Giving customers a quality shopping experience

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Shaun Barrett, whose company, Barretts Digital World in Canterbury, won the title of the Best Independent Retailer in the Consumer Electronics, Large category in this year’s Independent Business Awards, told Anna Ryland that the size of the store can be a great advantage but it has to be backed up by first class service.

Few independent electrical retailers can claim an equally impressive business heritage as that of Barretts of Canterbury. The business was founded by Shaun’s great grandfather George who in 1902 opened a bicycle shop. Gradually he added accumulators and batteries to his product range and one day, radios – making the transition to electricals. He also diversified into cars – and this line of business continues today. Nine Barretts car dealerships sell BMWs, Jaguars and Land Rovers. Until 1980s, the Barrett family also sold toys. Their Canterbury store was the largest toy shop outside London.

Shaun Barrett joined the company in 1983 after completing a business degree in London, although he always worked for his father during his school holidays. “I was always interested in hi-fi and television and have never lost this interest,” recollects Shaun. His cousin Paul took over the garage side of the business while Shaun became responsible for the audio visual store.

In the 1980s and 1990s the company also had three Sony Centres – in Canterbury, Ashford and Maidstone – but as the marketplace changed Shaun decided to focus on his Canterbury store.

“With so many different businesses it was like spinning many plates and making sure that they are all spinning,” reflects Shaun. “And the business has changed so much. Even until 1998, when we moved into the current premises at Maynard Road, were weren’t dealing in white goods. Now it is very hard for an independent to survive on brown goods alone – unless they are in a specialist niche. Once the supermarkets and the internet started selling consumer electronics, there are more players wanting an increasingly thinner slice of the cake. So it became the survival of the fittest. There are far fewer outlets than in the past and they are bigger.”

In 1998, the company was relocated from the city centre to a nearby trading estate owned by the council. Since then it has been capitalising on the benefits of the out-of-town location.

Size does matter

The premises of Barretts Digital World have 22,000 square feet, with the sales floor taking 10,000 sq feet. Looking at the spacious, bright and well-designed store with a circular walkway, that encourages customers to move from one product display area to another, it is obvious that size does matter in retail and Shaun Barrett uses it to the best advantage.

His main brands – Sony, Samsung and Panasonic – are well displayed in their own areas. “We also sell Loewe and Bose – its good to have their niche hi-fi and multi-media products which get good exposure in the consumer media. On the white goods side we deal with GDHA, Miele, Bosch/Siemens and Hotpoint/Indesit.”

Consumer electronics account for 65% of the company’s business, although domestic appliances bring Shaun increasing returns. The stunning Miele Centre and a new kitchen centre prove that ample floorspace permits the creation of an attractive buying environment in which all customers can find something for themselves. “Every time a manufacturer brings out new stands, we can put a good range of products on display. It also enabled us to accommodate the kitchen centre. It is still early days but we feel confident following the success of the Miele Centre. Our built-in sales are 106% up this year and the white goods business has increased by 31%.“

Illustrating how the times have changes, Shaun shows his large service room in which in the past worked nine engineers. Now the company has one engineer and two installation teams. “We still do a lot of warranty work for Sony and Panasonic but most of the work we do now is on flat panel TVs and top-end audio.”

In the past, the company ran a rental business. Today rentals take only 5% of turnover but 10% of profits. “Rentals are very profitable, but it’s now a declining business.”

Communicating with customers

Since the company has moved out from the high street, Shaun has restricted his range of products and come to rely much more than before on direct marketing to communicate with his customers.

“Over the years we have accumulated a large database of contacts. There are over 40,000 people on our list, some of whom are very loyal customers. We mail them regularly using loyalty cards and special offers. We structure our mailings by such criteria as size of purchase, overall spend or the date of last purchase. We also use our car dealership databases to target customers with selected offers. Now we spend more money on database marketing than in the local press.”

Barretts Digital World also runs in-store events. They include product demonstrations, complimentary drinks and special offers on the evening. We have cooking demonstrations utilising the latest appliances – like those run by Miele’s home economist – which attract a lot of interest. This year we won the Stoves prize so we have Bryan Turner coming to cook in our store.”

Shaun admits that his customer service is about “achieving the highest customer satisfaction levels we can.” To monitor the progress in this area the company conducts a telephone survey. “The day after the customer makes a purchase we call them to ask what they think about the product and the service they received. Their responses are recorded for further analysis. In the past we sent out customer service questionnaires with postage paid and vouchers but it was a very time consuming exercise. Now we get customers’ response instantly and if there is a small problem the telephone enquiry instantly identifies it and we can do something about it.”

“We sell online but we use our website to back up our in-store activities and communicate all our services. We have a common pricing structure so our in-store and online prices are identical.”

Looking ahead

Shaun believes that 2011 will be a difficult year but it’s not all bad news. “This year everyone is reporting that footfall is down. Our footfall is down but our sales are up. Maybe this is an indication of people doing research online. However it is also a reflection of the work we have done in our store and the fact that we have streamlined our ranges. We are talking to our customers a lot more and are doing more direct marketing. We got meaner and leaner. But also the manufacturers with whom we are dealing have focused more on the independent channel. Also we are seeing the first wave of flat panel replacements.

“For someone who has a business well set up and knows where he is going, the prospects are fair. However independent retailers should realise by now that if things are not working for them, they need to turn their business around or get out.”

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