John Lewis of Bedford

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The electrical independent Michael R. Peters has been building its name in Bedford since 1966 when Michael and Mary Peters started their electrical retail business with £1,000. A year later they employed Derek Anderson as a service manager and he is still with the company today. In 1982, Michael Peters took over the neighbouring Tavistock Sound and Vision store.
In 2000, the company opened a cooker shop across the road from the store, which was moved to the side of the store once adjacent premises were vacated. Now the three businesses operate side by side: the original Michael R. Peters with CE and DA appliances, Tavistock Sound and Vision and the Bedford Cooker Centre. The company also has its own in-house service department.
The business is managed by Paul Mead, who having spent 26 years with the company, was appointed the MD of the Group in June 2007 after the death of Michael Peters.
Michael R. Peters’ way
What’s special about Michael R. Peters? “Customer service,” says Paul without hesitation. “It is a difference between just selling a box and having a relationship with the customer; which in our company includes a call to check that everything is OK after the product has been delivered and installed, followed by a thank you card a week later.” Perhaps it is not surprising that 70% of Michael R. Peters’ customer base are return customers.
The company’s customer service policy is encapsulated in one sentence: ‘If we don’t take care of our customers, somebody else will.’  They even go one step further: “If we don’t deliver the service to our usual standards we will send the customer an apology with a box of chocolates or other small gift.”
The professionalism, service excellence and the company’s commitment to training, helped it win a number of awards. In 1999, Mike Peters won the Sony/Retra Dealer of the Year title, in 2002, the Bedfordshire Small Business of the Year award and in 2004 the Federation of Small Businesses UK Merit Award. In 2004, the company also became the first electrical retailer in Britain to be given Trading Standards Approval for Sales and Service. At this year’s Independent Marketing Awards, the Michael R Peters Group won Best Customer Service Award.
Efficient delivery is a part and parcel of customer service. The company knows its role in winning the custom. “I think we have the fastest delivery in Bedford. We have two delivery crews and we can make a delivery to the customer at a drop of the hat. We guarantee the same day delivery if the customer comes before 12am. We do morning and afternoon deliveries, however, if there is an emergency we can deliver straight away,” explains Paul. “Recently our guys have arrived at the customer’s doorstep before he returned home from our store. We are thinking about advertising our delivery terms on our emergency van.”
The core of Michael R. Peters customers come from the BC socio-economic group and the majority of them are over 40 years old. “One of our challenges is trying to pull younger people from the PC screen and the internet,” explains Paul.  When young customers come for accessories for the products which they may have bought on the internet, the staff tries to impress them with their product knowledge. “We have also become skilled at challenging the views of some customers in the form of friendly banter – to give them a feel that we know what we are talking about.”
The most important asset
The winning customer service is delivered by a highly professional and committed team. “We are lucky at Michael Peters working with people who have been with us for a long time.  The store employs 12 staff. Our service engineer has been with us for 41 years, and another member of staff has worked for the company for 26 years. The average length of service is 16 years.”
What’s the secret of such staff retention? “We make sure that our staff feels appreciated. For their birthday we send them a birthday card and ladies also get a bunch of flowers. We also send birthday cards to the children of our staff, and on the anniversary of them joining the company they receive a card and a £10 M&S voucher.” The company has a newsletter and a company handbook which spells out not only what the company expects of the employees but what they can expect of the company.
They also take staff training very seriously at Michael R. Peters. Sales skills training is conducted by a specialist consultant while most of the product training is done by manufacturers’ reps although a few times a year the staff attend product training courses. 
Challenges ahead
The company is clearly very experienced in managing customer relationships – a skill which may prove crucial in the current economic situation. However, what do they see as their greatest challenge at the moment?
“Downward spiral of prices is the main threat to the electrical independent. Although our cooker shop is doing very well, the rest of the company is making the same sales as last year but our takings are smaller. This industry is shooting itself in the foot by constantly talking about prices – the posters in every multiple store and at some independents scream price cuts and discounts.”
As many independents do, Paul feels strongly about price cuts for the sake of market share. “The top quality brands such as Sony or Panasonic should not be competing against the £500 panel manufacturers.”
He would like to see more of a level playing field in terms of pricing where people sell on their service “because this would sort out the wheat from the chaff. There is always going to be the internet and people happy to make £5 on the box, but if customers are educated to understand that there is value attached to the service, they may have a different attitude.”
The independent-exclusive brands, such as the recently introduced CIH’s own brand, Finlux, would help independents to become more competitive. However, Paul believes that they should be more effectively communicated  to the customers – in the same way as John Lewis promotes its own brand. “For example, the Gorenje brand which has a lot of mileage and it’s not in the sheds, is a good brand for the independents.”
The X factor
When the credit crunch starts biting and affecting customer shopping behaviour, independent retailers should become more creative in their marketing. The late Michael Peters had a particular talent for this. On hearing that the local council was to stop funding community buses, Michael spoke to the relevant council officials,  and, with some help from the company, eight buses now run around Bedford, carrying Michael R. Peters’ logo.
However, the attitude is equally important according to Paul: “In the present market situation, a big challenge for retail staff is to remain positive because this will carry us through the recession.”

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