this is also a vulnerable market segment at the moment:
It’s given us a fantastic business but as the building cycle comes off that’s going to come under pressure in terms of our ability to maintain sales.
To explore further opportunities, Ms Welsh’s team took a look at the current business both company and joint-venture stores were doing:
We segmented our company owned stores and joint venture builders over 9000 account customers, and what we discovered was what, as much [about] what they are buying from us, as what they’re not buying from us.
What they discovered was that they did well in the frame, lock-up and stick timber business, but this consisted of only 34% of the total opportunity. Looking beyond that, there was a further 62% of construction materials that IHG was not servicing, and that existed in what Ms Welsh describes as “a highly fragmented market”.
Where we think the biggest opportunity is, is in the fix and fit-out stages. The good news that comes with that is that fix and fit-out comes absolutely with a better margin, higher profit return than perhaps the earlier stages of the build.
To enable this approach, Ms Welsh and her team set about enhancing supplier relationships.
To ensure we can complete a whole of house we were clear as a merchandise team that we were probably missing a few key relationships [needed] to make sure that we can offer product across all five stages of the build. So we went about making sure that we were able to fill every gap in the need of your builder.
One step was to build a better relationship with truss makers.
We created through Brett Martin a wonderful alliance with Melbourne Truss that is enabling our Victorian teams to start our relationship with the builder at the frame and truss level.
With timber supplies tight, the team extended this to steel frames as well.
We didn’t have a relationship with any supplier to enable you to support a builder on steel. We now do, through Steel Frame Solutions.
The end result of this is a comprehensive set of suppliers.
We have this, right suppliers with the right products and the right relationships, to ensure we can fill every single gap — or at least 90 percent of them. I’m sure there’s a few that we need to work on.
With this background, Ms Welsh sees an opportunity for the trade sales reps in IHG hardware retailers to better align with their reps in supplier firms.
Within those stores what you all have is sales reps, sales managers that are the key to the relationship with the trade. It’s what makes us different to any corporate. Within our own companies we know we have 73, and if I was to add up all of the others around the country, there would be more than 200. What we’d like to do is really see how we can leverage that army alongside the similar army that exists within our supplier base and help build the value that we add to the trade every day.
Later in her talk she was more specific about what would happen in these relationships:
I’m creating and starting trials to ensure that the sales managers that are aligned to every member in the room can connect with an equivalent expert in the supplier base. [This is] to ensure that together we can go to a builder and align the best quality of information that the supplier has on the best product for the builder, with the best relationship and service proposition that comes from our sales managers and our teams, and put the two together. [Then you can] have a conversation with the builder, and get them to understand and recognise the increased value that bringing that business through the right group with the right source product from the right supply can [deliver].
One of the trials that Ms Welsh delivered was through Richmond Mitre 10.
We’re confident in that model ... because of the great work that’s been done by Ben Shaw and his team at Richmond Mitre 10 in Victoria. About six months ago ... we had segmented the builders of Richmond’s Mitre 10. We understood what they weren’t buying from us. There were a couple of key areas that Ben was clear that there was opportunity.
One of them was frame through Melbourne Truss, the other one was cladding, they were buying it through James Hardie, plaster through Boral, etc. [Ben] brought in the local state-based sales representatives from those three suppliers, and said, “I think we have an opportunity. Here are my top 17 builders that represent 40% of my trade business and I think together if we do this right, we can actually convert them to bring their business across to Mitre 10 Richmond.
Across those five suppliers that they engaged with, the sales growth for 17 builders in six months was 24 percent. That’s a whole of house strategy.
Ms Welsh also provided a quick update on how online sales are doing, and what IHG’s plans for its future are. Much of IHG’s online development has been about establishing click-and-collect ordering.
A year ago we sold through the membership $1.5 million dollars on click and collect. This year that number will exceed $6 million. It’s a huge amount of work and a massive amount of growth but over 500 stores every month receive an order from click-and-collect, and that provides that opportunity to drive a consumer to store and the connection that we’ve got with the consumers. Our expectation is next year that will be $11 million and the year after $30 million.
Digital enables collecting more data about customers, and Ms Welsh sees the profile of these customers as being very positive.
The average basket size on click-and-collect is now $220 and through the work that the digital teams have done it is attracting a brand new customer to us. A customer that wants to pay in a different way than a normal credit card or cash, [using] Afterpay or Zip-pay. A female customer, and a younger customer. All of this is really clear and key to the strategy I’ve talked about right at the front: can we grow the basket size of the customers we have, or can we attract brand new ones? And digital is doing actually both of those.
Ms Welsh also provided some details about the use of what IHG considers to be data analytics.
The key to getting digital right, the key to consumer driven is about making sure that we have data... It adds huge value in relation to ensuring shopper-led [and] that we have the planograms right. But what it also does is enable us to engage with each one of the consumers in a manner that means something to them.
And the way in which this is only going to succeed is if you and your teams continue to ask that awkward question, the one that the teams must become more used to is, “can I have your e-mail address or your mobile phone number?” The reason for that is we can personalise the product offer to the customer. What we want to do is ensure that we don’t bombard any customer with information that’s not relevant, that we give them information that’s going to add value to them.
The developments put forward by Ms Welsh certainly would seem to offer some opportunities for growth. However, it’s equally evident that this is going to be difficult, long-term work to bring off successfully.
Importantly, most of these suggested developments rely on a more centralised, corporate approach to managing the business of IHG. The commercial deals with suppliers, for example, will rely on IHG/Metcash building a relationship with a fellow supplier corporation, which will enable individual members to benefit, through IHG. Along with the transition to more Mitre 10 branded stores mooted by IHG, this kind of deal will be able to unlock more value for all participants.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, of course. What is good about it, is that it more clearly defines the buying groups in the independent sector. IHG can represent the consolidated, corporate approach. Groups such as Natbuild and HBT can represent an approach where the “capital” consists of the people and the businesses that make up the group. For them, the “return” is not an EBIT number or a share price, but simply the success of those members and their businesses, on their own terms.
It’s a genuine choice.
At the same time of course, there is also some drive behind the idea of a more united independent sector, which Mr Laidlaw went some way to suggesting as an agenda item for the future. For that to happen, though, the sector would have reach beyond the corporate/non-corporate divide, and find common ground.
What would that common ground look like? HNN believes that there is a strong clue in the work presented by Ms Welsh at the IHG Expo. In very broad form, many of the plans she presented contain the possibility of a new, different model that the independent hardware sector could adopt. That model is based on changing from commerce that is based on selling products supported by services, to primarily selling services that are supported by products.
It would be a sharp change to the industry. What would drive it forward, however, is that this is the one model which would help independent hardware retailers get out from under the constant erosion of profit margin through competition with Bunnings, and other price-driven hardware retailers.
In what follows we lay out some broad outlines of what this might look like.
The Bunnings model
If we are talking about business models in the modern Australian hardware retail market, we really do need to begin with Bunnings. We can start by repeating Mr Laidlaw’s astute and accurate assessment of the state of Bunnings — and of the industry:
We have great respect for Bunnings. But in this time, when the consumer is changing so rapidly, will they be flexible and adaptable enough to change with that?
While Mr Laidlaw is applying this need for change to Bunnings, it is, of course, applicable everywhere in the hardware industry, and especially to IHG — as well as groups such as HBT and Natbuild.
The Bunnings model really begins with a specific relationship between profit margin and risk. This was developed during the time John Gillam was managing director. His realisation was that any increase in profit margin also increases business risk in retail, as, in an informed market, higher margins decrease the propensity of consumers to buy a product.
That risk is, of course, balanced by the countervailing risk that if profit margins are too low, the retail business will not generate sufficient returns to cover operating costs and return on capex.
Most retailers balance these two risks through externalities. The risk of the higher profit margin is reduced through high levels of marketing, high store amenity and, where possible, some control over the supply of a product.
The entire Bunnings business model is based on reducing any risk arising from profit margin to the lowest possible level. Once a business has that kind of low-risk ballast providing stability, it can then radically increase risk in other areas. That means it needs only minimal marketing, low store amenity, very lean logistics, and customer service that is adequate, but far from outstanding.
Of course, the only way for such a business to increase profits (which it must, in a corporate environment) is for it to continuously expand. But, as it turns out, increasing risk in all those areas — low store amenity, minimally trained staff — reduces the cost of expansion. As it expands, associated operating costs decrease, so that profit margin can go lower — and a competitive cycle is formed.
This model has proved to be a very difficult for other retailers to compete against. Lacking the scale and supply chain access of Bunnings, retailers find limited profit margins render some business lines unviable and also, at the very least, inhibit their ability to recapitalise and further develop their businesses.
The independent business model
The model for most independents is to charge slightly higher prices than the lowest in the market, but to compensate for this by value-adds such as advice, better store amenity, and being “local” businesses.
Looking at the raw numbers, as pointed out above in the business failure statistics, that isn’t working as well as retailers would like. They face what is really almost the equivalent of a “profit drought”, with retailers making do with less and less in order to survive.
But what if there were a different business model, which provided for higher profit margins, did not require a high level of scale, would appear first in trade/commercial, and then move to DIY/consumer, and would also fit with the existing infrastructure of today’s independent hardware retailers?
Such a model is in many ways implicit in the market approaches that Ms Welsh outlined during her talk. It has the potential to take hold over the next two to three years, and bring with it substantial changes to independent hardware retail in Australia.
The basics of this model are simple. Rather than, as they do at present, selling products, with those sales enabled by the provision of services, such as delivery and finance, instead retailers will sell the equivalent of services, and those sales will be enabled by products.
This solves the profit margin difficulty, because profit in service delivery is based not on costs, but quality, and quality of services is the result of skill and training. It is also a model that relies heavily on the digital, both in its marketing and delivery.
While this might seem far from today’s model and market, in fact the work of Ms Welsh comes surprisingly close to directly touching the new model. It’s a definite step in that direction.
If we look at what’s involved in IHG’s whole of house strategy, it is evident that this is a move from seeing a house build as a succession of product orders to be fulfilled, to regarding it instead as a continuum of build activities. When Ms Welsh speaks of what facilitates this market opportunity, it’s not about finding the lowest priced products and throwing them on the back of a truck for delivery. It’s about establishing an interlocking connection between suppliers, sales reps at IHG, a store owner (who may have relevant local knowledge as well) and the needs of the builders themselves.
This is based on knowledge sharing between participants, and it is the sharing of that knowledge that builds value. In fact, the single most brilliant thing that Ms Welsh had to say in her presentation was this:
Already, today, you are seeing 49,000 of those house plans. And when you get a house plan in hand, it offers up and opens up the opportunity for the world around all five stages [of the house build].
The architectural plan is the central document of a build, and lays out what products are needed, but also, suggests the order and cadence of the build. Retailers could provide a comprehensive quote or bid based on this information. This could be developed in association with the groups involved. It’s likely that in such a case, builders will not regard the quote in terms of the prices of individual components, but rather as an overall price for a sequence of service deliveries to the build site.
We could say that the move from products to services could change the main business model from the retailer-centric notion of using low profit margin to reduce retailer risk, to the consumer-centric notion of using knowledge sharing (driven by digital capabilities) to reduce consumer risk. In the latter case, value is not a matter of reduction to the basics, but instead something created from skill, trust, and better relationships.
While data analytics are useful in selling products, they are vital through the entire marketing process for services. However, the data analytics that are needed are what we might term “tertiary stage” analytics, which are quite different from both primary and secondary stage analytics.
Most of what IHG presented at the Expo as data analytics was very much secondary stage. That stage is dominated by processes of segmentation. At first glance, segmentation does look like it is consumer focused — because, after all, you are “looking” at consumers. Closer examination, however, shows that it is surprisingly retailer focused.
For example, on one slide Ms Welsh showed the need to segment builders by size. What is that really about? Size is usually used by retailers as a means to prioritise potentially more profitable customers over less profitable customers — and the less profitable ones, through this process, will likely lose out a bit. Yes, small and large builders do have different needs, but from a service rather than product perspective, it’s actually not all that different.
What’s the alternative? In tertiary data analytics there is a concept known as “behavioural identity” or BI. Rather that assuming identity based on characteristics such as size, BI tracks what the customer does, and determines from this what their current BI is.
BI seeks to understand what stage of the project development process customers are currently occupying. To take a consumer example, think of someone considering buying a kitchen. Segmentation divides these customers up into kitchen size, planned expenditure, materials, and so forth. The customer is then exposed to suitable products, based on this.
The advantage of BI is that it permits complex interactions from the retailer, that can help the consumer move through the different BIs necessary to complete the purchase. In a kitchen project, customers might have a diagram sketch of what they want, or just be trying to choose a style. If there is a diagram, perhaps the consumer can take a picture of it with a mobile phone, and the retailer can provide an interactive version. If it’s all about style, the retailer can help build mood boards. Over time, the data on mood boards could accumulate, and the BI system might be able to determine, just from a mood board selection, the type of kitchen the consumer might prefer.
To take a commercial example, an important characteristic to determine about builders is what their current attitude towards risk is. Some builders have a generally high acceptance of risk, others seek to reduce risk at all costs, but most vary the risk they are willing to assume depending on the project.
How do you work out a builder’s risk status? One way is to analyse building permits and plans to determine whether a build is in keeping with past builds in an area, whether it is like other builds the builder has done, and how successful the immediate past builds of the builder have been.
That’s not easy, and you really need a highly qualified data scientist to work out how to quantify those elements, and how to derive a risk profile from them. But the processing power to do this, which 20 years ago would have required access to a supercomputer, and today be purchased from Amazon, Google or Microsoft for a reasonable hourly rate.
All the buying groups have strong, unique identities. At the Expo you could experience a strong sense of fealty and fun in a robust, vigorous package. HBT, of course, is unmatched in the pure larrikin, creative cleverness of its members. Natbuild excels at a kind of store-by-store strategic approach, one which has made it surprisingly influential in the market. All of these have a place, now and in the future.
The IHG Expo 2019 indicated the possibility of a move towards a more mature independent hardware sector, across all the buying groups. While the competition for buying group membership is set to continue, there are other processes at work, which will most likely benefit everyone in the sector.
But what remains to do, if this potential is to be realised, is further hard work for all buying groups over the next three or four years. All the groups have a crucial contribution to make, and all the groups, should this model be developed, stand to benefit, and regain overall marketshare.
To read these and other articles in our HI News PDF magazine, please download here: hnn.bz/pdfs/hinews-5-01.pdf