Creating a superior retail experience

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Wiltshire-based independent retailer H J Knee, owner of two department stores, has decided to open an electricals-only store in order to broaden his customer base and to offer them a first class buying experience.

Established in 1879 by Henry John Knee, the family-run business currently operates two department stores in Trowbridge and Malmesbury. The decision to open an electricals-only store was driven by the success of the electricals department in the Trowbridge store.

Jonathan Knee, a great, great grandson of the founder, is the company’s general manager. He told IER that despite the layout of the existing 2,500 square feet electricals department, the company has made a success of it.

“In three years, Ian Vidler, the electricals manager, has pretty much hit every target I have ever set,” Jonathan says.

“Electricals has been one of the success stories over the last few years, which has given us the business confidence to invest in this category.”

Recently, H J Knee was one of two former members of the Sirius Buying Group to join Combined Independents (Holdings),

Marcus Holbrow, managing director of H J Knee, said: “We felt that joining CIH would better serve our company, especially with the expansion. “The key benefits for becoming members of CIH are its buying power and the better margin that we will be able to attain.”

The business has a number of reasons for deciding to move electricals from the department store to the new store. Jonathan says: “The existing department store has a very awkward shape and although the electricals area is in a prime location – on the ground floor by the main entrance – the department is stretched out. “You can have a customer at one end, and all the staff at the other. We are looking to create a modern retail environment and with that are looking to tap into a new customer base, by giving them a taste of what we do best, which will introduce us to new customers. Our new store represents a significant investment, but we realise that to stay competitive and attract new customers, we needed to invest for future generations. We are expanding electricals into a more suitable environment and are also looking to advance into new product areas.”

Measuring 6,500 square feet, the new H J Knee Electrical Superstore is due to open later this month and Jonathan says the main aim is to create a retail experience.

“That experience includes the customer getting what they want or need, at the right price, but it also includes service,” he adds. “We are not just selling products; we are selling an experience.”

Jonathan cites a rival independent electrical retailer, as well Comet, an Argos Extra and a Tesco Extra as his main competitors; but he also points out that customers travel from as far afield as Dorset, Gloucester and Somerset.

Currently, sales of electricals account for 25% of turnover within the H J Knee business, and Jonathan says he expects electricals to account for 50% of turnover within three years, which, essentially means doubling the electricals business by 2014.

The project started 12 months ago and in that time, a great deal of work has taken place in the building, which was owned by the family, but stood empty.

“In the last 12 months, we’ve put a new roof on the building and undergone a substantial building project,” Jonathan says. “You need to look after your assets; otherwise their value will decrease at a rate of knots – whether the business is successful or not.”

Looking forward to the store opening, Jonathan says: “Independents are perceived as being expensive and old fashioned – what we are creating is something that challenges that; a modern retail environment with fashionable, up-to-date products, for the young and old.

“I believe we can change that perception – but it might not happen overnight.”

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