Delivering service with a personal touch

In Features On

Scottish electrical independent Colin M. Smith is the winner of the Best Independent Retailer Award in the Domestic Appliances, Large category in the IBA 2010. Jonathen Smith, the company owner, told Anna Ryland how important personalised service is in the age of the internet.

Colin M. Smith operates four stores near Dundee. The main branch, and the largest (3,500 square feet), with warehousing facilities and a workshop, is situated in Forfar. The remaining stores – in Arbroath, Kirriemuir and Dundee (Panasonic store), are between 1,000 and 1,500 square feet large. All four are located some distance away from the main street and offer parking facilities for the customers.

The business was founded by Jonathen’s grandfather Colin Smith in Kirriemuir. In 1973 Jonathen’s father joined the business and in 1974 he opened the shop in Forefar, subsequently moving to larger premises in 1988 before relocating to the current store in 1997.

Jonathen came into the business in 2002 with plenty of retail experience gained in the Panasonic shop in Aberdeen, first on the sales floor and then as an assistant manager.

Jonathen and his brother Roland, who are business partners, are the third generation of Smiths who make a living from electrical retailing. Together with Craig Mitchell, the general manager of the company, they run the four stores as a team, with Jonathan’s father in a consultancy role.

Colin M. Smith sells both white and brown goods – with domestic appliances accounting for approximately 60% of turnover and gradually taking a larger proportion of sales. Panasonic and Sony are its main CE brands. On the white goods side, the company deals with Bosch, Beko, Indesit, Hotpoint, GDHA, Neff, Siemens and Fisher & Paykel – “to match every customer budget.” The company also sells accessories, mostly for brown goods, such as Peerless and Vivanco brackets and AV furniture.

The company has 12 service engineers dealing with consumer electronics products, while servicing of white goods is done by local service agents.

Colin M. Smith’s competitors are the Scottish Hydroelectric store which sells electrical goods and other independents. “I see their presence as a good thing because rather than driving to a large city like Dundee the customers have a wider choice locally.”

The team

Colin M. Smith employs 30 people, with 18 staff working in the main Forefar store. Their ages range from 17 to 61. “The longest serving employee has been with us for 45 years. Four of our service engineers have over 100 years of combined service,” comments Jonathen. “We have a good working environment and a good team. We also try to help them in any way we can on a personal level,” he adds.

Jonathen believes that training is essential to keep staff motivated and on top of their game. “We had two retra training sessions conducted with George Morton in our store. Shortly our staff will be going on Panasonic training.

However I’m also planning to develop a tailor-made in-store training for our staff to address their particular needs.

“In my opinion, hands-on training is most effectve, that’s why when new products come out, such as new cameras or camcorders, I encourage our staff to take them home and use. This allows them to get to know them well and speak about them with confidence to the customers.”

Customer loyalty

“We have quite a loyal customer base because we have been in the area for over 40 years. The majority of our customers come from the local towns and the rural communities around them.

“Our average customer is over 40. However, my brother and I, being in our thirties, are trying to attract younger people to the stores – our friends and colleagues. We also noticed that the children of our long-standing customers are using us. We are making a conscious effort to bring down the average age of our customers by stocking such brands as Apple. No one apart from us within a 20-mile radius sells Apple iPods.

“The fact that we can deliver product the same day or within 24 hours gives the company a lot of loyal custom among the rural community. Farmers don’t have time to stay at home waiting for a delivery. The issue of trust is key here; they leave houses open for us to do the delivery and installation and we only pop in the next day to check whether everything is working well. Some of our urban customers also leave the key to their properties with us for the delivery.”

“We are trying to assist our customers in any way we can and we are always encouraging them to come to see us if they have any problems or need advice. As a result quite often customers ask to speak to me personally. I am always present in the store, in the background listening to customer conversations with the staff, assessing what service needs they may have and how well our staff deals with them.”

Jonathan attributes the success of the company to the hard work and dedication of his father. However the fact that the business continues to be successful is due “to a personal touch”. “It is important to have one-to-one communications with the customers and be willing to deal with their enquiries, however bizarre they may be. It is also important to give customers the belief that you can help them 24 hours a day and deliver the goods whenever they need them.”

Beating competition for Johnathen is “offering a good service over and above customer’s expectations; for example surprising the customer with a next day delivery.”

The challenges

“Continuing to get the customers through the door by offering them the right products for the right prices,”is an increasing challenge for the independents, believes Jonathen.

More than before he has felt the impact of the recession during the last few months – especially in December 2010 and February 2011 when the footfall in his stores clearly declined.

He regards the internet as a challenge but one that can be met with the right approach. “If the customer really wants the product they are prepared to listen to us. It is also very important while handling such customers to get away from the price and establish their needs. If the purchase is urgent we offer them the same or next day delivery. I also point out that internet price doesn’t include installation, removal and disposal of on old product. You can also ask them: What would you do if the product doesn’t work well? If you bought it from us you can call us.” He wishes that manufacturers’ distribution policies would be more transparent; “sometimes it feels that manufacturers tell one story to independents and another to multiples”.

Winning the Awards

“We were pleased to win the Award and we keep it prominently displayed on the counter in the store.”

Jonathan informed the press about his company’s win and received editorial coverage in the Dundee Courier – the major regional paper – and in the local paper. Seeing it, one of the company’s loyal customers commented “that he was not surprised that we won the Award because with the service we provide we deserved it. That was nice to hear,” concludes Jonathen.

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