The cowboy builder stereotype may be largely an unfair one, but one enduring element of it that remains true is the prevalence of haggling instead of set pricing.

Construction sector startup BUILT/ plans to transform that model by digitising the customer experience in a mobile-optimised web store that gives builders a better deal.

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Founder Nick Thomas developed BUILT/ because the market for building supplies had yet to undergo any digital transformation. 

The tradespeople were no Luddites in their personal uses of technology, but a data deficit in a complex supply chain, heavy equipment and a reliance on personal relationships had previously limited its application to sales in the sector. 

"The digital behaviours are there, they're just not transferring to their professional lives," he says. "They actually do want to adopt, they just need to be presented with something."

A new generation of builders more familiar with e-commerce and a growing desire for the common retail principle of price transparency convinced Thomas it was now ripe for digital disruption. 

Transparent pricing

Any sale of building materials is always negotiated face-to-face. BUILT/ intends to change that by adding transparency to pricing.

"The traditional marketplace is characterised by a personal relationship between the general builder and your branch manager," says Thomas. "It's a personal relationship, and that’s how the customer develops trust with the brand."

The mass adoption of smartphones has made the old model of negotiating prices vulnerable by giving the ability to instantly search the market for more competitive prices. Builders were increasingly craving consistency in the availability of stock and more transparent pricing to match the majority of other retail sectors.

"The retail basics of range, price and proximity are never going to go away; they’re always the top three things that tradespeople say are important," says Thomas. "But what they all crave is consistency in the availability of stock in particular. They want consistency of service but they also want this transparent pricing.

"There isn’t that much loyalty to the big names. They will say that personal relationship is vital, but you give them something better or something that is cheaper and it will ebb away."

To provide a service to replace this, he first needed to develop an entire dataset through discussions with suppliers.

All of the information on pricing, inventory controls and product descriptions needed to be constructed from the ground up, as such a database didn't yet exist in the industry. When that was completed he was ready to provide a platform to sell the materials.

Developing the business

Thomas previously established a fashion and footwear retail business called which he grew from nothing to a £12 million business with no external funding before selling it to JD Sports in 2013. His next role as e-commerce and multichannel director at discount bookstore The Works led to the development of a scalable multichannel platform that transforming stagnant website trading performance into a thriving e-commerce business.

He then became the group digital and eVentures director at a leading industry player, which now provides BUILT/ with the supporting local infrastructure and relationships to overcome the many barriers to entry into the market.

They helped him build an omni-channel platform on the NetSuite unified cloud commerce platform, which houses all the information for customers, their orders and suppliers in one place to provide a consistent and transparent service. The system shows real-time product availability online and gives shops access to the inventory from anywhere in the business

Builders can source materials on a project-by-project basis by providing transparent fixed pricing online and a choice of how to receive their orders. Customers can receipt order by either delivery or click and collect or just by showing up in store. Builders can set up an online account to review their purchase history and balance and pay their invoices online. 

They can create a project product list online and then visit a local store, where a salesperson can access the list and finish the purchase in store. 

If the builder isn't ready to purchase any items they can instead add them to their e-commerce cart or list and complete the transaction at a later date.

BUILT/ will start small and grow fast when it launches in the UK later this year.

"Our mission is to make the entire purchasing experience as painless and efficient as possible," says Thomas. "Greater convenience and ease of doing business rank among our customers' top priorities."