The independent voice

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The principles of retra have not changed since 1942. Bryan Lovewell, retra’s chief executive, told Anna Ryland how the association managed to maintain its original ethos while staying at the cutting age of technology and political debate.

This year retra celebrates its 70th anniversary. The association was formed in June 1942 in remarkable circumstances. “This was the middle of the war, at the time when Britain was losing it,” explains Bryan Lovewell.

­“John Smith who was running his shop in Sheffield decided that independent electrical retailers should have an association to act under one banner in these difficult times. He became the first president of what was then RTRA – Radio and Television Retailers Association. This name was used until the 1970s. The voice of the association was the Council which works in the same format today. The Council members meet four times a year at 13 centre meetings – which are conducted under the authority of the Council members.

Throughout its history retra has been involved in the industry’s key developments.  “When the first television was launched to the masses in 1940s, retra was at the forefront of its promotion. Two decades later the association was pushing the benefits of colour television. retra has also played a very active role in the digital switchover, and now the association is heavily involved in radio switchover.”

Since 1947 the association published a monthly magazine which charted the fascinating history of the industry. A glance at the 1947 issue reveals that a London shop making under £6 a week paid its staff 102 shillings a week, but outside the capital the recommended wage was only 87 shillings – and female staff was paid less than this. On the second floor of the retra offices in Bedford retra’s annual journals are kept for posterity.

The membership organisation

“In 1942, there were nearly 2,000 independent electrical retailers while today we have 1,200 members trading from 1,800 sites. Although the number of members diminished over the years, their companies became bigger. For example Robert Hughes have 47 stores and Peter Mann used to have ten shops.

“The change in the industry happened when Currys and Comet went national. Gerry Mason, sales and marketing director of Comet, came back from the States with the idea of opening big warehouses that offered discounts. This was the beginning of discounting. The internet and supermarkets joined the cycle. Many of the members now have internet retail facilities but retra does not accept into its membership pure online retailers.

“Retra offers a wide range of B2B services to its members that range from better credit card rates, insurance policies for buildings, contents and vehicles, through extended warranties, to our legal helpline. retra is a non-profit making association that works like a coop – if there is any surplus it goes back to the membership, subsidizing its training, the subscriptions etc.

“Although the principles of the association have not changed since 1942, there were fundamental changes to the way we operate. For example we offer a variety of training courses through Top Level Solutions – including sales skills training, negotiating, management training – for everybody at every level. We even do training for delivery drivers – helping them to deliver, install new appliances, remove the old ones and leave the best possible impression on the customer.

“To our centre meetings we added supercentre meetings that often incorporate exhibitions. The annual retra conference has changed beyond recognition. This year’s event was a milestone, with over 300 delegates and an exhibition in which 28 of our associate members took part.

“Five years ago when I’ve joined retra we had 35 associates – now we have 97 associate members that range from very large manufacturers such as Sony, Panasonic, Samsung and Miele, to small companies such as accountancy partnerships that offer their expertise to our members.

“The benefits of associate membership include access to our members, opportunities to participate in centre meetings and the annual conference, the involvement in the Alert magazine.”

Changing times

“From the members’ point of view the most significant change to retra occurred when in the early 1980s when the association decided to enter other product categories beyond brown goods. This reflected the fact that traditional brown good retailers started selling domestic appliances. A similar change took place couple years ago when independents began taking on small appliances.

“The recession had a huge impact on retra’s membership. In 2012 alone, we lost over 100 members, some of whom were well known names, such as Peter Mann or Jacobs Cameras. We have five reps on the road looking for new business but one wonders what’s going to happen to the high street in next five years unless local authorities start revitalizing it.

“Our members have to become more techno-savvy using technology to their advantage. One of the weakest links is the conviction of some of the retailers that the computer age is ahead of them. That’s why we have introduced retra Install. This market is a big opportunity and our members are perfectly positioned to handle it.

“Ironically, the recession also had some positive effects. Retail staff is much better trained now they were before and retailers became savvier managing their stores. The recession forced us to run our business more professionally. We are becoming leaner and meaner. Those who will survive will be much stronger than before and their children will not be reluctant to join their fathers’ business.”

The voice

What is the greatest strength of the association? I ask Bryan. “Without doubt, it’s its ability to identify the problems of the industry and report them without fear or favour. We are not beholden to anyone. We are the voice of the independent retailer – both to the industry and the government.

“All the association’s functions are important but it’s that voice and the strong direction – given by the Council – which are our greatest assets.

“The five years spent in retra has been a tremendous journey for me personally, which I greatly enjoyed. But I had to constantly remind myself that I have to upkeep retra’s original ethos and make sure that the association is relevant in today’s marketplace. We have to be at the cutting edge of the technology, political debate and the industry’s developments.

“Next year we will launch retra Photographic – a new division for photographic retailers, who will include such independent players as London Camera Exchange Company and Wilkinson Cameras. The following year we are planning to launch retra Kitchens – for independent kitchen specialists who are attracted to our B2B solutions. We are looking at new target markets that have synergies with what we do. Perhaps retailers of mobility equipment will join us as well. We also talking to DASA and we already have 56 service engineering companies on board.

“There will always be a place for the independent as long as they can keep ahead of the game. They will need an association to support them and speak with one voice on their behalf.”

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