It’s rare to interview someone who has been in a new position for a mere three months but has an intimate working knowledge of the business they are appointed to head. But this should be no surprise when the person in question is Mark Allan, new General Manager of Don Ruffles. Although he had worked with owners Michael and Tracey Knight for around 15 years through his previous role as Senior Business Development Manager at Nemo Office Club, he has been in our industry for three decades.
Owned by the Knights for more than 25 years, the company’s appointment of Allan comes as the pair look to step back gradually from the day-to-day running of the business. Since its inception, Don Ruffles’ core business has revolved around office machines. Seizing a gap in the online market, the first website – shreddingmachines.co.uk – was registered in 2000 and over the past 20 years, has sold over £40 million worth of shredders through the site. This equates to around 20% of all commercial shredders sold in the UK.
The reseller capitalised on the introduction of GDPR a few years ago with its comprehensive range of shredding equipment and vast expertise in identity theft, corporate fraud and industrial espionage. Allan maintains that the need to keep information and documents secure and compliant continues, although hybrid working has resulted in a slight shift towards smaller shredding machines for homeworkers.
Today, Don Ruffles has eight specialist trading websites – e-lectric.uk, shreddingmachines.co.uk, furniturerunner.com and theppeonlineshop.co.uk, droffice.co.uk, saferunner.co.uk, officemachines.net and rufflespackaging.co.uk. “[Michael] has always been good at identifying opportunities. For e-lectric.uk, which currently lists e-scooters, there are plans to feature innovative solutions from the technology sector. This will take the business into new areas outside of traditional workplace supplies,” says Allan.
Riding out the storm
It is a knack for sniffing out potential avenues of business that stood the reseller in good stead during the pandemic. When COVID-19 first hit, the company leapt at the chance to sell infection control products along with signage, PPE, sanitiser and test kits, and did extremely well.
Foresight has led to the introduction of new product lines and the capacity to capitalise on current workplace trends. For instance, once the initial surge subsided for items such as masks, the decision to add ‘traditional PPE’, including workwear, to theppeonlineshop.co.uk helped to offset the expected decline in COVID PPE sales.
Importantly, this rapid response has also boded well for Don Ruffles following the shift to hybrid working. Fewer people in the office have led to a dip in paper, shredding and other categories like breakroom – all of which have dropped out of the top ten purchases. “Thankfully, we have ridden this particular storm and are now turning our attention to other areas such as the furniture sector,” notes Allan.
Acknowledging the difficulties of purchasing furniture online without the ability to ‘try before you buy’, the company’s filter system enables users to select different attributes for items which change the products on-screen with each choice.
Says Allan: “The newly re-developed furniturerunner.com website has been loaded with features to really help customer choice and ease their purchase journey. The incredible innovations developed by our website partner and SEO guru, Chris Avery from Chrave Technology, have quickly resulted in the highest conversion rates of all our websites, way above industry standards. We are now working with major furniture suppliers to enhance the listings.”
Despite its status as one of the industry-leading e-commerce resellers, it doesn’t go it alone. Don Ruffles has been a member of Nemo Office Club for 20-odd years and leans on the group for support on marketing, general advice and networking, and benefits from the purchasing power of BPGI.
However, buying direct is the dealer’s preferred option as it can determine which products are most suitable for its customers. But, notes Allan, close relationships with the wholesalers are still a must. “JGBM is fantastic for our office machines business, and we currently utilise VOW Wholesale via Office Power for traditional business supplies. We are also talking with other distributors to help expand our product ranges.”
With around 90% of sales transacted as a result of the specialist webstores, customers are wide and varied. This is the beauty of e-commerce, remarks Allan, and although many non-tendered orders come in from government entities, going for tenders is on his list of things to do. One of the unexpected consequential benefits of applying for government contracts is that it has been an excellent learning curve. “This process has ensured we have ESG policies and standards to strive for and exceed.”
Keeping it local, social and sustainable
To bolster this, a standalone website encompassing sustainable products is in development. Allan believes passionately in sustainability and intends to provide a carefully curated and evaluated product selection – a critical aspect following a few greenwashing incidents. “It’s early days, and we are still investigating the foundations required, but sustainability is key to growing the business. We are increasingly being asked for our ESG policy and it is becoming more imperative for dealers to provide one.”
On the social responsibility side, Allan was part of the original team at Nemo Office Club that developed the Keep It Local campaign during COVID (read Close to home on page 26 for more on Keep It Local Week). It’s another project he is enthusiastic about.
Recognising the irony of being predominantly an e-commerce business while simultaneously promoting ‘buy local’, he firmly believes Don Ruffles can still be involved. “We’ve supported over 2,000 businesses in the Reigate area and are adapting our prospecting campaigns to drill down for information on local buyers,” comments Allan. With this level of detail, the team can target those purchasers and tailor marketing communications around the benefits of buying locally. “We will be involved in the Keep It Local Week. It’s important to us and aligns with our CSR guidelines on contributing to the local community.”
The dealer is keen not to be seen as just another ‘faceless’ online portal and aims to ensure every potential customer touchpoint is covered – both online and offline. Says Allan: “The sales team is phenomenal in terms of their knowledge – especially in office machines and shredders – so if someone wants to ring up and place an order, we’ll input it for them. I’ll even plug in a fax machine if necessary! It all boils down to whatever is easiest for the buyer.”
It’s all about the data
A few changes have been implemented to make the customer journey more intuitive, namely, a revamp of the original static ‘home’ website – Donruffles.co.uk. This has included the addition of a ‘News’ section to support information and products from suppliers as well as the recent introduction of separate Facebook pages for several of its websites to build the brand on social media.
Aside from all this, the main focus is on harnessing the company’s existing data to its full effect. Allan believes most dealers don’t utilise their customer data properly. He also notes that although Don Ruffles has some listings on Amazon, the company prefers to maintain control of its proprietary data – and out of the clutches of the online giant.
To compete against Amazon and other major competitors, Don Ruffles has developed proprietary price scraping tools to collect competitive pricing data, enabling it to continually adjust prices and find the ‘sweet spot’ to sell at the ‘right price’.
With all this intelligence to hand and a database of 104,000 “happy customers”, the dealer equally faces the prospect of too much data. But, says Allan, with the right plan and software, it is a veritable goldmine of information. As such, the company is now benefitting from a marketing and prospecting strategy for retaining and growing existing accounts and chasing new business and will be migrating to an innovative platform powered by AI.
While Allan won’t state which platform, he reveals it will provide automation software for multichannel marketing campaigns using e-commerce data. He explains: “The behaviour-based software will learn buying patterns and trends, so the more data we input into the system, the more it will teach itself. In the current business climate, it pays to work smarter and the software will help us to become more proactive instead of reactive.”
The dealer’s ultimate aim is to reach 1 milion+ products across all websites – up from the existing 65,000 – aided by ongoing enhancements of its PIM system to fully manage and maintain all aspects of product data uploads. The plan is to revamp each site in collaboration with major suppliers, providing them direct access via PIM to ensure their products have the best chances of success. The team is looking to the next relaunch, the Officemachines.net website, which will be rebranded as Officemachines.co.uk.
Says Allan: “It’s about obtaining unique data for each and every item. Otherwise, we don’t get found online, or it’s at vast expense through Google Ads.”