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RXUK TOP500 Screwfix Sue Harries: “Time is money”

Image © Screwfix

The newly published RetailX UK Top500 2024 report features an exclusive interview with Sue Harries, digital, proposition and data director at Screwfix. It covers how the Elite retailer puts the customer firmly at the centre of its strategy – and what that means in practice.

“Time is money,” for Screwfix customers, says Harries. That is perhaps never truer than when the customer has a prized parking space outside a client’s house in London and does not want to lose the space by driving to pick up supplies. 

This was the scenario recounted by a plumber at a recent Screwfix listening session. “Having the van outside the customer’s house is like having an office outside the customer’s house,” says Harries. “They didn’t want to lose the space in the day by having to go out to get parts and come back and then struggle to park.”

For that customer, says Harries, using Screwfix’s Sprint 60-minute delivery service to get necessary items meant “winning” over the whole day. The service, introduced in 2021, is used by a variety of tradespeople for a variety of reasons, from having supplies delivered when using the London Underground to travel to a job to dropping off the supplies needed to finish off a project the same day.

The anecdote comes as a “delighted” Harries speaks to RetailX in an interview marking the fact that the trade counter business is this year named in the Elite category of the RetailX UK Top500, marking a triumphant return to the top rank for the Kingfisher Group company. 

So what’s the secret of Screwfix’s success? Harries says that at the heart of the Screwfix strategy is a simple concept. “Everything we do starts and ends with the customers,” she says. “Most of the success that we’ve had has been built by putting the customer at the forefront of the business. Our tradespeople require reliability and certainty, both in terms of access to products but also the quality of the products.” 

In practice, says Harries, that again means: “Time is money. If they’re not working on a job, they’re not earning money. So part of our business strategy is to optimise to that concept that time is money for them. So convenience is super, super important. We know they need to get their jobs done quickly, affordably and right first time, which is part of the DNA that we build a lot of our service and proposition by. Part of that strategy is actually making sure that we have a Screwfix store nearby. It’s super-critical that customers have access to same-day products.” 

The retailer now has more than 900 stores in a network that has been built by opening, on average, one store a week for the past ten years. In 2005, the retailer had about five. Its medium-term ambition is to have a thousand. 

Harries says her top piece of advice is: “Listen to your customers.” She continues: “If you’re not thinking about your customer, you’ll be designing solutions and experiences that don’t really meet the customer’s expectations or solve any pain points they might have”. That means listening to customers through dedicated sessions but also watching how shoppers use Screwfix’s services in practice. Her second piece of advice is “done is better than perfect”.

It’s a philosophy that means the retailer can better learn from customers by taking an agile approach to putting its technology in their hands as quickly as possible in order to learn from their feedback. “We can sit and think about it in the office, but the best way to do it is get it out there in front of customers and see whether they adopt it or not.” 

Fast shift to digital
It’s a strategy that has been met with a fast uptake of digital shopping in recent years. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, around a third of Screwfix sales were online. Yet during the pandemic, digital became the only channel, with sales fulfilled through delivery and collection from stores that became fulfilment hubs. While many retailers have seen digital participation slip back following pandemic peaks, Screwfix’s participation rate remains high.

Today, about 75% of sales are digitally enabled – carried out through its website, app or the more than 4,500 instore digital browsers that were installed in its stores since the pandemic started, following the decision to stop the Screwfix catalogue. This was actually a significant step for a business that was founded as a catalogue business in 1979 before being acquired by Kingfisher Group, in 1999. 

Kingfisher Group reported a pre-tax profit of £611mn (-39.3%) on sales of £13bn (-0.9%) in its most recently published annual financial results, for the year to 31 January 2023. Within that, the Screwfix business reported sales of £2.4bn (+1.6%) and Kingfisher’s UK business, including Screwfix and sister DIY retailer B&Q, reported a retail profit of £603mn (-24%). 

Screwfix’s mobile app is now its fastest-growing channel, with more than 4mn downloads since its 2021 relaunch, when it was upgraded with features such as 60-minute Sprint delivery and store check-in functionality, which is used by shoppers collecting their online orders. 

Screwfix is now firmly focused on meeting its customers’ ever-changing expectations. Its priorities remain on its digital transformation, where it is using data science to inform online recommendations, although sustainability has also come to the fore.

The retailer labels sustainable products, refurbished products and works to keep them in use for longer through its recently acquired eSpares business. It has also run a very successful influencer campaign that won more than 12mn views via TikTok and Instagram thanks to a choice of influencers that “really resonated” with the Screwfix customer, as both they and tradespeople dance along to Break My Stride, the 1983 Matthew Wilder hit. 

‘A powerhouse of opportunity’
Given that our conversation comes as InternetRetailing marks the tenth year of RetailX reports, I ask what changes Harries would pick out from this decade as being the most significant at Screwfix. The move to mobile, the 60-minute delivery service and the shift from shopping offline to online all feature, as does an increase in the overall numbers of SKUs in the Screwfix range, to 57,000. But it’s the move from five-minute to one-minute click and collect that seems to push the frontiers of what’s possible. 

This has been enabled, says Harries, in part thanks to Screwfix’s catalogue roots. “We’ve got a single view of the customer, we’ve got a single view of stock and we’ve got a single view of orders,” she says. “All our order-taking platforms run off that single view. There’s no lag, everything is real time or near real time. So when a transaction instantly hits our stores for picking, we can do it in under a minute. 

“Our stores are set up like a warehouse. So when an order goes to a colleague, they are told the location for them to go and pick. We’ve got 900 mini warehouses and lots of colleagues who can pick the order really quickly. Then it’s there for the customer if they choose to collect it within a minute and we really do see people sitting in the car park ordering on their phone, then coming in and say, ‘I’m here to collect,’ and then they shoot off if they’re busy. Even if there’s a queue.” It all adds up to a business that Harries says is “one of retail’s best kept secrets”, especially so when it comes to attracting digital talent to its Somerset headquarters. 

“You know, we’re an absolute digital giant with one of the biggest retail digital platforms in the UK,” she says. “But we’re relatively unknown when it comes to digital talent. When you ask people if they have heard of Screwfix, they think, ‘Oh, it’s a shop.’ But actually, there’s a massive powerhouse of opportunity for people to build a career here for digital and technology.”

This interview was conducted by Chloe Rigby, it features in the RetailX UK Top500 2024 report.

Download the full report for the latest ranking of the best retailers in the UK, as well as:

  • Analysing the UK Top500, why are these retailers so good
  • Measuring performance:
    • The Customer Value Chain
    • The Product Value Chain
    • The Operations Value Chain
    • The Capital Value Chain
  • Company profiles: Amazon, Ikea, Next, Asda, Dunelm, Boden, Richer Sounds & Very

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