Good to talk: Chris Payne, Headlam chief executive, says it needs to improve its communication

Like most flooring wholesalers, Headlam has a network of trade counters. Customers can use the locations to pick up orders or purchase products they need in a hurry – adhesives or LVT, for example.

Until recently its existence would have provoked no more than a shrug or a ‘So what?’ from most retailers. But its decision to invest in upgrading and increase the network – from a fairly static level of just over 50 to about 90 – has provoked anger among customers, some of whom say the group is looking to boost its sales to fitters, be they a ‘man with a van’ or not, and even DIYers.

Chris Payne, Headlam ceo, says the group is targeting a different set of customers entirely – the building trade – as it responds to an increasingly competitive market and does not want any direct involvement with consumers.

‘We are trying to get new customers, mainly contract and hard flooring people, while servicing our existing customers, for example click-and-collect for retailers and if the fitter has run out of something. You have to be a tradesperson and the vast majority are flooring related. We are not selling to consumers. Sales we are taking are from builders’ merchants, but retailers aren’t losing out,’ he says.

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Retailers will always offer a greater level of service and choice that others can’t offer, he says, and doesn’t expect this to change, while acknowledging that what shoppers want comes with higher overheads.

Rather than being mini-warehouses, Payne says the trade counters are about offering service and are part of its revamp of its approach to deliveries. Ordering from three different Headlam subsidiaries – regardless of whether that is directly, online, through wholesale or trade counters – should no longer mean three deliveries, and the trade counter is an additional delivery option.

‘Rather than stocking as much product as possible, it is more customer focused on what they want rather than what we have to sell them. Any fitter can set up a trade account and have products delivered to them before they deal with their customers, but that has always happened and isn’t new. Customers no longer need premises or to tie up capital to buy: order ahead, on the way to do the job. Headlam customers will pay the same terms regardless of where they buy – trade counter or wholesaler. We are still delivering a product to a place.

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‘We have had customers who have said, “We’ll buy less from Headlam,” so we try and explain it to them one to one. When times are tougher, people recognise the need to maximise all areas – it’s easier to accept in good times. Most have understood: none have given up their sample books. The business has been passive in communicating with the customer base and what we are trying to do as a business. Sometimes it can come across as a bit cold, but we are normal people.’

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