The future of independents lies in learning from the logistics and service offered by multiples and online dealers, says Andrew Wellington, the fourth-generation boss of the eponymous Kent retailer. Andrew Davies went to meet him…
As ERT sits in the newly-refurbished Wellingtons shop in Bromley, right on cue a little old lady wanders in and greets salesman Nigel Webb behind the counter. “Ooh,” she coos, looking round the room. “This looks lovely doesn’t it…”
“That was my mum,” Nigel deadpans after she leaves, “I paid her to come and say that.”
Joking aside, the new-look showroom doesn’t need any help in justifying the significant investment it’s taken to completely revamp it. Wellingtons and major brands such as Neff, Miele, Rangemaster and, of course, Blomberg, have helped make the vision of boss Andrew Wellington possible.
“Eight years ago, when I took it on, I didn’t spend as much money as I wanted to on refurbishing it,” Mr Wellington says. “We needed to generate the income to be able to afford it at the time. I wanted to make it much cleaner and smarter – it was quite congested, like a really old-school brown-goods store would be. Every nook and cranny was filled with a kettle, a toaster, a bracket, a remote control – and it was just too much.”
The Bromley store is, in microcosm, indicative of Mr Wellington’s desire to change, update and advance not just his business as a whole, but the industry in general. It needs to adapt to survive, he believes, and that change can only happen if you make it happen.
The Bromley shop is the second of two Wellingtons in Kent – a pair in fact. The other is the company’s main showroom in Erithand it was there that Mr Wellington’s great-grandmother started the business in 1898 (see panel). Andrew took over from his father in the late 1990s and, eight years ago, made the decision to expand into a second store.
“It’s a great location,” he explains. “It’s near the centre of Bromley and we’ve got free parking outside, which is always a big plus. It’s in quite an affluent residential area with really big houses nearby and some very wealthy people. They decide what we stock really above and beyond the Euronics agency products – they want German brands so, not including range cooking and freestanding, Miele, Bosch, Siemens, Neff, and Blomberg is pretty much all we sell.”
Something must be going right, as the revamped Bromley store has been shortlisted for both the Domestic Appliances Retailer of the Year and the Euronics Retailer of the Year at the ERT Awards 2015.
While the Erith store has been established for over 100 years and has the local loyalty that heritage commands, the relative difference in market between the two towns is demonstrated by the fact that the average sale in Bromley is £100 more than Erith.
“In Bromley, loyalty to Wellingtons doesn’t exist, so I knew that rather than try to build the Wellingtons name up, we’d have to become known as ‘the Neff shop’, or the ‘the Rangemaster shop’,” he says. “We needed to be known as a showroom for our manufacturers and that had to be clear to anyone driving past.
“I’m more ruthless now, as a result – I think, if things don’t work, I don’t want them. My loyalty to brands through thick and thin has definitely decreased. Hotpoint and Zanussi, for example, the way they conduct their business has, shall we say, not been helpful to us.”
And the other main difference between Bromley and Erith is that it is now strictly white goods only.
“We ended up selling two or three TVs a week and the aggravation wasn’t worth it,” Mr Wellington says. “A lot of the customers we have in Bromley are that bit older, and the expectation of the customer is such that if something goes wrong they want it fixed straight away and the margin wasn’t worth it. It’s different in Erith. People are much more loyal, because it’s been there so much longer. There’s an element of patience there that doesn’t exist in a much newer store like Bromley.”
There is a problem, though, with the independent retail market, as Mr Wellington sees it – as good as showrooms can be, they are shooting themselves in the foot with their online offerings.
“We’re effectively only in 50 per cent of the market,” he says.
“Most of us are online, but our websites are usually poor. That’s the very simple truth behind why independents have struggled with online – our websites simply aren’t good enough.”
“Most of us are online, but our websites are usually poor. That’s the very simple truth behind why independents have struggled with online – our websites simply aren’t good enough.
“If we sat every manufacturer down and asked them what percentage of our business we should be doing online, they’d all come back with 20 to 30 per cent. We’re all actually doing around two or three per cent, so we need to get up there – and it’s extra business. We’ve got to use our expertise to help customers when they’re researching online and then make it easy for them to buy when they’ve made a decision.”
The business’s frustration is apparent on this subject, but Mr Wellington’s answer is a relatively radical one when it comes to the classic independent view of the world. As multiples and online dealers want to be more like independents in terms of expertise and personal service, so independents must learn from them in logistics and online retail.
“We need to fight back,” he says. “The good independents need to get together more. Individually, we don’t have the investment to build a £2 million website, but collectively we do. That way we can compete and the manufacturers would want us to do it.
“If you get several like-minded retailers together and decide who covers which postcodes in one defined area, then I think – with agency products in particular – we could fight back. We need to be more savvy and work together, and that involves trust as we’ll have to share information about what we do and how we do it, but the rewards are there for the taking.”
But how does that differ from being part of Euronics? “The problem with Euronics is that everything has to go through 500 dealers, 18 or so different groups and a voting system. So in some ways, it is too slow. It’s not their fault, it’s just the way the system is set up.
“The way I’m moving is that we as a company need to have a Waitrose-type approach where customers can to pick their delivery time. As a business, you need to fulfil all the customers’ needs. If they were buying it from Euronics, the email would come to us, we’d take 24 hours to contact the customer and then arrange a delivery time. By then, they could’ve gone to AO and they’ll have delivered it the next morning.
“Having said that, I am very much behind the Euronics concept in general – I think it’s brilliant. It’s impossible to do with Euronics what AO have done, but I love the fact that there is a universal brand name.”
With ambitions for this joint online proposal, as well as another store and in-house service engineers, Wellingtons is tackling the market head-on.
“We can’t be sitting here saying ‘oh, it’s really quiet’,” he says. “I’m fed up of hearing other retailers say that – it means they’re doing nothing to inspire people to come in. You have to ask ‘why are we quiet, what do we need to do to drive people in?’
“You’re competitively priced, agency products solved those issues for a lot of retailers, so all you have to worry about is getting the marketing right and getting the customers in store.
“If you have the right people there waiting for them then nine out of 10 times you’ll get the sale. My real investment is in staff. You just can’t do nothing, you have to drive it, speculate to accumulate and don’t be afraid to get it wrong. If it doesn’t work, learn from it and just keep going.”