Lockdown easing and construction retuning to work; what can we learn from the last seven weeks and what does it tell us about the future? With the Prime Minister’s recent commitment to ease the lockdown including actively encouraging the construction sector to return to work, how can we restart the economy while not putting the public health to risk? What guidance do employers need in order to make workplaces safe, so we can bring people back to work?

“We have evolved as the changes have happened, but for those that are just about to reopen, they won’t understand the extended lead times and the new rules and processes needed. While it has been testing, it hasn’t been hard to adapt, as the changes have been gradual and we have moved with them. For merchants that have been open throughout, we have adapted to the new normal. We have been testing out future processes for others.”

This was the reflection of Richard Tinson, Branch Manager for Keyline Civils Specialists in Leeds on his experience since the beginning of the lockdown. It encompasses everything that merchants like Keyline have been through, what smaller contractors have learned and what the larger contractors will need to learn as they return. There are even fundamental trading scenarios for the wider retailing community to gain from.

With a set of methods in place including the use of safe distancing, PPE and the rearrangement of back offices, retailers from supermarkets to garden centres have had to learn quickly how to make stores safe both for colleagues and customers while still trading. Going forwards, the British Retail Consortium stresses that decisions on which shops will reopen first after the lockdown should be based on safety, not their size or business type
[1]. As such, the lessons learnt in the last seven weeks from merchants’ working practices and the interactions with their customers could inform the basis of trading for us all, for as long as the virus remains a threat to society and the economy. It will force us all to change our working practices and embrace a new normal.

Since the government announced the lockdown, from day one Keyline has been one of a few merchants that have remained open, as it was seen as a key supplier to essential work as prescribed by the government. With the need to maintain public utilities, gas, water and electricity as well as the maintenance of road and rail networks and the support of the reinstatement of HS2, the company had to create a whole new set of guidelines and practices to comply with safe distancing for both customers and colleagues.

In doing so it has forced everyone to be flexible and accommodating if they want to maintain a level of business to get products onto site and help Britain get building again. In an effort to be efficient, all contractors, big or small, will have to change their working relationship with their suppliers and, whether heavyside or lightside, certain universal principles will apply. These are practices that Keyline, along with other merchants that are open for business, has already adapted to include:

  • Branch shop and office areas will remain closed to customers and visitors at all times. 
  • Access to site will only be granted to those with a prearranged time slot.
  • Customers will be offered the choice of delivered or a call and collect service.

This fundamentally means that the gates to all merchants remain locked, with contractors either booking direct to site deliveries, or pre-booking a collection time at a merchant yard. Speaking outside the Keyline branch in Portsmouth, Branch Manager Alex Hairsnape, commented, “We are operating on a one in one out system. We’ve had quite a few customers that come on time when allocated; but others turn up early, some late, or others just turn up. We try and manage it”.

Once in the yard, customers have an option to load the products themselves, or merchant staff will lift the materials on for them. Speaking about the process, Keyline’s Branch Manager in Reading, Andy Goodings stated: “At the start there was frustration, as all customers were trying to provide for essential services; but customers understood as they knew they would be getting their materials. Every day has been different. Every week is different. We’ve had to manage customers’ expectations. They understand it’s changed for them and us. They’re now really conscious of how busy we are and appreciate how things are in the ongoing situation.”   

“The process from how we worked before to how we are working now changed daily - safe distancing, reduced staffing levels. The drivers don’t come in to the trade counter; it’s all done in the yard. All customers understand the process, either they can load materials themselves, or we do it for them.”  

This new way of working is important to understand, as the days of contractors popping down to the yard for the odd bag of this or that is over, at least for the time being. Although, as Richard Tinson points out, for those that need materials, “if it’s an emergency, we are still flexible. If they have to collect something, we say ‘you’ll have to wait, but bear with us and we’ll get your products out’, and in the main people understand the current situation.”

In line with the government’s safe distancing policy, deliveries to site have had to be modified, with merchants agreeing a delivery time slot, an allocated segregated offload area and who will offload. Safe distancing has even suspended the need for a signature of receipt with merchant staff taking photos as proof of delivery, with the delivery note emailed to the email address provided to at point of order.

For those that order straight to site, there is an even more fundamental lesson to be learned and that is the need to book ahead as deliveries will be slower than experienced before the shutdown. The best advice comes from Richard Tinson, who recommends that “sites should order in full packs and bigger quantities than they might have previously. They may have to wait a bit longer for the materials, but it means they will have more materials on site and won’t need to return to their merchant so often.”

Ordering ahead is a new way of transacting that we are all having to get used to, in business or even when shopping for groceries. Sainsbury’s CEO Mike Coupe commented last week that he has seen "a very marked change in the way our customers are shopping. They're coming less frequently and are buying about twice as much when they do come. Very much a return to the weekly shop, but beyond it."

Looking at how long this new way of retailing will go on for, Sainsbury's say that customers are likely to see disruption to their shopping until September amid the coronavirus pandemic[1]. With the government currently unable to set an end date to when things will return to pre-Covid-19 behaviours, perhaps we should embrace how customers interact with merchants as the new normal.

The latest figures published from Build UK, reported that its contractor members continue to reopen their sites. Last week it noted that 73% of sites are open in England and Wales, up from 69% the previous week. Now, over 80% of infrastructure and construction projects are running, with members that include housing reporting that just over half of their housing sites (55%) are now open for business, compared to 46% the previous week[2]. This is important as, with many building product companies only returning to manufacturing this week, the supply chain will take some time to replenish.

As Andy Goodings sees it, “getting supplies is easing, the products we had difficulties with at the start are coming back in stock with other manufacturers notifying us what they will be doing this coming week. There will be a surge for materials when everyone does go back to work, especially now that government ministers are encouraging it, we must be prepared.”

As building sites open up again, many merchants are responding, to maintain a supply of materials. Travis Perkins, for example, the UK’s largest builders merchant has opened some branches for delivery only, with a number of branches offering a ‘Call & Collect’ service.  The next few weeks will be fundamental to all those in the construction industry that rely on materials supply, with the major housebuilders returning and the SME’s feeling confident that they can now work safely. A word of caution comes from Richard Tinson, “I hope that the industry can learn from this situation and plan ahead more. Site Managers will have to change how they operate. They are used to being serviced so well by the merchants, with next day delivery; but for now, they will have to plan ahead. Everyone will have to adapt.”

Andy Goodings echoes a similar sentiment: “Every single week we will adapt and mould to the changes, as we have from day one. ; but crucially we need to make sure we keep on top of safe distancing and also make sure that everyone is clearly aware of the new, safe normality.”

Last week saw The Builders Merchants Federation (BMF) working with the Construction Products Association (CPA) to monitor the manufacturing and distribution of their respective members, in order to meet the needs of housebuilders, contractors and SME builders. As a result, they are heading up the Product Availability Group, set-up by the Construction Leadership Council (CLC), which is co-ordinating the industry’s response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Nevertheless, these are uncertain times for the sector with, on one hand, research carried out by LinkedIn stating that construction workers are among the country’s most confident amid COVID-19 uncertainty[3], while conversely in April, Britain’s construction industry recorded its worst slump in more than two decades[4]. However, with the construction and retail sectors operating at a semblance of pre-lockdown levels, the prospect for the country to get back to work is looking more optimistic. Let’s hope that the lessons learnt thus far are picked up by all in and around both sectors. However, until the country returns to normal working practices, hopefully once a vaccine is developed, all businesses will have to revise how they operate, understand customers’ needs and work together in order for the industry and the country to move forward.

For a view on Keyline’s approach to safety protocols for collection watch our video here

Keyline will shortly be conducting further surveys into customers’ experiences through the current crisis. Follow Keyline Civils Specialists on Facebook and LinkedIn or @KeylineCivils on Twitter to add your voice.

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