4 Questions for... Patrice Richard


The Coronavirus crisis has undoubtedly had a massive effect on the distribution segment. Patrice Richard, Director of Distribution Performance, President of Saint-Gobain Building Distribution France, discusses these changes, both temporary and permanent.

How are our distribution businesses doing worldwide? 

The situation varies dramatically. It all depends on the impact of public policies around the lockdown of citizens and restrictions imposed on various economic activities. The Nordic countries are among those doing best, close to their budgets and sometimes even better, which is remarkable. France and Spain are now back to good levels; some brands and regions are even in line with their targets. These are encouraging signs. On the other hand. The United Kingdom has been more seriously affected, because of the decision to lock down was taken later.

In all countries, we are seeing a very sharp uptick as soon as the lockdown ends. We expect to have more or less caught up by summer. On the other hand, there are a number of questions about what the situation will be like come fall, and we must prepare for a variety of scenarios should we see a deterioration.

Because of the COVID-19 crisis, we have had to adopt new working methods and even reinvent certain distribution activities. Do you think this has been an opportunity to bring about faster and lasting transformation in the sector? 

In the Nordic countries and Switzerland, there has not been any sudden change. What was already working well has simply been fast-tracked. Whereas in France, we have seen some spectacular changes, as all employees have been working from home or in outlets closed to the public. It is not possible to imagine everyone working full-time at home; however, a 70-30 split between workplace and home might be possible for support functions. But when you need to bring brains together in a creative process, physical presence is essential. 

In the outlets, employees have had to learn to work differently, keeping their distance from customers. Now, some customers want to stay in a digital environment, others don’t, especially when dealing with projects for which they need advice. Nonetheless, the relationship remains fundamental. Travelling salespeople who visited sites or professionals are now limited in what they can do. We need to offer them opportunities involving more sedentary tasks.

Since the start of the crisis, the various Group brands worldwide quickly introduced new tools and services to maintain ties with their customers (drive-thru, apps, online selling, etc.). Do you think customers’ expectations have changed? How do you see the “distribution of the future”? 

This crisis has been an opportunity to speed up but not totally transform, because developing new customer relation tools was already part of our pre-crisis strategy. Online sales have risen to unprecedented heights, for example, from 5% to 75% in France at La Plateforme du Bâtiment. The use of audio/SMS tools to maintain customer relations has increased five-fold. As our physical outlets re-open, this is tending to drop off somewhat.

“We don't want to become disembodied or distant. Marketplace solutions do not meet our customers’ expectations. Our sales outlets are places where they can get advice, find someone to listen to them and even get reassurance in some cases. We must certainly not lose any of that. On the other hand, we need to push solutions that save them time and are more efficient. If they are to be totally effective, tools, such as SMS, chats, e-commerce sites, etc., must be better aligned on each other. We already have a multi-channel approach, now we need a “cross-channel” one.

Another area that has received a massive boost is data. This crisis completely upended the pyramid of products consumed by our customers, new customers have arrived and others have not come back yet. All this data we have collected needs to be analyzed so we can improve our responsiveness.

Given that health and economic recovery are the priorities, what is the status of our environmental commitments? 

Actually, it is precisely our environmental position that makes our strategy so strong. Now is the time to put our foot to the floor on this. Customers, especially individuals, were already paying close attention to this point before the crisis; they will be even more attentive to it now. We need to continue to provide virtuous construction systems that include increasingly environmentally friendly Saint-Gobain solutions and other products from our supplier ecosystem that are up to the same standards. We are also assisting trade professionals with our training tools, tutorials, loyalty and upskilling programs to help them progress quickly in these areas. If they are trained, if the consumer demand is there and if our solutions correspond to these needs, then it can all go very quickly in the right direction.

Photo credit: © Joseph Melun.