Trevor Scott, owner of Rugby Fitted Kitchens, reflects on how he has built up his business while the local pattern of trade has changed and many familiar high-street retail names have failed. But reveals why he’s still optimistic about the future
Twenty-six years ago, I started looking around for the ideal town and location for my new kitchen business.
Fuelled by redundancy and the need to earn enough to pay the mortgage, I had come to realise that starting my own business at the age of 33 was my only option. Prospective employers after the recession of the early Nineties were few and far between and no one wanted to employ me as a rep when I had been a national sales manager.
At that time, I had the freedom of being able to choose a location and I opted for Rugby as, during the recession, not one but three high-end kitchen studios selling between them Siematic, Rational and Miele, had survived.
“This is the town for me!” I said to myself and began looking for premises.
I was lucky, as the very location I wanted was available and at a reasonable rent. It was halfway down the town’s main secondary high street (remember them?). Two of the aforementioned studios were on the same street – perfect.
Within a year, all three had closed their doors for the final time.
Slowly but surely, I built up RFK until, in 2007, we broke the £1 million barrier and we were considering either relocation to bigger premises or opening a second showroom in another well-sited side street in Leamington Spa.
Due to a health scare, I backed off from both possibilities, which in hindsight was lucky, as we all know what happened in 2008.
At much the same time, my partner Helen had opened a lifestyle shop in the town centre and saw fantastic growth up to and actually into the recession. She took on another shop and extended her original unit, things were looking good.
Sadly, the recession saw her having to downsize and eventually close her doors for the last time in February last year. She had a good run, but why did it take until 2016 for her to finally give up – eight years after the recession had started and four since it had ended?
The same reason that RFK relocated in 2011/12 – the death of the high street.
The recession, combined with the rise of the internet as a retail force to be reckoned with, created a ‘perfect storm’, undermining traditional high-street retailing to such an extent that even well-founded and successful businesses watched their footfall drop off the edge of a cliff.
Post-recession, the renewed growth of edge-of-town retail parks with free parking has been the final nail in the coffin of the traditional high street for many towns.
At RFK, we had already analysed our business closely and had concluded it was our location that needed to change if we were to survive and prosper.
That street I was so keen on nearly 20 years earlier was now full of boarded-up shops and what businesses had survived, or come in, were mostly cheap cafés, takeaways and eastern European supermarkets – a familiar story I’m sure.
If I was about to spend £20k on a kitchen, I would’ve driven straight past RFK in 2010, and many did…
Our relocation went perfectly. Again, we found the right premises with a good landlord and within four months we were up and running.
Within two years, we had doubled our turnover from our mid-recession low and we’re now staring £2m in the eye, with a second showroom about to enter its third year.
Sadly for my partner who, like many, was locked into a long lease, she couldn’t escape and had to carry on for as long as possible, but to no avail. The damage to the UK’s high streets had been done.
In Rugby, we have lost Next, Top Shop, Principles, Dorothy Perkins, Burton, Woolworths, Evans, Country Casuals and M&S, as well as countless independents who, without the footfall generated by these ‘nationals’, simply couldn’t carry on.
And for those who are left? Just look at how long is left on their leases and ask yourself if they’ll be renewing.
‘Bricks and clicks’ – that’s the answer, I hear many saying. But I’m not so sure.
Ask John Lewis how they feel about the online monster they have created that is sucking margin out of their business like coke through a straw.
And for many independents, an online retail offer is just far too much work for too little reward and again, they’re competing against huge nationals or internationals like Amazon, eBay, Not on the High Street and Etsy.
So what does the future hold for independent kitchen retailers? Well, fortunately, we can still offer something the internet can’t. People want to be able to see, touch and be inspired by innovative and creative products, materials and designs that can only be experienced in a showroom situation.
They want to discuss their project with an experienced and skilled designer and watch their dream kitchen come to life before their eyes on a state-of-the-art CAD system.
They want to know that the very best products have been specified and be confident that their project will be managed from beginning to end by a professional retailer.
They can’t get that online. Yet!
So, we’ve definitely got a few years left but it’s key to our survival, as a showroom-based industry, that we are supported by manufacturers and trade associations, as well as our own marketing efforts, to continue to drive traffic through our doors in sufficient numbers not just to survive, but to thrive.