A bi-annual Field Trip is now firmly established as a regular event on the FEST calendar, taking place on alternate years to the longstanding FEST Congress. Following successful visits to Austria and The Czech Republic in 2015, and Paris France in 2017, the 2019 trip took place in the Greater London area of the UK. Around 30 wholesalers attended the 2-day event in October, where the UK organisers deliberately set about showing their industry colleagues a number of examples of businesses that are deliberately seeking to disrupt the well-established route to market of the traditional wholesaler.

On the first morning, the delegates were taken to a Toolstation branch, a division of Travis Perkins, the UK’s largest national Builders’ Merchant. Modelling itself on a similar format to its main UK competitor, Screwfix (part of the Kingfisher Group that owns Castorama in France and Poland), Toolstation does most of its predominantly trade-led business online, whilst simultaneously offering an over-the-counter and next day ‘Click & Collect’ service in-store. Satisfying the customers’ needs in the shortest turnaround time is the primary goal of this fast-growing business model. Already at 335 stores across the UK, management is intent on opening 60 more this year in order to reach a target network of 500 Toolstation branches in the near future. Not content with remaining UK based, the model is also being rolled out across Europe, with 15 branches already established in The Netherlands, and more expected to open in Belgium and France.
The group were given a guided tour of the relatively small depot and taken behind the scenes into the warehouse to gain a greater understanding of the modus operandi. This also included a detailed description of the customer journey, from the minute an order is placed online or at the counter, to the means by which the goods are assembled and delivered. Backed up by stock at its three UK distribution centres, Toolstation’s sales are dispatched directly to customers’ premises or site address within hours of being ordered, be that a garden shed or small plumbing fitting. Alternatively, tradesmen and the general public are welcome to visit the local branch to collect goods already ordered online or simply pick up goods that day from a locally selected range of products held in stock.

The party then went on to make its next stop at Bathroom Brands’ impressive headquarters in Dartford, where delegates were treated to a very personal account by the young entrepreneur who built Victorian Plumbing, the UK’s largest online retail business in the bathroom sector. Its founder, 40-year old Mark Radcliffe, spoke of his chance entry into the bathroom industry and how, over the last 20 years, he has grown the online sales turnover with the help of his brother and a small team, most of whom are still involved today. Now, with a turnover of £154 million, it is by far the biggest online player in the bathroom market and has plans to grow sales even more aggressively using its bespoke digital software, developed in-house by a dedicated team of IT experts.
Strikingly, it is Mark Radcliffes’s personal traits that are at the heart of his business success, with a heavy emphasis placed on teamwork and driving down costs at every turn. He is fiercely proud of what his company has achieved to date and has a relentless desire to beat the competition, particularly that of his close namesake, Victoria Plum, with whom he has already faced legal challenges. There was little doubt amongst those listening to his presentation that Victorian Plumbing is a business to watch out for across Europe in the future.

After a buffet lunch taken in the fabulous Bathroom Brands’ showroom, the FEST delegates were then transferred by coach to the next venue, the Headquarters and warehouse facilities belonging to C.P. Hart. Here, the message delivered by the Chairman, Mr Kevin Ohle, was very much one of cautious optimism, emphasising how the C.P. Hart company is facing up to the challenges posed by the disruptive influences of the new online competitors. Efforts to cut out unnecessary cost and maximise exclusivity of the overall customer product offer are at the very core of this well-established, high-end business. By providing a more bespoke service to its professional clients and regular customers, C.P Hart hopes to avoid sales leakage and ensure customers keep coming back to visit its renowned, traditional bricks-and-mortar style showrooms, based mainly in and around London. 
The final visit of the day was to the prize C.P. Hart showroom, surprisingly located under the railway arches at Waterloo station. This has become the ‘destination showroom’, not only for private clients, but also for interior designers, architects and the home-interest press. It also fuels C.P. Hart’s high-end contract business. Finding luxurious product displays on such a grand scale is hard to visualise, particularly considering the central London location. Everyone was clearly impressed, nonetheless equally mindful of the cost to the business of maintaining such traditional showrooms, particularly if customers have to be convinced to keep coming back.

That evening, dinner for the delegates was hosted at Watermen’s Hall, a livery company hall in the City of London, taking wholesalers back to the days when goods were transferred up the Thames river in barges to their final destination, a far cry from the modern means of transport our distribution industry uses today.

On the final day of the Field Trip, the delegates were driven to the London King’s Cross offices of the online boiler installation company, BOXT, where the senior management gave a presentation about their approach to tackling the UK’s substantial replacement boiler market. Modelling itself on Uber, BOXT allows consumers to arrange the removal of an existing boiler, as well as delivery and installation of a new boiler without the need for an installer visit prior to commencing the job.
Using Trustpilot and a further method of detailed checks to vet its installers thoroughly, the small team of technical engineers, based in Leeds, is able to direct, monitor and manage multiple installers working on jobs across the country. The BOXT integrated system ensures materials are delivered to site on the correct day of installation by the wholesaler, with everything completed and signed off to the customer’s satisfaction before the installer is paid.
Not only is this a revolutionary model in the marketplace, but it is also one that avoids the need to have installers on the books, thereby allowing BOXT to compete advantageously on price against the UK market leader. The highly bespoke digital software package behind this market disruptor is again undoubtedly key to the unqualified success of BOXT’s business model. Again, FEST delegates couldn’t fail to be in awe of what they had witnessed and learnt on this highly successful visit.