Although this year’s Independent Hardware Group Expo was held virtually, it brought together more people from the group than ever before to learn, make deals and celebrate their best.

Last year in February, an auditorium full of people gathered on the Gold Coast to talk hardware and deals, catch up with friends and celebrate success. A few wondered how the virus being talked about on the news was going to play out, and practically no one suspected it would be their last major get-together of 2020.

Fast forward to 2021 and this year’s Expo couldn’t have been more different. Entirely online, it saw just under 200 suppliers set up their virtual booths on a custom platform designed by the Independent Hardware Group (IHG) in conjunction with online events specialist vFairs. It included the traditional IHG business sessions and learning labs, plus supplier webinars and, of course, the 2020 IHG Awards of Excellence.

Members could enter chat rooms to talk with vendors, book times for sales reps, gather up documentation or just take advantage of the many special offers available. And, for the first time, every staff member at every store could visit the Expo and see what it has to offer.

“We made the decision to ‘go virtual’ in about August last year,” says Bridget O’Connor, IHG communications & events manager. “We chose our platform provider carefully and then worked at pace with them to build the system that could deliver good returns for our supplier base and value for the members.”

It was a risk for the suppliers: traditionally virtual events are thought to return a lower return on investment than face-to-face ones. but, as you’ll read below, it was a risk that paid off handsomely.

The preliminary wrap-up showed record sales in excess of $24.5 million (2020’s figure was $19 million) and almost 2900 store and supplier delegates registered, over 1000 attendees more than any previous Expo. As O’Connor says, “The beauty of an online event is it opens Expo up for more people within the store to experience it than ever before – from owners, to department managers, all the way to floor staff and truck drivers. Members have spoken about the huge amount of supplier and product info that’s accessible from a virtual event as being a big benefit of the event switching to online and the ease of gathering this info and having it in their inbox for follow up.”

The business side

IHG CEO Annette Welsh, who took over the reins around Expo time last year, welcomed delegates to the event, thanking suppliers and members for all they’d done to get through a remarkable year. She described how hardware, and particularly DIY had been one of the very few industries lucky enough to experience record-breaking growth in 2020.

“Luck or fortune is one thing,” she told the members’ business session. “Being determined to stand up and work together to ensure the safety of our people, our teams, our consumers and our communities is what we saw: everyone focused all their efforts on delivering.”

The devastating Black Summer bushfires were remembered and it was acknowledged that those in affected areas had had no time to recover before Covid and then lockdown hit. The stress that put on many people was recognised. At the same time, there was enormous pride as she spoke about the Group aiding individual member’s shift to Click’n’Deliver models that kept customers safe and let stores keep trading.

“This year has surprised us all, presenting opportunities that may otherwise have taken many years to transpire or perhaps have never come at all,” Welsh said. “It caused a change in habits, driving consumers back to their local stores and when they were there they rediscovered what that hardware store can do for them and they fell in love with it.”

These themes were expanded on by Geoff Harris, general manager merchandise, who pointed out that while the particular living conditions imposed by Covid may be partly responsible for the strong trading figures seen by many stores, it was the previous work done by members and focus on service that led to success.

In exciting news, Harris shared that the 100th Sapphire store opened last year at Womersley’s in Sorrento, with plans to expand the IHG store transformation program to 300 stores by 2025. The other major IHG project, the whole of house strategy, is also on track with research showing builders are turning to IHG stores for increasingly large percentages of the standard house build. Kitchen sales alone were up 45% this year.

“A big part of the rapid sales growth is in outdoor kitchens and our outdoor range is second to none,“ Harris told delegates.

Karen Fahey, general manager marketing, talked about IHG’s dual brand strategy and the support for all members to find their best fit within the model. “We were genuine [at the start of the strategy] that we didn’t want to leave anyone behind, and for that reason, we’ve moved at a pace that was more evolution than revolution,” she said.

It’s a plan that has a pipeline of stores waiting to undergo Mitre 10’s Sapphire transformation and more keen for the loyalty programs, TV advertising and e-commerce support of the main brand, while Thrifty and True Value stores now have the opportunity to ‘brand up’ to Home Hardware.

“Together we’ve established ourselves as a force to be reckoned with,” Welsh concluded. “We are family that knows that our members matter, their community matters, their staff matters and their future matters. And the fight for them is always worth it.”

Demographer Bernard Salt returned for the keynote address, after his famous ‘smashed avocado’ talk in 2019. He pointed out the demographics and research indicate a very positive future for hardware: “What we’re involved with in 2021 is not just the recovery of Australia, it is the rebuilding of Australia and the creating of stronger communities and the creating of better housing,” he said.

History gave reason for optimism, he said. After the chaos of the early 20th century and the calamity of WWII, people put trust in their government and just wanted to settle down and create better versions of their home and life. That period lasted well into the 1980s, only changing in the 90s; since then we’ve lost faith in political parties. But the coming of Covid has shifted our thinking. Salt said, “I know there’s a lot of people who have not been happy with our political leadership, but the vast majority of us have actually been happy and placed our faith in the leadership to make the right decisions.”

Happy attendees

The proof of the virtual pudding was, of course, in the attendees. And although not everyone felt the same about online versus face to face, there was a general consensus that the event provided good value for those who recognised the opportunity.

Simon Heron, national account manager for Airco Brands, was happy to declare it “the best expo we have ever had in mainland Australia. Because we could put all our typical logistics costs – which run into the many thousands to attend an in-person expo – into savings for members on deals.”

A total of 238 IHG members ‘sat’ with the Airco sales team at their virtual booth, some four times the usual number. Heron says, “This expo ran for a full week and that really helped our sales team sit with the members in their own offices, go through the deals in their own time and really understand the value in what we were offering. So for us it just ticked every box.”

The result has been five times more sales coming out of this Expo than in the average of the previous three.

“After a year of being on Zoom and Teams, we’re fairly used to being online,” Heron says. “Once the team understood how they could register and be working away at their normal tasks while still being available online for the chat room, they relished it. In fact, I had team members logging in when they weren’t even scheduled to, they just loved the interaction with their customers. There’s no doubt that if we could choose one model for future expos it would be virtual.”

Bernie Coad, national account manager for Cyclone Tools (part of AMES Australia, which includes brands such as Hills, Northcote Pots and Supercraft) saw both upsides and downsides. “It was challenging in some aspects,” he says. “Probably not as stressful leading up to Expo as it has been in previous years, when you’re designing stands, travelling, getting your stand there, building it and stocking it. But there was a lot that was unknown. We went from a physical, hands-on interactive stand to something that is very much not all that at all.”

Coad and his team adopted a flexible approach. In the period leading up to Expo, the team’s salespeople set up meetings with their top accounts and there was a roster with sales staff from around the country for the virtual stand, “Because if you’re from SA, you like to talk to a salesperson from SA,” Coad says.

Very quickly they realised this was not the most efficient use of their sales team. Happily, their approach meant they could change overnight. “We put the account management team and our coordinators online, so visitors could talk to someone immediately, and took back about 15 days-worth of time for our sales team around the network, which put them back into the field.”

There was strong support from existing customers but, to Coad’s delight, the online deals book and special offers – buoyed by travel and stand savings – had another upside: “We opened up over 40 new customer accounts thanks to our deals,” he says. “That was something we hadn’t thought about as being a possible outcome, but it’s a great result. Hopefully we can keep and expand those relationships.

“Maybe there’s an opportunity for the next Expo to have some sort of hybrid approach for those members who physically can’t get away from their business so they have a virtual process they can jump into.”

WA’s Paul Brown, manager at Margaret River Mitre 10, missed networking in person and also found an unexpected difficulty. “When you’re away from the business, you can concentrate on what you’re there for,” he says. But he found it hard to prioritise the virtual event over the day-to-day business of the store. “Hardware’s just flying now, so how much time off the floor can you justify to yourself? WA time made it a bit difficult as well; Expo was well underway each day when we were just coming to work.”

There were solid benefits, though. Brown found the early listings for the deals to be a big plus, allowing his team to pick and highlight deals and suppliers before Expo began. “We could weed out some of the suppliers that don’t deal with WA, for example. The staff member who orders our furniture could list what she wanted instead of relying on what I relayed to her.

“I watched Bernard Salt’s talk together with my trade manager, my trade rep and another team member and when it finished, we had a bit of a chinwag about what insights we could pass on to the builders we’re dealing with. We’re in Margaret River and we see a lot of people from Perth moving down here and renovating their houses to put an office in, just as Salt was saying.”

Watching the Awards ceremony online was nailbiting as Margaret River was a finalist in the Large Format Store of the Year category. “The owners were here and we had a round of beers at three in the afternoon. Everyone else was still working, so I only had the one, but I was going to have more if we won! As it turned out, I know the winners, Jeff and his son. I said to my staff, just to win the state award is a fantastic thing and some of these stores we’re up against, they’re the benchmark, so they make us lift our game. I was more than happy for them to win it!”