Bell rings the changes
Bell Northampton may not have taken home the trophies but making it as a finalist in both the Kitchen Retailer and Kitchen Showroom categories at this year’s kbbreview awards was no mean feat. Rebecca Nottingham asks MD Graham Jackson how he’s transformed the business from a traditional local KBB independent to a multichannel, luxury homewares specialist
A short while ago, I had the pleasure of speaking to Matthew Brown, of retail intelligence agency Echochamber, about his predictions for the future of KBB retailing.
He claimed that, to survive the increasingly competitive retail landscape, KBB retailers would have to follow in the footsteps of companies like Next, by opening large, off-high street, ‘destination stores’ with cafés and restaurants in order to enhance the consumer’s shopping experience.
While the idea sounded fantastic, especially to someone like me, who loves a bit of retail therapy, I suggested it might be completely out of reach for your average independent KBB retailer.
Though creating a showroom on that kind of scale is unrealistic for the majority of KBB retailers, one independent that is giving it a fair go is Bell Northampton.
The company was established by Ablett Bell in 1898 and still operates from its purpose-built, 15,000sq ft showroom, two miles north of Northampton. It has become well known in the local area as a specialist in kitchens, bathrooms, fires and stoves.
Despite its obvious success, three years ago the company’s board of directors realised that, in order to flourish in today’s fast-paced retail world, the company, and its showroom, would need to evolve and take a new direction.
The job of implementing those changes fell to managing director Graham Jackson. Following a successful career in retail, with corporate roles for a range of top retail brands, including Ikea and Heal’s, he joined Bell in 2014. He brought with him ambitious plans not just to broaden the showroom’s appeal locally, but also to attract affluent customers from other areas of the UK.
According to Jackson, his aim was to implement a strategy that would not only establish Bell Northampton as the best luxury homewares store in the UK. But over and above that, by leveraging the brand’s heritage and its impressive showroom in Northampton, he wanted to expand its appeal by growing its contracts division and building an e-commerce business.
Kitchens, bathrooms, fires and stoves remain at the heart of the business. But the addition of an interior design department, a range of luxury homewares concessions, an art gallery, a lighting area, cookshop and the introduction of wellness products, really gives Bell that modern, luxury, lifestyle appeal Jackson was aiming for.
“Historically Bell was a local, independent retailer of fitted furniture, fires and flooring,” Jackson explains. “It had spent 119 years learning how to cater for its local target audience of 180,000. That’s where it was comfortable and it’s where it wanted to be.
“When I joined the company, it was a robust business and it was a hugely successful brand in the local area,” he says. “People loved it; people trusted it, but it was just a bit staid. It didn’t know how to be a modern retailer.
“It would have been easy to stay as a local store turning over £4.5 million a year,” he adds. “But, that’s not sustainable. In this business, because the growth of the internet is changing consumer shopping patterns, standing still is not an option.”
And, in line with Brown’s suggestion that retailers should be looking to move away from traditional showrooms and create ‘experience stores’, in 2016 Jackson proceeded with some ambitious expansion plans to the Northampton showroom. The extension created space for a café, which Jackson says generates around £1,000 a week, and this year will see the opening of a 120-seat restaurant.
So why develop a lifestyle department store?
The logic, he says, is “very simple”.
“Once you’ve sold a kitchen or bathroom, it takes 12 years or more before they’ll even think about buying a new one,” Jackson says. “But, by creating a home-lifestyle department store, we’re giving those customers, and anyone else who finds us, a reason to keep coming back.
“We already have a café where people can enjoy a cup of tea and a cake, which not only gives them another reason to come here, but also enhances their visit. Once we add the restaurant later this year, we really will be a destination store.
“And by offering an interior design service, because we have access to a wide range of furniture and homewares, unlike most studios, when designing a kitchen or bathroom, we really can create a complete look.
“On top of that, obviously we do fires and gourmet barbecues and outdoor pizza ovens. If you’re looking for anything related to the home – we do it. We have lots of revenue opportunities under one roof.”
Putting those big changes and new revenue streams into context, so far, the business has, according to Jackson, grown by more than 75% in three years and is looking to have more than doubled its turnover by the end of this year.
Kitchens and bathrooms
Bell’s Northampton showroom features an impressive 3,000sq ft kitchen studio specialising in Siematic and Mackintosh kitchens. Last year, to compete with other local businesses and to strengthen its appeal within the contracts market, they introduced Nicholas Bell, its own brand of bespoke, handmade kitchen furniture. This department alone now generates a revenue stream of around £1.9m for the business.
As part of Jackson’s growth strategy, capitalising on the company’s expertise in kitchens, last year it also opened a dedicated Siematic studio in Thame, near Oxford. The location was chosen, Jackson explains, to enable them to target prestigious developers and break into affluent areas of the south.
“We opened the store at the end of July last year and it’s trading well,” Jackson says. “The most exciting thing about that venture so far is that clients who’ve visited the Thame studio have actually made the journey up here [to the Northampton showroom], which is exactly what we wanted.
“It’s a symbiotic relationship. If, or when, we open new stores in the future, it will be because they are strategically very important to us because they allow us to access new markets and enhance the rest of our proposition.”
On the bathroom side, the company deals with premium brands such as Hansgrohe, Villeroy and Boch and Toto, and has recently introduced its own brand of bathroom furniture, ceramics and tiles to give it a “more competitive edge”.
It is the bathroom offering, along with its fire and stoves offering, that forms the basis of its e-commerce business, which Jackson believes has huge growth potential.
“We want to go from being a local retailer to one with a wider target audience and e-commerce is the ideal route to achieve that,” Jackson says. “We launched the online business in 2015, following significant investment in the website, and putting a team in place that will provide consumers with the same level of service we offer in-store.
“The core of the online business is stoves and fires, but bathrooms currently represent around 20% of our e-commerce sales and we are seeing good growth there. We have a real opportunity to turn our e-commerce platform into a complete home-lifestyle department store. That’s the aim.”
Jackson is clearly very tech-savvy and admits that, in his opinion, to survive in today’s market retailers must consider going down the multichannel route by setting up an online store. However, success in this sector doesn’t happen overnight and it is extremely competitive. So, what advice can he offer retailers interested in taking advantage of this growing market?
“Like our showrooms, our online offering isn’t based on price, because that’s where it gets competitive,” he says. “We’re making as high a margin online as we are in-store and we’re doing that by being very selective about what we sell and by offering the kind of service online, as we do in the showrooms.
“There are a lot of online dealers, but very few have a bricks-and-mortar showroom, and that’s where retailers like us have the advantage. For us, and I’d say a lot of independents, the showroom is crucial to online success. Consumers like that the website has an anchor, particularly one with 120 years of history.”
Last year, the e-commerce business achieved a substantial £2m turnover but, as Jackson puts it, “we haven’t even scratched the surface of that market yet”.
Considering what Bell has achieved in three years, it’s hard to believe that there could be any more developments planned but, because of its “fully-funded and ambitious five-year growth plan”, Jackson assures me there are many more ideas in the pipeline.
“Our aim is to be the best luxury, multichannel retailer of homewares in the UK,” he concludes.
“We will continue to grow our channels to market, focusing on those with the most growth potential – e-commerce, contracts and our flagship showroom in Northampton.
“In 18 months, we’ll be in a position to open the next Bell store, rather than just a kitchen or bathroom studio. The vision is to create a miniature version of the Northampton showroom.
“Kitchen and bathroom studios on their own are great, and we’re not ruling out opening more, but it does mean all of your eggs are in one basket and the consequence of us not just doing that is that we have a stronger brand and a more compelling offer than most kitchen and bathroom specialists.”