‘Our customers say the shop is like the Tardis…’
Michael R Peters is celebrating 50 years in retail. But managing director Paul Mead is not complacent and knows just where he wants to adapt the business to the changing market. Chris Frankland goes to meet him
Michael R Peters in Bedford is celebrating its 50th year in business, 50 is also how old managing director Paul Mead is this year, and 50 was the number of minutes late that East Midlands trains managed to get me to my rendezvous with him in the station car park.
I could hardly miss the Michael R Peters branded van and as I climbed in, Mr Mead took me off on a quick tour of the town to highlight some of the key ways in which he has been adapting the business to a rapidly changing market.
“Apathy,” he declares, “is our greatest enemy in this industry.” He says that the days are gone when you could just put your feet up and wait for customers to come through the door.
He takes us through the affluent village of Biddenham and points out a large, detached property behind a tall wall and barred gates, where he got the custom install job through a recommendation from an existing customer in the village.
“The woman had bought this huge house that needed completely gutting. We gave her a proposal and we ended up doing a £20,000 project, with Sonos and ceiling speakers in several rooms, plus a TV and speakers in her summerhouse, a dedicated home cinema room with projector and a screen in the ceiling. We also sorted out her wi-fi as it was a very big property and she wasn’t getting proper coverage in every room. That’s where the independent will succeed, by providing exceptional levels of service.”
Mr Mead recognises custom install, on both brown and white goods (built-in appliances) as a major growth opportunity for the future. He explains how they frequently advise local builders on wiring requirements for house builds, and on the white-goods side, he says they even do some installations for local kitchen studios. And he believes the fact that they use their own staff, rather than third parties, is a major reason for their success.
I ask what Mr Mead has planned for the business’s 50th year trading.
“The first thing was to tie up with a local charity – Friends of Bedford Hospital,” he explains. “We have given them a 50in TV and 10 DAB radios to raffle between now and November (when it is our official 50th birthday) and they are selling tickets for 50p each to win a 50in TV on our 50th birthday.
“The intention was to gain some footfall as we promote this tie-up. We already sold a lot of tickets when the high street was closed recently for Bedford’s Big High Street Showcase (June 4).”
At the time of my visit, Michael R Peters is busy preparing for the local river festival, which is another significant part of the company’s celebrations.
“The river festival [July 18/19] is the biggest event in Bedford’s calendar. On Saturday, we will be setting up a gazebo on The Embankment, which runs alongside the river. A customer we had done a custom install of a home cinema for, agreed to let us put this on his driveway. We’ll get great PR from it and the charity can sell loads of tickets for the raffle.
“On Sunday we are in the raft race with an eight-man crew. We will also have a float in the parade with our Dalek, cooker man and curved screen TV.”
On top of that, Michael R Peters will also be partnering with Panasonic to give away a 40in TV. “Customers on Facebook must comment, like us and share, and provided they do that, they will go into the draw.”
Since it was founded in 1966, Michael R Peters has expanded from one shop to three and now employs 11 staff and has its own in-house service operation.
When Mr Mead took over the business after the death of founder Mike Peters, he carried on the tradition of strong local marketing and supporting the local community. The shop regularly donates prizes to local schools, churches and charities and always supports events and festivals. Mr Mead finds that this public-spirited side of the business can also bring solid sales leads.
“We always get requests for help with raffles from charities, churches and schools and we never decline, even if it’s only a £10 in-store voucher. We have supplied one local school with raffle vouchers for many years. This year, they needed a new multimedia system, so they phoned us. They tried to get three quotes. The first guy never turned up, the second guy turned up but then never quoted, and we were the third. We got the job – a £6,500 deal.
“We are up for any form of advertising. Some of the things we do are a bit off-the-cuff,” he tells me. And that is amply demonstrated when we go on a quick tour of the shop and come across a full-size replica of a Dalek that was originally made for a window display. Appropriate really, as he tells me one customer once remarked that the shop was “like the Tardis – bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside”.
This carries on the tradition of zany promotions established by founder Mike Peters, who famously put a pyramid of baked beans in the shop window, declaring that if Tesco was going to sell TVs, he would give away baked beans with every TV he sold.
One of his first local newspaper ads also proclaimed ‘Local store challenges NASA. Yanks in panic as Tavistock Sound & Vision produces mouth-watering pictures of Mars… Come and see our out-of-this-world offers!’
Mr Mead knows his shop window displays are a great asset and he always tries to have something off-the-wall and attention-grabbing in them – “not just a display of six TVs”. As I visited, one was devoted to local tennis player Brennan Connolly who had qualified to take part in a competition at Wimbledon. He had the Michael R Peters logo on his kit.
Although Michael R Peters stands for all that is good in independents – helpful, knowledgeable staff, great pre- and after-sales service and a positive can-do attitude, Mr Mead will have no truck with the things that are bad in some indies.
He is on a mission to drive the business ever forwards and the growth areas of built-in appliances and custom install are high on his wish list.
“Traditionally, most of our business has come through the front door and we have shifted boxes, albeit very efficiently and very well, and we have phoned people afterwards to make sure they are happy,” explains Mr Mead. “We still need a shopfront. But now we do a lot of surveying. They will come in and then we will visit their house and this has led us to do installation of projectors, home-cinema rooms and multi-room audio. Those installations we have done have led to recommendations to friends and the CI business has grown.
“And it’s not just to retail customers, it’s also B2B. We have got in bed with local estate agents and letting agents and we are now trusted to such a degree that they will give us the keys, our guys will go in, remove the old washing machine and install a new one and take the keys back.”
Mr Mead will never be one to rest on his laurels and he knows there are challenging times ahead. “Fifty years was a milestone. That longevity helps engender trust in our customers. Lots of electrical businesses have been and gone in Bedford, but we are still here and developing what we do.”
Their website is not transactional, but it is something Mr Mead intends to look at. They do not offer click and collect, but do have a Quote Me Quick option. Filling in the form sounds a klaxon in the shop and that person gets phoned straight away during shop hours.
The latest addition to the shop is the Blomberg built-in display in the cooker shop. Mr Mead is a fervent believer that Euronics retailers should make the most of the exclusivity and higher margins offered by the brand and says: “If any Euronics agent is not selling Blomberg, they must be daft!” But he admits that it needs selling. “But that’s the point – do you have a salesman or an order taker?”
He knows he needs to build the CI business, but acknowledges that to go to the next level some Cedia training for his staff may be required.
He also has plans to upgrade the customer experience in the brown-goods area with a dedicated large-screen TV wall with sound system and projector, plus a sofa where people can enjoy the show. It may be that to action all of these plans, with Mr Mead still very hands-on in the business, he may need to take on more staff.
For now, he is content to keep on offering the kind of personal service that he insists the internet just cannot compete with.