One step ahead of the game

In Features On

Tavistock Sound and Vision, is one of the late Michael Peters’ companies, renowned for their customer service and retailing excellence. Paul Mead, managing director of Tavistock, told Anna Ryland how during the age of the internet, a local independent can stay at the heart of its community.

Paul Mead, managing director of Tavistock Sound and Vision and Michael R. Peters is not a stranger to receiving industry awards.

In June 2008, he collected the IMA Best Customer Service Award on behalf of the Michael R. Peters store. This year Tavistock Sound and Vision won the title of the Best Small Consumer Electronic Retailer.

The origins of Tavistock date back to the 1930s when it operated as a bicycle shop in the centre of Bedford. In 1982, Michael Peters who ran Michael R. Peters store next door bought out his competitor but never amalgamated the two companies together. “For many years people in Bradford didn’t know that he was the owner of both shops,” explains Paul Mead. “Michael Peters did this initially to uphold the differences in the way both business were run and to keep the competition between the staff in two stores.” Tavistock is a consumer electronics retailer while Michael R. Peters deals with both CE and DA brands. Between two shops – they support five major CE brands. “Even now the management culture in both shops is distinctly different,” adds Paul.

Paul Mead started working in Tavistock in the early 1980s as a part-time Saturday assistant, while still at school. In 1985, he became a shop manager. After the death of Michael Peters in 2007 Paul was appointed the MD of the group.

Tavistock sells only Sony and Panasonic products and deals with both manufacturers directly. Custom install is an increasingly important part of the business. “Custom install is a king at the moment – it gives independents a good margin as it’s not difficult to manage.”

The group has 13 employees. Tavistock has five members of staff and it shares delivery and service engineers with Michael R. Peters. “I work with wonderful people,” says Paul. “The majority of them have been with us for a very long time. Some for as long as 28 years. I like to think that we look after them well and value them. We give them really good training – using George Morton’s Top Level Solutions. Also every year they receive an anniversary card with a gift to remind them of the time they joined us.”

The majority of Tavistock’s customers are 55 plus. “Generally once customers experience our service they stay with us. Although we may be a fraction more expensive than the sheds, they appreciate what they get from us and they recommend us to their friends. We get a lot of world-of-mouth business. Some of our customers are our old friends: they have bought everything from us and their children have started doing the same.”

Winning service

The company offers same day delivery. “If the customer comes to the shop in the morning telling us that their TV has failed, they will have a new model installed the same afternoon. Multiples started offering next day delivery, so we offer the same day delivery. We are always trying to be one step ahead of the game. “

At Tavistock, customer service knows no bounds. 

Paul recounts: “Last week we sold an elderly gentleman a Roberts radio. When he was leaving I told him; if you have any problems don’t hesitate to call me. His wife was in the hospital at the time, he left the radio on and the batteries went flat. He called me saying that he doesn’t want to leave his wife without radio the whole weekend, can we help? I took the batteries and a pair of headphones and went to the hospital to see the lady – who was chuffed to bits. Our customers are not going to get this level of service from anywhere else.”

During the last heavy winter the company’s staff called all its elderly customers asking whether they were able to go out and if not whether they need some bread and milk – which they delivered to those who needed them. “The feedback we received as the result of this initiative was fantastic: people couldn’t believe that we called their elderly relatives to check whether they were all right.”

Paul repeats the old adage: People buy from people. “Success in retail is directly linked to the skills of the salespeople and their ability to establish a rapport with customers. We are lucky to have staff who has been with us long enough to remember the previous customer’s visit even if it was five or six years ago – which almost instantly establishes a rapport. If you can hit the right spot with the customer, and talk with enthusiasm about the product, they will be interested.”

The challenges

Paul admits: “We are now working in a very challenging marketplace. We are keeping up with the brands that support us and maintain margins on their products, such as Roberts. There will always be a place for a strong independent. But we are not very optimistic about this Christmas season. Between 1 November and 31 January we do half of our turnover, and I don’t think we will achieve this result this time.

“Twelve months ago the last independent electrical retailer in Bedford, apart from us, closed down. In the past we had 16 independent electrical retailers in and around Bedford, now there is only us.”

In Paul’s opinion the key problem shared by all independents is the declining value of the products they sell, particularly consumer electronics. “It means that now we have to sell three products to get the same financial reward as we received from one five years ago.”

In addition to pricing, the internet is a challenge. “But we are embracing it. In March 2010, we started our own website and it proved very successful. We don’t trade through it; it is an extension of our showroom, open 24 hours. In March 2010, we had 1,100 hits, in October 2011, there were 92,000 hits. It features a ‘Quote me quick’ form. If people are interested in what we have in the shop they fill in the form and we deal with it straight away or first thing in the morning. We have little klaxons on our PCs announcing the message and we respond to it by instantly calling the customer. In this way we resolve their query before they get on Amazon and look for a cheaper price. Our conversion rate from it is brilliant.”

I ask Paul what motivates him in these increasingly challenging times. Paul answers empathically: “I love this industry and my customers, even those who are a bit of pain. I love the challenge of retail. I always make an effort to find a solution to even the most difficult of customers’ problems.” He describes the example of an elderly lady who at a digital switchover meeting said that the whole process was about exhorting money from people. “I suggested giving her a free digital TV and PVR for a month, so she could use it and let us know how she got on. Before the end of the month she called the store and offered to pay for the equipment saying that ‘it was brilliant.’ I love this sort of challenge – turning a negative attitude into a positive experience.”

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