Retailers should view disruption as a positive

Ripples MD Paul Crow on tackling the problems of retailing in this challenging market and how Ripples has worked with suppliers to increase its sales and theirs

You have to have sympathy for the many Alno dealers in the UK who are now swiftly sourcing alternative suppliers following the problems at this manufacturer. The costs, stress and disruption to their business, and no doubt lives, must be very challenging and I hope they will pull through this period, as I am sure they can.

I am pleased that Ripples couldn’t face this type of problem any more than I don’t think any independent bathroom retailer could, either. I don’t know a single manufacturer who could truly provide a full showroom package. That means most of us are left to trade with multiple brands.

What I know for sure is that the companies Ripples deals with, like Showerlab and Aqata, are receiving increased sales from our business – because they are working hard to get them. They are investing in new showrooms, theirs and ours, new products, new employees – providing a service and trying to be as easy to buy from as they can. I can’t honestly say the same about some of the German brands.

It’s easy to find a problem out there. I remember going to a presentation by Sir Terry Leahy, then of Tesco. He spent 15 minutes discussing what had changed in the business since he joined – other than turnover quadrupling and Tesco becoming a global business, summing up his presentation with the message that they had simply listened to the customer and tried their best to give them what they wanted.

Getting there, he said, was painful and hard work. Many a boardroom meeting raised more questions than answers. But they persevered, because they had no choice.

I could find plenty to complain about, and they will be the same issues as other retailers. Suppliers putting up their prices by 5% in January, because they simply can’t hold off the losses from the euro any further, for example. Internet dealers selling ‘premium’ brands at 35% off, and the cupped hand around the sales director’s mouth as he says “we don’t mind it at 20%, but you know how it is with the CMA and all that”.

These things are affecting our business, and they always will. We will do our utmost to battle these issues and to make life difficult for those who ultimately care the least about them. But, at the end of the day, we will do what is in the interests of our business and more importantly, our customers.

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Ripples has grown sales this year, and not just because we opened two new showrooms. We have grown sales because we are getting on with it. We sat down with our leading suppliers and shared with them our objectives, our challenges and where we needed their assistance. We asked how we could change our business to help them help us. Many stepped up, and I don’t just mean financially.

They are working hard with us on improving how they integrate with our IT solutions, like EQ. They spend more time in our showrooms with our sales team looking to understand more about how the job is done and how they can influence it to have their product specified. They have undertaken more training and picked up the bill at the local Italian afterwards. They put in place incentives genuinely exciting the sales team. In every single case where a supplier has reappraised their approach to Ripples, we have seen a significant increase in sales and a much stronger relationship emerging.

So, while Alno’s UK dealers may well have been very heavily dependent on a single German manufacturer, I am delighted to say Ripples is not – not any more than any one supplier is dependent on us.

Because of this, we are shaking things up. For those who are not at the table, looking to develop sales, we are finding people who want to be, and the interest from new companies has been overwhelming. Sure, it is disruptive to change displays and retrain staff, but it’s necessary to succeed – and it’s in the interests of our customers.

My message to anyone undergoing huge changes in their business because of the failings of a supplier is to read ‘Black Box Thinking’ by Matthew Syed. His advice is to embrace the change and disruption as a positive step forward and learn from it, just as the aviation industry does from a ‘black box’.

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