‘We’re aspiring to be the biggest and most credible indie in our area’
ERT Award-winning retailer Snellings in Norfolk has a great heritage in brown goods – it even has its own museum of vintage tech – and now it’s embracing the smart home and the latest domestic appliances. Sean Hannam paid them a visit.
In the vintage television and radio museum at Snellings, there is a Bush TV that founder Roy Snelling watched Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation on with his mother, back in 1953.
Mr Snelling, who was a pioneer in the AV industry, died in 2012, aged 88.
The museum is a fascinating treasure trove of old electrical equipment, including TVs from Pye, original Roberts radios, radiograms and a cat’s whisker crystal radio that still works today. Some of the devices date back to the 1920s and 1930s.
There’s also original point-of-sale and advertising material on display and a library of wireless and TV engineering and servicing books and manuals.
Located in the Norfolk countryside in Blofield Heath, a few miles outside of Norwich, Snellings started out in business in 1954, when Roy Snelling took over a disused laundry building.
Mr Snelling built the business on TV rentals – when TVs first came out, they were unreliable and very expensive. The shop also sold TVs and radios.
Now, more than 60 years later, Snellings is still leading the way in consumer electronics – it has a stylish smart home area, which is designed to look like a living room and won the ERT Award for Consumer Electronics Showroom of the Year in 2013.
There’s a wall-mounted Samsung 4K curved UHD TV on show and a Bose area, which includes the brand’s SoundTouch 10 wireless audio system. Sonos is also on display.
“When you put people into this environment, you can inspire them as to what they can do in their own home,” says managing director Paul Giles.
He adds: “In TV, we major on Sony, Panasonic and Samsung. Sixty to 70 per cent of our sales by value are UHD. Innovations like curved TV have been extremely important.”
The business merged with Norwich electrical retailer Gerald Giles – also an ERT award winner – back in 2011. It is part of the RC Snelling group, headed up by Paul Giles, whose father, Gerald – a friend of Roy Snelling’s – started the Gerald Giles business in 1948.
Says Mr Giles: “My father came from a public address system background, then he went into radio and fluorescent light fittings for shops. In the late 40s, Roy Snelling worked at an electrical wholesaler called Flinders – my dad used to get his parts from there. He and Roy got friendly.
“Snellings used to recommend people to go to Gerald Giles for white goods. My father and Roy Snelling were good friends – Roy was reticent about going into white goods because he didn’t want to upset his best friend. He was a very loyal man. Both men loved electrical innovation, taking technology to the customer and giving excellent customer service. Their two businesses had similar values – there was a great synergy. When my father died, in 2008, Roy wrote me a very nice letter and he came to the funeral.”
Talking about what prompted the 2011 merger, Mr Giles says: “I knew that electrical retailing was going to get difficult – there were dark days ahead. We’d had a recession, the internet was rising and the multiples were having a bigger influence on the marketplace. I felt that manufacturers would want to deal with credible independents who could hold their own. For both businesses’ longevity, I felt that a merger would be the best decision.”
Traditionally, a brown-goods retailer, Snellings moved into whites in 2012.
“Now white goods is 55 per cent of the business, when you add in the Gerald Giles store in Norwich. If we hadn’t brought white goods into Snellings, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” says Mr Giles.
At the time of ERT’s visit, the store is in the process of updating its range cooker area.
Sixty to 70 per cent of our sales by value are UHD. Innovations like curved TV have been extremely important
Adds Mr Giles: “Our built-in business is expanding all the time – at the Gerald Giles store, cooking is our largest category. Steam and induction have all come together at the right time for us.
“We’ve also grown our brown-goods turnover in the past two years – we really can’t complain. We introduced Bose in 2012.
“I brought my expertise from the Gerald Giles branch to Snellings.
“We sit in the mid to top end – we very much specialise in premium brands, new technology and adding value with services, like installing built-in and placing TVs on walls. We do quite a bit of custom installation – but not at the high-end. We’re trying to appeal to the mid-market.
“As the Internet of Things comes along, more and more devices will be connected together – it’s a complicated area for customers. They just want it to work – they don’t want to know how it works. That’s where we come in. We want to keep them connected. They don’t want to have to struggle with setting up the technology.”
Rentals and servicing brown goods and white-goods are still big parts of the Snellings business – rentals account for 50 per cent.
ERT asks Mr Giles how he’s found the general market for electricals in recent months.
“It was tough through the summer, but late August and September were much better. We’ve been achieving growth on last year. Now we’re going into a key period for manufacturers’ promotions.”
So, what, in his view, are the key challenges facing our industry?
“Keeping value up sufficiently is a challenge – we have to compete on a level playing with the internet and multiple retailers. Independents have to learn that they need to charge for their installation services.”
Snellings has recently made a significant investment in its online operation, with a new fully responsive website that will work on mobile devices. The business has an employee who is solely dedicated to working on its website and marketing.
“Independents need to keep all routes to market open for the customer. However, they want to transact with us, we need to offer that,” says Mr Giles. “We’re getting more online business and click and collect.”
Looking at the future of the Snellings business, he tells ERT: “We’re looking at doing a partnership with a local kitchen furniture company – we’re in discussions. Adding a service like that is perfect for us. We’re also changing the way that we do some of our marketing. In our Gerald Giles store, we’re doing an evening cookery event with a Miele ‘master chef’ and we’re looking at doing something like that at Snellings in the future.
“Because of where Stellings is located, it’s a destination store – we’ve got to inspire people to come here. We use local radio sponsorship and we use online – Google Adwords, Facebook and Twitter – and direct mail. When they get here, they think it’s been a worthwhile experience. We’re aspiring to be the biggest and most credible independent retailer in this region.”
He adds: “I wish Roy Snelling and my father were both alive today to see how the business has turned out.
“We’re very pleased with where we are at the moment, but we can’t afford to be complacent about the future. Electrical retailing will continue to evolve – Roy Snelling and Gerald Giles were both great innovators and they moved with the times. If both of them were to come back today, I think they’d be very happy about where we are and they wouldn’t be fazed by the new markets and new technology.”