John Campbell, the owner of J.C. Campbell Electrics, which won the Best Independent Retailer Award in the Domestic Appliances, Small category in the IBA 2010, told Anna Ryland how independents should sell what they are best at – their service.
Ulster-based J.C. Campbell Electrics was founded by John Campbell’s father in Coalisland (40 miles west of Belfast) in 1974. He worked as an electrician for a local firm before going into retail. John has “grown up with the business” helping his father after school and during holidays so following his footsteps was “a natural thing to do”. Over the years the family extended and renovated the store and now it has 6,000 square feet of retail space. “We wanted to create an environment in which people will be comfortable – with enough space to walk around and look at the products. It is a far cry from the original shop where products were stacked on top of each other and three people in the television section made a crowd,” reminiscences John.
Out of town trading
John opened his second store in nearby Cookstown in October 2008 to capitalise on the opportunities offered by a fast-growing ‘retail capital of mid-Ulster’. “We hoped that having a branch there would take some custom from the Coalisland shop which already received many customers from Cookstown, and we would gain a lot more custom from towns further north. Thankfully, this is exactly what is happening.”
Both stores are located out of the town centre, benefitting from their own parking and a substantial retail space (5,000 and 6,000 square feet).
“Having been here for some time we’ve built up a reputable name so people make an effort to find us. However because we have a good display people also come to us to see products and to use our knowledge and then go online to buy them.”
J.C. Campbell Electrics sells both white and brown goods, with domestic appliances accounting for 65% of turnover. The company also does electrical contracting for local electricians. They sell accessories for white and brown goods together with spare parts for domestic appliances. A team of engineers is contracted out to service their customers. “We stock entry level products to be able to compete with supermarkets but we don’t promote them to the customers.”
The company’s customers range from young couples preparing their wedding lists through families and landlords renovating their properties to older people. “We have some customers who have been with us since 1974 and we greatly value them, as customer loyalty is now a much more precious commodity than it was before.”
John explains that the electrical market in Northern Ireland is unique in a sense that there are not too many multiples around so the company’s direct competitors are other independents.
The company offers free delivery and installation within Northern Ireland. “We would like to keep it free as long as we can but with fuel and other costs going through the roof we may have to change this policy.”
John sells warranties. “I believe that it is very important that the customer is offered an opportunity to extend the warranty – not only because it brings profit to the business but it also gives customers peace of mind. If the customer cannot part with the whole sum, we suggest monthly payments.
J.C. Campbell Electrics employs 15 staff, 13 of whom are full time. Their ages range from early 20s to 50 plus. “We have a very good team spirit and I think that this helps to retain the staff,” says John with satisfaction. “Some of our staff have been with us over for 15 years.”
Customer service is key to the success and reputation of the business, that’s why John not only invests in the staff training but monitors their performance in terms of service and delivery. “Every couple of weeks we call our customers to enquire whether the product is working well and about their customer experience – right down to the point of delivery. No matter how positive the customer experience in the store was, if the delivery guys left a bad impression, this customer will never buy from us again. “
John believes that manufacturers should provide more training, particularly in-store training. “I noticed that if the staff are well trained on certain products and know their features and benefits, they sell more of them. If manufacturers invest more in training they will definitely get the benefit of it back.”
The challenges of the internet
“We try not to talk negatively about the Internet to our customers; after all everyone uses it. However at the same time we are trying to sell ourselves; pointing out that we can deliver products today or tomorrow, and give them in-store demonstration. We tell them that we’ll help them to get the right product for their needs. If they buy a 42in TV panel and find it is too large for their home we can change it for a 37in model.
“This year when difficult winter weather disrupted Internet deliveries we reaffirmed our promise of the same day or next day delivery and got the business.”
John says that 2010 was a difficult year but J.C. Campbell Electrics managed to maintain the same level of business. Yet, he believes that in the downturn independents should focus on their strengths. “In the current climate we should be proving what we are good at instead of launching ourselves into new unchartered territories.
“We must learn to sell ourselves better – our customer service, the knowledge, the back-up, delivery and installation – instead of being hung up on price. We need to reaffirm to the customers that we are here to stay.”
John Campbell believes that his main competitive tool is his customer service together with the skills and knowledge of his staff who delivers it. However “adding extras to a sale also helps, such as an extra bag for a vacuum cleaner, extra year of warranty etc. We are also trying to sell customers a complete package so they can be thoroughly satisfied with their purchase. For example, a Blu-ray player should be sold with an HDMI cable. We always try to offer the customer a choice of add-ons, explaining what benefits they will give them.
“The size of our stores is also an advantage since we can display a wider range of products than some of our competitors. Customers like to see a selection of products before making their choice.”
Winning in IBA 2010
John fully recognises the benefits of winning the Awards for the reputation of his company and the long-term prospects of his business.
It has helped him to bring his company’s name to the attention of the local community. “We informed the local newspaper about our win and paid for three weeks of advertising. It worked very well for us as our ads appeared on alternative weeks to the news coverage about us. First there was a brief report about us winning the Award. This was followed by an interview with us and more in-depth information about the Award itself. Next came another report on how winning the IBA helped our business. The reports were interspaced with our advertisements. This kept us in the papers every week for eight weeks.
“We also prepared a cheeky billboard saying ‘We thought we’d give ourselves a plug…’ about our win – and received a very good feedback from it.”