Strength in numbers

Monday 7th of February 2022

The IPG is a membership organisation for local independent plumbing and heating merchants, providing members with the resources, marketing support and purchasing power to enable them to compete with larger national enterprises. PHAM News recently visited The IPG’s offices in Littlehampton, West Sussex, to find out more about the operation and why it believes it can also offer benefits to plumbing and heating engineers.

Since its foundation in the summer of 2013, The IPG has worked to enhance the relationships between small, independent plumbing and heating merchants and industry manufacturers and suppliers, to the mutual benefit of all parties. Now the group aims to focus on the customers of its merchant members – professional plumbers and heating engineers – with a view to providing extra value to all parts of the supply chain.

The brainchild of Robin Beal, who took up the role of chairman in January 2020, The IPG’s main mission has been to help its independent merchant members to compete with the buying power of their national, multi-branch competitors. However, much more than a buying group, the organisation also provides several other services for its expanding membership, which now stands at over 200 stores and bathroom showrooms.

“We do a lot more than a typical buying group,” explains Robin. “We offer business advice, we build websites and provide members with digital screens and marketing support. We also collect a lot of data on behalf of our members and suppliers.”

Branding identity

Observant tradespeople may have seen The IPG branding appear in their local merchants as, over the last couple of years, the group has undertaken a dual-branding exercise with a number of its member outlets.

The first three flagship stores were unveiled in 2019, in partnership with Newline Plumbing & Heating Supplies in Kingswinford, Gas & Plumb Bits in New Milton, and Plumb Inn based in Enfield, and now there are over 30 dual-branded merchants around the country.

“That’s really important to us, because if we’re going to be talking to the trade and driving footfall into our stores, there needs to be a joined[1]up approach,” says head of marketing Nike Lovell. “When customers visit their local merchant we want them to be able to identify that they’re part of The IPG.”

Different needs

Many of The IPG members are family-owned, often with a history that spans more than one generation. Being independently minded, it is accepted that some members might be resistant to the idea of introducing dual[1]branding, but it is hoped that they will soon be convinced by the benefits that closer ties can bring to their business.

“The nature of our members is that they’re all independent and they have different needs and criteria,” says MD Glenn Fisher. “Some would be particularly good at social media, for example, and don’t need any help with that. But one of the most important qualities of many of our members is their positive attitude, and it’s up to us to open their eyes to opportunities.”

There are clearly benefits to being part of a larger group when it comes to negotiating deals with suppliers, but there are also other advantages in gaining access to networking events and taking part in exclusive product promotions and joint marketing campaigns. A growing number of members are also recognising the benefits of promoting The IPG brand.

 “Many of our members are really close to their customers,” says Robin. “They have very good working relationships and therefore it’s a bit easier for them to sell The IPG story than for someone who might be a bit more distant from their customers.

 “But we also want to back the right businesses,” he adds. “We only want to associate the trusted IPG brand with good, dependable and solid companies. People who visit an ‘IPG Store’ must have the right experience as you find with other groups such as Best Western hotels, or even franchises such as McDonald's.”

Information gateway

Access to accurate information and data is vital to any modern business, and all of The IPG members are able to take advantage of an online portal. The portal, which continues to evolve since it was first launched in 2017, enables members and suppliers to track spending and view invoices, rebates and turnover information.

Members are also able to use the portal to manage websites and upload content, both online and on the in-store digital screens. The IPG also manages a central database of supplier product data which is regularly updated to ensure the accuracy of information and prices.

Sales drive

Since first setting up The IPG nearly nine years ago, a key part of Robin’s strategy for success has been to re-invest profits back in the business, providing the funds which has allowed the operation to regularly come up with initiatives to drive more sales for members and suppliers.

“We are committed to encouraging communities to support their local independent plumbing, heating and bathroom specialists, where alongside unrivalled service and unbiased, honest advice, a customer is likely to find that their shopping basket is cheaper,” he explains.

Spreading the word

As well as the attraction of quality products at good prices, there are plans to drive footfall with more marketing initiatives, such as The IPG loyalty cards and social events. As head of marketing, it’s not surprising that Nike Lovell is a strong believer in the importance of good communication.

“There are lots of ways we can talk to the installer, but we obviously have very low brand recognition right now and our aim is to change that,” she says. “We then want to make sure that when a tradesperson goes into an IPG location, that they’re going to walk out with one of our supplier’s products and not someone else’s – so that’s why it’s important that we provide key messages on the digital screens located in our stores. Ultimately, though, it all comes down to making sure we have the right quality of product offering at the right price.”

2022 looks set to be a busy year for The IPG and, if all goes to plan, many more plumbers and installers will be aware of what it has to offer come the end of it.

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