Built-In Kitchen Appliances in Liverpool has one of the largest white-goods showrooms in the UK, but don’t expect the business to be selling online anytime soon. “We don’t want to be a national retailer – we like to swim against the tide,” owner Steve Woods (pictured) tells Sean Hannam
When I get into a taxi at Liverpool Lime Street station and ask the Scouse driver to take me to Built-In Kitchen Appliances (BIKA), in Anfield, he asks me where I’ve travelled from.
“London,” I tell him.
“Blimey,” he replies. “You’ve come a long way to buy a kitchen!”
Customers might not travel as far as I’ve done to visit BIKA – a 20,000 square foot destination store that’s one of the largest appliance showrooms in the UK – but they are prepared to make the journey from other towns and cities in the North-West, including Manchester, Warrington, Stoke-on-Trent and Preston, as well as north Wales.
BIKA is an impressive retail space. Located in a former nightclub, it’s quite overwhelming when you walk through the door and are confronted with hundreds of white goods – both freestanding and built-in. When it comes to appliances, the store sells everything, including the kitchen sink – quite literally, as it has models from the likes of Franke and Rangemaster on display.
Says owner and managing director Steve Woods: “People are quite shocked when they come to the showroom for the first time. It can be a bit overwhelming – that’s the effect we want. We have the biggest brands and more of anything than anyone else.
“We’re big on range cookers, built-in and freestanding – we try to cover all the bases. Our USP is we try to supply everything for a kitchen, minus the woodwork. We sell sinks and taps and waste disposal units. We’re different from a normal white-goods retailer.”
Offering a good, better, best philosophy, the shop sells a wide variety of brands from entry-level to mid-market and top-end.
“We’re a big showroom – most of the brands want to be in here, so they’re very supportive in terms of training and displays,” says Mr Woods.
The store is largely laid out in shop-in-shops, including a Smeg Zone, a Miele Centre and a Siemens iQ Centre, as well as branded areas for Neff, Bosch, AEG and Belling, Stoves and Britannia, among others.
“That’s the concept of the showroom – all the big brands that we trade with will generally all have their own zones and areas,” he says.
“We have all the major brands and we try to give them good areas and spaces – we really want to give them a good cross-section of their ranges.
“A lot of our business is new kitchens – people generally want a family of appliances within the kitchen, so it helps the brand if the products are zoned together.”
Q: Can you tell me the history of the business?
Steve Woods: We founded the company in 1990, around the corner from where we are now, in a little terraced shop that we acquired. I trained as a refrigeration engineer – that’s how I got into appliances. I wanted to go into kitchen appliance retail, but I wanted to do it a little bit differently. I couldn’t understand why nobody had done built-in kitchen appliances – hence the name of our company. When we started, we only did ovens and hobs and integrated appliances.
Twenty-seven years ago, that was a new concept – it was a bit different and quirky. No one could understand what we were doing, but it worked very well. I wanted to swim against the tide. I could see there was an opening for built-in. We expanded – we were on a main road and we bought the shop next door. We ended up with 17 shops, but we wanted to find a site that was under one roof. The premises we’re in now was once a famous Liverpool nightclub called The Wookey Hollow. We bought the site and moved here in 2000 – it had been derelict for many years.
Q: How many staff do you employ?
SW: Twenty-four, including drivers, warehouse and office staff and salespeople. We have three large vans on the road.
Q: A lot of dealers have moved from freestanding to built-in, but you did it the other way round…
SW: Yes – we’ve expanded from built-in to range cookers and freestanding and all the other stuff. We’ve kept the name of the company the same, even though it’s slightly misleading, but that’s how we started.
Q: It must be good for Google searches, though?
SW: Yes – we’re top of the list.
Q: How’s business?
SW: It’s pretty good – business is steady. The price increases this year haven’t helped. The consumer is a little bit reluctant to part with their savings.
I know there’s a lot of doom and gloom within our industry, but we seem to be bucking the trend a little. We’re slightly different from most other retailers, as we’re non-transactional on the internet – we don’t sell online. It’s an unusual concept in this day and age, I guess. We don’t do click and collect either.
The website is just to entice people to come into the store, so they can see the size of the showroom. We don’t do a lot of social networking and marketing – we do a little bit with the local press and we do three or four cooking demonstrations a year – they work really well. We mostly rely on recommendations and our 27-year history.
Q: Why have you decided to not sell online?
SW: The main reason is because we don’t believe we could offer the level of service [to other customers around the UK] that we do at the moment to our customers who are North-West-based. I’m not convinced I could look after a customer in Devon, or Glasgow, or Newcastle. We’ve no plans to sell online – we like to swim against the tide. The voice of opinion says we should be online and that we’re a bit of a dinosaur, but we do very well not being online and long may it continue.
We have a wide customer base in the North-West. We don’t want to be a national retailer and we also do a lot of trade and commercial business – architects, landlords, developers, kitchen companies and builders.
Q: Are you in a buying group?
SW: We’re a Sirius member – it gives us some strength in numbers and it’s a very easy group to be a part of. It suits our business very well and most of the suppliers are ones that we deal with.
Q: What challenges do you face as an independent in this market?
SW: Our biggest challenge is competing with the internet – sometimes there’s some very odd pricing knocking about. It’s not only the retailers – some manufacturers are not as supportive as they could be and it becomes a bit of a free-for-all and makes it difficult. We tend not to support that type of supplier, if we can help it.
Q: Are you confident about the year ahead?
SW: Yeah – we don’t get too down when business is quiet and we don’t get too excited when it’s flying. We just go straight through the middle and we know it’s all going to come good. We’ve got a great showroom, with great products and great staff.
In the Zone
Built-In Kitchen Appliances had a Smeg Zone installed in its store last year. We ask owner Steve Woods, Smeg UK’s managing director Mike Giddings, and sales director Paul Barker, how it has worked out for them…
Q: [to Steve Woods]: How long have you had the Smeg Zone?
Steve Woods: About nine months – it’s been a great success. We’ve always done Smeg, but the products were spaced out across the showroom. Smeg wanted its own zone and a very prominent position. They were trying to twist my arm for two or three years. In the end, we found them a good space and it’s a fantastic design. Our business with Smeg is 40 or 50 per cent up – I put that down to the presentation of the products.
Paul Barker: We wanted more shopfloor space and a better area, so we started negotiating with Steve and we got the designers in. Steve had a lot of ideas of his own, which we were quite happy to accommodate. It took three months to complete – from design to handover – and it’s been phenomenal.
Q: [to Mike Giddings]: What’s the thinking behind the Smeg Zone concept?
Mike Giddings: Smeg Zones have evolved over the past two or three years and have become a vital part of what we do. It’s the start of a process of us re-establishing ourselves as a brand for independents.
We’ve found that Smeg Zones work best when retailers already have a pretty solid and established relationship with Smeg. There’s a bit of mystique around Smeg – retailers need to understand the brand before they can evolve into a Smeg Zone.
Our experience shows us that our consumers are willing to travel to see a good selection of products in one place.
For us, it’s quite important that we get a good amount of real estate in the retailer. But it’s not just about the space. It’s about the quality of the retailer, the staff, the education and the knowledge and skills they have – how the retailer will support the display and enhance the experience for the consumer.
Q: [to Paul Barker]: Any plans to open more Smeg Zones this year?
PB: We’ve done 12 so far and we have plans to open two more. We’ve opened three this year – Peter Tyson in Carlisle, Herbert Todd in York and Borshch in Birmingham – and we’re in advanced planning with Woolacotts’s new Plymouth store.