Passionate about sound

In Features On

John Hutchison has been actively involved in championing the interests of the independent sector not only as retra president but also by frequent participation in various industry forums. Most recently he has proved that at present one of the key success – and survival – factors for the independent is staff training. At a time when many companies struggle to survive Hutchinsons Hi-Fi & Vision recorded a sales increase in excess of 17% for the six months between January and June 2009 compared with the same period last year.

The making of Hutchinsons

John began his professional life as an apprentice electrician. “But I found out that dust disagrees with me and after four years I moved to electrical retail, starting in Civic Stores in London,  before setting up my own business with a partner in Gloucester in 1973. I started from putting up aerials, buying second hand televisions, repairing them and renting them out.” In 1986, he began trading independently as Hutchinson Hi-Fi & Vision in Cheltenham.

At present the company has four stores: two in Hereford – a Sony Centre and a Panasonic store and two stores in Cheltenham, Hutchinsons Hi-Fi & Vision and Panasonic shop – which are staffed by 27 people. “We’ve got staff who worked for us for over 20 years but we also have people who have been with us for just over a year. We are trying to retain staff by making their job enjoyable.” Since 2008 the company has used George Morton of Top Level Solutions not only to deliver staff training but also to deal with a variety of staff-related issues.

John’s Hutchinsons business was founded on his interest in audio. “Proper hi-fi – this is what turns me on. But opera is my passion. Wagner and Beethoven are favourites. This is why I couldn’t work in just a TV shop. The sound is at the core of people’s lives – whether this is the tone of voice of people closest to us which best expresses their emotions or the radio which older people love to listen to. The most emotional experience you can have is to close your eyes and listen to a good piece of music. That’s why I am in this business.”

Customer base

The customer base of Hutchinsons’ are people in their late 30s and older. “Not necessary affluent but enthusiastic about sound.  These people just got away from financial restraints and have more disposable income to indulge in whatever they enjoy,” comments John. “They’re mostly men. We are very conscious, however, that we need to involve women in the purchasing process as they will protest when they suddenly see huge speakers arriving on their doorstep.”

John believes that audio customers are more loyal. “If they buy a hi- fi from you, they will come back for a set of speakers and then for an amplifier. This is an ongoing relationship. I have customers who have been with us since 1986.”

John predicts that the audio market is going to grow in size and significance.  “We are rapidly moving into exciting areas of audio as the capacity of broadband and of personal audio is increasing. Shortly people will be able to download all their favourites in an uncompressed format. Once people have this facility again they will be interested in high quality audio systems which can play music of the same quality as the one in which it was recorded.”

George Morton adds: “This is why in the long term we are looking into turning the shop into mainly a hi-fi store.”

Winning service

John has received several industry’s accolades for its customer service.

“We are making sure that our customers cannot get better experience than in our store. We are trying to exceed customer expectations. But we never make silly promises which we cannot deliver. For example, I won’t say – we will deliver by 10am because I cannot be sure of this. I will say we will be between 10am and 1pm and surprise them by arriving at 10am.”

Staff training

The company has employed George Morton to teach Hutchinson’s store’s staff ‘people’s skills’. George explains: “Approximately 80% of retail staff are young people between the ages of 18 and 25. On the other hand the age of customers of independent stores is 50 plus. That’s why we need to give them skills to handle these customers, teach them empathy and help them to understand older customers’ needs. So my training focuses on neuro-linguistic programmes and body language as part of sales skills.”

Last year the company also invested in a new service facility in Hereford.  This has enabled them to offer repair facilities to customers that purchased brands that they do not sell and accept servicing for consumers who have a Domestic & General extended warranty. The company also offer servicing to other retailers who don’t have their own facilities.

Hutchinsons has been a member of retra for many years but recently John has also joined BADA (the British Audio Dealers Association) as multi-room installations become more common and BADA runs good training in this area.

John dearly wishes he could change manufacturers’ attitude to training. “All manufacturers offer us incentives to advertise their products, but no one is willing to support independents to train their people. We have proved that you can increase your business by focusing on staff training, but manufacturers don’t see this.”

The X factor

I asked John what he considers key to making his business successful. George Morton offered an answer: “John Hutchinson is one of the most passionate men I have ever met in this industry. His passion is the key to his success. He is always thinking about his business and his staff and how to improve them.”

John adds: “I needed George to get Hutchinsons to the level where we have never been before. It’s my wish to be the best in the country. Will we achieve this? – the time will show but I will try my hardest.  We have a very good understanding with George and work well together as a team so perhaps we will get there.”

John has always had another asset at his disposal: “I have been very lucky having my wife in the business with me from day one. Being a highly intelligent woman, she understands the business well so I can leave many things to her and concentrate on what I am good at.”

The biggest challenge

John thinks that the internet still remains the greatest challenge for the independent. “My business has to make profit to exist. The internet has introduced the chase for the lowest price. Everybody knows the price but nobody knows the value. If we all are supplying the cheapest price we will not have enough money to employ people to run the business and satisfy customers.”

Beating the competition

John Hutchison believes in total focus on the customers his business serves. “We beat the competition by simply being the best but I can look after my 5% well of the local business. I cannot give best service to 100% of the market with my resources, but I can look well after my 5%. If I try to beat Tesco or Currys, I will fail.

“We make sure that the people who work for us know and believe in this. We teach them to approach the customer with good knowledge of the products, and with full honesty offer them the right products for their needs so they feel that we look after their interests.

“When I have been approached by a customer saying that we were the first shop they came to I’ve always said that I rather wished that we were the last one so they could compare the offers and see how good were were.”

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