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Marketing for Independent Merchants 101

With digital marketing spend in the UK growing to £35.84 billion in 2022, we consider why independent merchants seem to be reluctant to embrace their “digital branch”


Originally published in Builders Merchants Journal April 2023 Edition (page 26/27) 

builders merchants

What was your favourite television program as a child? Bill and Ben? The Clangers, or maybe the Wombles? My personal favourite was Barney the Dinosaur and then, in later years, Dexter’s Laboratory.

If you’re old enough to remember these, then you’ll remember the days of the printed Yellow Pages and the Free Ad’s newspaper.

You probably still get the odd leaflet drop through the letterbox, but remember when the floor would be carpeted in glossy advertising material every morning (and straight into the bin thereafter)?

Digital Demand

Although we’ve moved on from a lot of traditional marketing tactics, Trade Journal and Hobby & Leisure Magazine advertising still features strongly in 2023. This is because they have so much more to offer the consumer than just adverts. They contain relevant news, help, analysis and guides aimed at their audience’s wants and needs.

However, even these publications are supported by a digital equivalent. Better for the consumer as they can be read anywhere and shared with friends and colleagues, better for the journal and the advertisers as it increases the audience reach, and better all round for satisfying the digital consumption requirements of most of the UK population.

These magazines also embrace social media to reach their customers, because they know that around 84% of us (that’s 57 million people) use social media for an hour or two a day. That’s a 10% increase in the last 5 years. And there’s been a 34% increase in online sales since 2008 – interestingly, those of pensionable age were the biggest growth sector.

It’s not news though, is it? Anyone with an IQ greater than their shoe size knows it’s a digital world, or if not, soon will be.

So given this fact, why do so many smaller independent companies spend a disproportionately low amount, in time and money, in the digital arena?

Your Online Branch

The customer’s need for immediate access to materials for tomorrow’s job, or the “social nature” of meeting liked minded trade for a bacon sandwich, mug of tea and a discount have made the merchant industry a slower converter to the online shopping world.

Note – slower not static.

You may have already taken the leap into the world of eCommerce but have seen a disappointing level of accounts signing up.

There’s a myriad of reasons why an eCommerce site in the building trade may succeed or fail. It could be a poorly designed site, the wrong product set, the fact that the merchant does not have the logistics, nationally or locally, to support it or that the site hasn’t been promoted well.

However, whilst eCommerce is a slower burn for the merchant, surely, a no brainer, especially if you have a fair share of smaller jobbing builders and trade, is to have a customer portal where the client, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week can self-serve their copy invoices, statements, pay off their account and check their product prices for quotations they are producing that night? As a “digital expense” the customer portal not only increases a service level but also helps with reducing your administration, plus provides the perfect draw for clients to visit your website, see what open days you have on, view your special offers and read the latest company news.

Give Them What They Seek

If you haven’t yet invested in eCommerce, but your company “brochure” website features the typical half dozen pages with contact details, about us, meet the team and pictures of your branches, then who can blame your client for only visiting it once (or maybe twice if they forget your phone number or email address)?

Using the example of the trade journals and hobbyist publications - if you want a regular audience, then give them what they seek. Give them product usage guides, promotions, customer portals, local (and local is key for the independent merchants) relevant news articles and case studies.

In its own right, your website should be useful enough to your customer that they keep coming back for more, and attractive, informative and user friendly enough to encourage new prospects to get in touch.

But this brand-new mobile-friendly, beautiful and engaging website simply will not be found by your customers unless you make it easy to do so, and proactively promote it.

There are many ways to promote your website, but they generally fall under two headings; Inbound Marketing (bringing customers to you) and Outbound Marketing (reaching out to them).

From experience, most merchants have a handle on Outbound Marketing. You already have your website URL on your company stationery, your email footer and on your trucks and vans. So today we’ll focus on Inbound Marketing:

checking statistics

Inbound Marketing

Put simply, this is all about attracting your customers to your website or social media pages, with the ultimate goal of having them contact you in one way or another.

It means making your website easy to find, and full of the type of information your ideal customer is looking for.

This is a “slow but steady wins the race” strategy and requires consistency and planning. But it pays off – inbound marketing costs 62% less per lead than outbound marketing and generates 54% more leads than paid marketing.

My top 3 inbound marketing techniques for merchants that don’t need to cost a fortune are:

1. Search engine optimization (SEO)

SEO literally means optimising your website (and other online channels) to help you rank higher in search engine results for relevant keywords or phrases. So, how does it work?

Search engines regard all mentions of your website online as a vote. These votes can be positive or negative, and unfortunately the goalposts are constantly moving.

Techniques are broad, and there are always new best practices, but the basics involve optimising your website's meta descriptions, headers, and titles to suit the words and phrases your customers are searching for.

SEO is also influenced by off-page signals, like backlinks from other websites to your own, social media engagement (likes, shares and comments) and online reviews and ratings.

Bad reviews = negative votes. Google sees this as being a sign you’re less equipped to deal with your customers needs, and puts your competitors ahead of you.

Links back to your website from your suppliers, or trade press = positive vote. Google sees that your website is relevant to the industry and pushes you up the rankings.

It’s not quite a “dark art” but whoever is managing your SEO must be up to date with the “do’s and do not’s” – as Google doesn’t take kindly to those who take advantage of the algorithms.

social media marketing

2. Social media marketing

Social media platforms do what they say on the tin – they’re social, a two-way street, and all about building relationships with your customers. Although the goal of social media for business is usually to drive traffic back to your website, approach it in this way and you’ll get the cold shoulder.

Pick the platforms where your audience spend their time (for merchants, I’d recommend Facebook Groups and Instagram, and build yourself a personal brand on LinkedIn), choose a regular posting schedule that you can stick to, and always use your agreed company voice and branding to become a recognisable face in the industry. Consistency is key here. Posting once or twice a month when you’ve got a promotion on just won’t cut it. Three times a week should be your minimum – scheduling tools are your friend.

The good news is that much of your existing content (blogs, news pages, even product pages or instruction guides) can be repurposed to suit social media.

The bad news - you can’t just post, walk away, and expect the leads to come flooding in. As previously mentioned, social media is a two-way street. Use your company account to reply to relevant posts, show support to your customers on their project galleries, and answer questions in Facebook Groups. Provide helpful, valuable advice and you’ll be the company they turn to when they’re in need.

Most importantly - company social media pages should be controlled by an approved administrator, and your staff, posting on behalf of the company on their own accounts, should stick to any guidelines you have in place.

3. Content marketing

You really can’t promote your site anywhere without creating some kind of content first.

Some actionable examples:

  • Behind-the-scenes: Show the day-to-day workings of your business. Give your customers a sense of your company personality and humanise your business to build a stronger connection with them

  • Create a series of blog posts providing expert advice and tips, or product vs product comparisons.

  • Create a “customer gallery” which showcases how your customers use your products.

Build a bank of educational, valuable or entertaining content, and you’ll always have something to post on the days you’re faced with writers block.


Costs and resources required to meet your customers online are relative to the size and scope of your business, but even a single-site merchant will need to invest a couple of hours’ worth of labour a week if working with an agency.

If you’re planning on carrying out the role internally then 15 to 30 hours a week is a reasonable expectation (excluding any training and courses).

With external marketing agencies quoting between £700 - £1,300 per month (according to many smaller companies may be discouraged from making the decision to outsource.

But the truth is there are hundreds of talented, and qualified, freelancers available that do not have the overheads to fund, nor the corporate customer base to influence their prices.

And with search volumes for building supplies and merchants rising every quarter, can you afford to be left in the stone age?


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