‘The internet has given retailers a kick up the backside’
Managing director Simon Stowell tells Rebecca Nottingham how he’s turned Bathroom Discount Centre in Fulham into one of the largest, single-site independent retailers in London
Stepping into the Bathroom Discount Centre, known colloquially as BDC, I got a sense of how Dr Who might feel entering the Tardis. From the outside it looks like your average-sized bathroom showroom, but once inside it becomes clear that there’s certainly nothing average about it.
With over 50 brands set across 6,000sq ft of showroom space, I think it’s fair to say that if you can’t find what you’re looking for here then it probably hasn’t been designed yet.
Owner Simon Stowell joined BDC in 1994 to help expand the business. At that time the showroom occupied two of the spaces it’s in now and was turning over around £2 million.
Stowell explains: “I bought the business in 2003 but the previous owner retained a share and he often comes in.”
The business has grown both physically and financially over the years and it’s not only the showroom itself that’s changed almost beyond recognition. The business, which now includes an e-commerce arm, is set to turnover an estimated £10m this year – a 15% increase on last
“When I joined the business in the early nineties, BDC only occupied the two buildings at the end,” he adds. “The business has continued to expand since I bought it. We got lucky as we were able to gradually take over the leases of these adjoining buildings and we’ve now got four times the showroom space that we had 20 years ago.”
Q: Since you’ve been involved with the business you’ve taken the annual turnover from £2m to £10m. How did you do it?
A: It’s a combination of lots of changes over the years ranging from the introduction of a more sophisticated computer system, making the business more efficient as well as continued expansion to the showroom and setting up an e-commerce site.
Customer service is also a priority and we’re investing more and more resources into this. Lots of people think customer service is just about fixing the problems once they’ve occurred. But, I look at it as fixing a problem before it occurs by offering a strong service and having back up of good solid aftercare.
Q: You’re located in Fulham, a particularly affluent area of London. Is the market as buoyant as people might expect it to be?
A: The London market has been strange over the past couple of years. Brexit had a significant and sudden impact because people lost confidence, and the rise in stamp duty, around the same time, virtually stalled the London market in its tracks.
The stamp duty hike was aimed at cooling the London market down but what actually happened was that business stagnated. The market dampened significantly, business slowed – and we had to work very hard to get it back. I came to the conclusion that, to survive in a difficult market, we had to find a way to be smarter and better than we ever had been.
So, last year, I decided to invest £100k developing and updating the entire showroom. We moved our warehouse facility, to larger premises in Tolworth, and created four showrooms in its place. It was a big undertaking but it was something we had to do.
We’re looking at finishing the year at around £10m and the first few months of this year were the best we’ve seen for the last five years.
Q: Investing £100k in the showroom, when business had slowed down, must have been a difficult decision?
A: Maybe, but that’s what you have to do. You can’t sit back and hope the market will improve, you have to make the necessary changes to your business to make your target audience want to come to you. The proof [that the decision was a good one] is that we’ve seen a 15% increase in orders since the refurbishment last year.
We had a lot of help from our suppliers too. They contributed significantly, helping us to design each space within the showroom and choosing the right products for our market.
We also spent £70/80k developing our e-commerce site last year. Our sales have doubled since – they’ve gone from £750k to £1.5m.
Q: Online retailing is extremely competitive because it tends to be all on price, rather than service, what’s your strategy?
A: We don’t try to compete purely on price with the bigger online dealers. The name BDC is well known in London, so people come to our site because of that. They trust us because we’re not just a faceless company, we have a well-established showroom in London and people take comfort in the fact that, if needs be, they could come down and speak to us.
Much like a retail showroom, the development of our e-commerce site is constant. At the moment, we’re looking at separating the brands we sell on the website from the brands we sell in the showroom to give both businesses their own USPs.
Q: What about the showroom, do consumers try and get you to knock prices down because they’ve seen products cheaper online?
A: We’re lucky because we have strong relationships with our suppliers and, because of our size, we have good buying power so we can be more competitive. We still have to charge more in the showroom because our overheads are high but also, we have a lot of experience and knowledge in here and people are paying for that service and the opportunity to see the products up close.
There are enough consumers out there who are wise enough to recognise that it’s worth paying a little more to ensure they get a better service.
Q: How do you ensure that people don’t use your time, knowledge and expertise in the showroom and then go off and buy from another source?
A: The best way in this day and age is to offer a brilliant service. That’s what we do so that people question whether it’s worth dealing with a different company they don’t know just to save themselves a small percentage. If you offer a really good service, knowledge and expertise, in my experience, people are generally willing to pay for it.
Sixty per cent of our sales are generated through recommendations or repeat business so we must be doing something right.
I always say to the guys here; ‘I don’t pay your wages, the people who come in here and buy bathrooms from us pay your wages – so treat them all well’.
Most consumers tend to start their searches online these days so we also try to give away as little as possible about the products specified in quotes so that they can’t go off and search online for them too easily. You’ve got to do everything you can to retain your customers but there will be some people who will just use you as a showroom and then buy elsewhere just because it’s cheaper. We get lots of people returning when they realise, ultimately, price is not the only goal.
Q: What makes you choose to partner with a brand?
A: Our strategy is to draw people into the showroom with the established brands but we also have lesser-known ones in here to differentiate us from other retailers.
Since the expansion and redesign last year, we now have around 50 brands on display in the showroom. But we try and focus on building really strong relationships with five or six major suppliers that allow us to negotiate really good terms. We’re a Vitra Showroom of Excellence and also have very strong relationships with Duravit, Hansgrohe, Heritage, Lefroy Brookes, Crosswater, Bette and Merlyn. But, we also have a number of niche brands that aren’t anywhere else.
We’re also considering the idea of own-branding some products because I feel that will enable us to retain good margins. It’s all about coming up with new ideas and ways of doing this.
Q: You have the word discount in your company name, is that a key part of your strategy?
A: Everybody discounts in some way, shape or form. You have to blend your services and your discounts together.
I’ve no doubt having ‘discount’ in the name helps attract some people and I’m as sure that it probably puts some people off – it’s a double-edged sword. We do discount products heavily when we can but that’s because we have good relationships with our suppliers and are able to maintain margins on discounts/sales.
Q: What advice would you give to someone planning to become a bathroom retailer? Should they go down the showroom route, the e-commerce route or a combination of both?
A: Retailing is very challenging at the moment across the board. You can’t afford to be complacent; you’ve got to be on the ball all of the time.
Once you get to our size I think you’ve got to have an e-commerce site, so that people take you seriously, but for smaller businesses or retailers just starting out I’m not sure it’s a necessity. Obviously a good online presence is essential, because it boosts consumer confidence in your business, but that doesn’t have to mean e-commerce.
There’s so much choice around and so many platforms to buy from that showrooms have to be quite special. You have to have an angle or a niche to differentiate yourself. Ours, for example, is size and breadth of choice.
Everyone’s talking about how important ‘retail theatre’ is and little touches like having a functioning shower toilet in the customer bathroom might do some good but actually, having the right product, for the right customer, displayed well and with the right staff to back that all up is 90% of it.
Q: What are your plans for the business moving forward?
A: My main aim last year was to make the showroom the best it could ever be and make sure the business ran in an organised and structured manner. I took on a new financial controller, which allowed me to pay more attention to the strategy of the business.
I feel the business is in the right place now. With the changes to the showroom, and the market we’re in, there’s definitely potential for us to increase turnover to £12m – £15m without having to make any more major changes.
Would I open another showroom? That’s complicated. I think it’s better to run one site really well than to try and stretch yourself and run different sites. The focus of an independent bathroom showroom has to be the personal service. The more branches you have, the more you risk diluting that in each outlet. When you have multiple showrooms it’s not possible to be the person that’s driving the business forward and, at the same time, providing customers with the personal service they demand. Others may be able to do it, but it’s not my way.
‘Simon Stowell on…
London is a huge market – it’s monstrous. There is a lot of competition around and, generally speaking, we must compete against each other but, because of the size of the market, we don’t compete at the same time. We actually have a great relationship with two or three of the larger independents in London.
I never think that booming times or recession times are particularly bad either way – in boom times there’s more business to go round and in recession times the disorganised retailers go out of business and the business flows back our way.
We have a Facebook presence but there are other platforms, like Pinterest and Instagram, that we need to be on because anything that helps draw people to us is good. Once we’re set up on all relevant platforms, we’ll look at integrating all of our social media into our website.
The future of bathroom showrooms
In my opinion, there’s plenty of life left in bathroom showrooms for at least the next 10-15 years – what the future holds beyond that, who knows. But, at this moment in time, there’s a huge place for showrooms and expertise in this market. Consumers still want to visit showrooms to see the products for themselves, get some ideas and inspiration and, most importantly, expert advice.
The changing face of the industry
The major change is the internet, which, in my opinion, has given retailers a kick up the backside. Fifteen years ago you had to be clever with your searches to actually find what you were looking for on the internet. Whereas now, you can find out almost everything you’d ever wanted to find. Showrooms no longer just have other showrooms to compete against so we all have to strive to be better.