Since construction output began to recover in 2013, the plumbing & heating sector has experienced steady growth, largely sustained by a strong housebuilding market. Though there was a slowing of growth in 2018 as trading conditions became more difficult in the face of economic uncertainties, 2019 saw growth of 4% in the merchants’ market despite a fall in construction output in the office and retail sectors.
The national merchants have experienced difficult trading conditions in recent years and have responded in part by restructuring and rebranding their businesses as well as streamlining their operations through branch closures. Apart from Grafton’s disposal of Plumbase, Wolseley’s specialist plumbing & heating brand, Plumb Center, has now been subsumed within the overall Wolseley brand.
By contrast, many of the larger regional merchants have seen significant revenue growth and regional merchants have gained share in the market. This market segment has also seen some merger and acquisition activity to consolidate regional merchants into larger groups.
There has been significant growth in online retailing, driven by competition from alternative suppliers and increased adoption of smartphones and tablets, leading to a shift in customers’ buying behaviour. Merchants have responded by increasingly offering transactional websites, with all of the national merchants and larger regional merchants now offering services such as click & collect. The shift to e-commerce and multi-channel offerings has helped ‘traditional’ merchants defend their market share against competition from internet-only distributors.
The internet is also increasingly being used for price comparison, with installers seeking the best deal possible. This is putting pressure on prices as well as creating a demand for greater price transparency, which is being reflected by some merchants with greater use of fixed pricing.