If there is one thing we have learned throughout the Covid-19 crisis, it is that we are all ever more reliant on technology.

From grocery shopping, to Netflix binging and from online banking to webinars and Zoom meetings, there can’t be many of us who haven’t thanked our lucky stars for the internet.

Conversely, anyone with products to sell who didn’t have an ecommerce platform, will have really felt the pressure of lockdown.

Robust, industry specific software has undoubtedly helped the merchant sector steer its way through these uncharted waters and the systems providers have been proactive in their efforts to keep their customers afloat.

The software providers have had their own challenges, of course, but being more used to remote working than some other industry sectors, they have adapted well.

“We already use cloud systems for our internal operations, so getting everyone working remotely was straightforward,” said Ian Oldrey, managing director of Ten-25. Phil Davies, commercial manager at Border Merchant Systems said all its staff had been working from home since lockdown began and that all its internal systems could be accessed remotely.

“There have been a lot more Microsoft Teams meetings,” he said. “I think staff are missing the personal interaction of being in an office together, although working from home does have its compensations.”

In terms of how their respective customers have coped, the system providers all stepped up to answer the call – literally.

“Initially we had a lot of requests from customers regarding remote access to their CounterAct system,” said Border’s Phil Davies.

“Now that merchants are back trading our support department is as busy as ever.”

“Through April our help desk had very few calls because a number of our customers had closed their doors,” said Ian Oldrey, Ten-25.

“But since then every merchant I have spoken to that has reopened is flat out busy. We have been making sure those that need it have VPN access and can work from home, although those who were already on our new UT400 cloud system could work remotely anyway.”

The systems themselves have had to be delivered remotely, too.

“Our traditional professional services model for delivering IT systems is for a consultant or trainer to go to the customer’s site and be there for a period of time,” said James Mitchell, managing director at Kerridge Commercial Systems (KCS). “Clearly that’s not been possible so it’s been done remotely and this has proved to us and the market that this is actually very possible and desirable.

“And it’s actually a good way of doing it because the merchant can keep their day job going at the same time as focusing on an IT change project. We’ve found that delivering the training in two-hour sessions is actually more efficient for all parties.”

He thinks the ‘go live’ delivery and bite-sized online training sessions will continue post-Covid and says the company’s consultants have been equipped with offsite capability.

Likewise, Ten-25’s implementation work is happening remotely.

“There are big changes to the way people are working and we need to react to that,” said Mr Oldrey.

The fact is that, having adopted this new way of working, many will never return to the old ways. This has led to new demands on software providers, who have accelerated their product development in response.

Epicor Software, for example, says it is adapting to the changes and has christened this new era “The New Now”.

“We have looked to equip our customers with the right resources and tools needed to build resilience against these unpredictable external factors,” said Mark Fear, Bistrack territory manager.

“Many of our Bistrack customers have reprioritised projects,” he added. “Our staff have recognised this shift and spoken to customers to see what they can do to help, whether that be in terms of sharing knowledge and expertise or looking to provide businesses with solutions that are more aligned to their needs at this time.”

KCS notes that customers’ reactions to the pandemic have spanned the spectrum.

“Some are cautious about making IT changes because they are very focused on their business and making sure it survives,” said Mr Mitchell. “There are others who have used this time to make the changes they’ve wanted to implement for some time and we’ve had some good wins. It’s been a mixed bag.”

Ten-25 has also picked up new business in the last few weeks – including Global Timber Products and Drenagh Sawmills – and Ian Oldrey agrees that the picture varies. “Some customers are saying ‘we’re flat out, heads down and we need another couple of months to get clear of this’, while others have found the few weeks under lockdown gave them the opportunity to step back and look at the strategy moving forwards. We have a lot of demand at the moment, which is fantastic.”

Phil Davies at Border agrees that the Covid-19 crisis has accelerated trends that were already in play.

“The move towards online trading is an example of that,” he said. “Customers that have good trading websites integrated into CounterAct have certainly seen the benefit [see p28]. We have a lot of customers now interested in click and collect. Anything that makes it easier for customers to buy from you and takes administration out of the process is worth exploring.”

The overriding direction of travel is digitalisation and this, said James Mitchell, “has driven the change and accelerated two to three years’ worth of evolution into three months”.

“Businesses that have thrived during this period are those that have had well organised processes of ecommerce through their own business or supply chain delivery,” he said.

“Those companies have seen a multiplefold increase in their ecommerce capability and actually have had a good time during lockdown.

“Those that have suffered are the ones with no ecommerce at all apart from a rudimentary website and, more importantly, no background processes and tools to support ecommerce for delivery or click and collect.” KCS has brought forward the development of some of its software and now has a suite of web products, which are easy to use and deployable in a matter of days. Key to these products is that they are fully integrated into the K8 enterprise resource planning (ERP) software.

The new products include:

• K8 WebShop: a standalone web solution targeted at small to medium businesses with limited web trade;

• K8 WebTrade: an integrated solution for B2B business only, with live product feed from K8, targeted at small to medium businesses that wish to deploy a trade solution only

• K8 WebPro: an integrated solution for B2B and B2C business, which replicates products to web CMS, combined with additional sales content.

KCS also offers K8 Amazon Connector, which enables sales orders to be imported from the Amazon market place, provides electronic support for shipment from the Amazon delivery centre or local inventory and provides stock level and order status updates to the platform. Coming soon with be the K8 eBay Connector.

Meanwhile, K8 eSales allows remote sales staff to place orders on behalf of customers, reduces the need for paper (and physical contact) and provides immediate access to stock and pricing information.

And K8 ePod allows for deliveries to be planned in branch and enables a driver to download the manifest to their device and to be guided to each drop, using maps if required. It also allows for the delivery to be confirmed once on site.

Ten-25 is also taking its customers on the ecommerce journey and is “firmly behind online retailing as an essential part of business moving forward”.

“We are achieving that by linking the UT400 system into external webshops,” said Ian Oldrey. “We are developing a very good relationship with eCommonSense, which is a business with a merchant specific webshop. It is a very capable platform that is producing great results for people.”

He added that Ten-25 is linking this to both its old generation system, UT360, and the latest iteration, UT400 and has a number of customers putting it in place at the moment.

UT400 has seen 18 months of intensive development since it was launched in 2018 and has morphed from a system suitable for merchants with a relatively straightforward unit product requirement to one with a great deal more detailed timber functionality.

“So, things like forward contracting capability, better pack handling, location control,” said Mr Oldrey. “As functions have become more available it has opened the system up to more of our customers. We have recently been able to offer the new system to hardwood merchants and agents who, from a computing point of view, have more advanced requirements.”

Aside from Covid-19, other factors influencing Ten-25’s software development have been customers using a variety of financial packages alongside their trading system.

“UT400 is making it a lot easier to link into those financial packages, so as well as using Sage, they can use Xero or QuickBooks, which are good, inexpensive cloud systems.”

Other features that have gone in to UT400 include forward contracting, enabling costs in different currencies to be applied to timber shipments, that can be tracked.

“We have done a lot of work around pricing and price management – trying to make good, pricing tools that are easy to use and allow the customer to upload price lists easily from their suppliers so they can compare them and find the cheapest source possible,” said Mr Oldrey.

Epicor has introduced a number of key new features and enhancements over the past year. “AP Automation helps customers to streamline their accounts payable processes, whether in the office, or remote, avoiding physical paperwork,” said Mark Fear.

“Supplier Rebates maximises and optimises revenue from suppliers, especially when targets are tight.

“Finally, Bistrack Delivery is particularly relevant in this New Now, allowing customers to deliver a touch-free service, obtaining electronic signatures as proof of delivery, as well as the capability of taking images as a means of receipt of goods.”

Border Merchant Systems releases two updates per year to its customers as part of their support contract.

“That way our users know that their system is constantly evolving and keeping in line with current registration,” said Phil Davies.

“The change to online VAT submission direct from the users accounting system was a good example of that. It was our job to make the necessary changes to CounterAct, thoroughly test them, implement them on customer systems and then show our customers how it works.”

Just as ecommerce has become mainstream, so terms like augmented reality (AR) and artificial intelligence (AI) have become less ‘Minority Report’ and more of a reality. At KCS’s last Hackathon – a 24-hour IT brainstorming session – its programmers were asked to focus on AI and how it might work for merchants.

“The team that won came up with some pretty neat AI around stock replenishment and stock recording algorithms and that is probably the area in the short term where the merchant is going to get some quick wins,” said Mr Mitchell.

He added that sophisticated algorithms had allowed merchants to make sensible predictions on what they should be ordering based on what had happened before but that this new project brought external factors such as the weather and public and school holidays into the equation, enabling them to look forward in a way that wasn’t possible before.

“Developments like this will definitely come into thinking for the product portfolio,” said Mr Mitchell. “And AI will also be used for support around our customers – building up a knowledge base of problems so that when a merchant types in the issue they are having the system searches that knowledge base for potential fits for answers and then relays that back to the customer.”

Ten-25 counts developers with games industry experience among its ranks and AI is very much on its agenda.

“AI is something that can look at the strategic side of the business in terms of things like stock management, stock levels and forecasting demand,” said Mr Oldrey. “It can take the raw data that is generated by systems and start to apply more nuanced interpretations on what actions should be taken.

“I don’t see that AI being taken to a level where it supersedes the people who know and run the business but I do see it working as an adviser.

“We have had a lot of tools previously where you could do a number of things any which way you wanted, which is very powerful but also potentially quite difficult for people to be able to pick up and use,” added Mr Oldrey.

”We have been building analysis into the system which does a lot of number crunching under the hood and then what gets presented to the user is a relatively straightforward set of numbers and a metric for them to work from. I think the same is true of the AI approach – you won’t see it directly but you will find the information presented to you as a user of the system will be cleaner and simpler.”

AR is a little further off down the development track. Ten-25 has some “game-changing ideas” on how it can be used, while KCS thinks it could be integrated into an ERP in a “secondary supply chain management” capacity.

“If you are looking at a building project, you might use AR to show you what it will look like and you might also look at the materials you want to use,” said Mr Mitchell.

“That could lead to a database search for those materials on the market.”

Tablet and smartphone use has also become much more widespread and app development has continued apace.

Border Merchant Systems says apps are “slow burners, rather than game changers” but reports that its mobile app for stock checks has gained a lot of traction in the last 12 months.

Epicor also notes a shift in people using apps and smartphones and says that its Bistrack app meets users’ needs when they don’t have access to a desktop computer.

“Our software is designed to look the same across all platforms, so users enjoy the same experience no matter what device they choose to access the platform from,” said Mr Fear.

The dark art of forecasting has become a little darker since Covid-19 struck but software providers are adept at seeing the opportunities within the challenges.

“As we move into new routines, I see challenges becoming opportunities for businesses to survive and thrive,” said Mr Fear. “Customers are continually looking to drive efficiency in their business and we need to support them to take advantage of this change and get ahead of the curve, working in a more agile and streamlined way.

“It is key that the right systems are implemented to help businesses monitor this curve and the people that do this better are those that have digitised their business.”

“This is a tremendous point in time for everyone to have questioned how they run their business, what they do and what it can potentially be in the years ahead,” said Ian Oldrey. “There is a good shift towards online trading and that is a powerful change for the merchant businesses we deal with.

“The world has changed and businesses need to be a lot lighter on their feet. Having good information at your fingertips is essential.”