Stuck in the middle with you

Darren Taylor, MD of Searle and Taylor, says many of his suppliers were extremely supportive during and after lockdown, but that appliance shortages since then have been causing headaches for him and his customers


Us kitchen retailers have to constantly tread a fine line – keeping good working relationships with suppliers, while maintaining similar ones with our end-user clients, where we are the suppliers.

For my business, these relationships tend to be long-lasting on all sides, as I am very focused on providing excellent after-sales service years after a kitchen has been installed – and to install a kitchen initially, I need to work with suppliers.

I am, for want of a better word, a middleman. To provide excellent customer service to my clients, my suppliers need to provide good customer service to me. This means keeping me informed of new products, keeping me up-to-date when products are unavailable and when they are de-listed. Ideally, they just accept my order, confirm it (correctly) and then deliver on the agreed date for which I will pay them on an agreed date. This is how a business relationship works. Or, it was.

Since we went into and came out of lockdown, a number of suppliers, including certain appliance brands, kept in touch regularly and went out of their way to provide exceptional customer service. Their care and understanding not only helped me personally, but helped my business to get through a really difficult time.

Examples include one country manager, only days after the rules had been relaxed, coming to my showroom to help me install an appliance in my brand-new display, and who then provided product and installation training, too. Another supplier of ours worked way over the allocated hours charged in order to help me keep my marketing up-to-date, while a further long-term supplier halved their fees while my showroom was closed. There are many more examples and each separate kindness is lodged in my memory.

But the biggest chal­lenges that most of us retailers have faced since lockdown have been with major appliance brands. From the moment we all reopened, we had to replan delayed installations, while also selling and designing new kitchens, because the expectation of a short-term buoyant market has proven true. But the net result is that a lot of us have delivered our kitchens on time, just with great big gaps in them where a family of ovens, dishwashers, hobs and cooling products should be.

I understand that factories were forced to close in some cases and that it has been hard to obtain components and parts since, but large-scale manufacturers should have been prepared for these eventualities, shouldn’t they?

I am the one who has to tell my client that their potential appliance delivery is still weeks away, that the products I ordered even before lockdown have since been de-listed, or that the only solution is to rapidly scour the market for another brand’s appliances to install into their finished kitchen instead.

This leads me to another tricky subject of being notified by certain brands of their having to extend their lead times to deliver products that I ordered ages ago. Meanwhile, my customer can go online and buy the same models directly and have them delivered within 24 hours – possibly cheaper than my margins allow.

How does any of this help business relationships between suppliers and retailers? Maybe, for the sake of good relations all round, I should get the representatives or the managers of these manufacturers to call my clients directly to explain why their kitchen has gaps where the appliances should be?

I am also fed up with hearing the phrase, or more likely the excuse, “that we are all in the same boat”. Wrong! We are all in the same storm, but in very different boats. While the corporates are powering through in their huge liners, I feel like I am left bobbing about in my dinghy. I am also hearing and seeing the same complaints about the same manufacturers being made (LinkedIn has been a very useful resource), yet without any official word of contrition from these companies for what is an industry-wide problem.

We retailers have to pay for the privilege of displaying these companies’ brands in our showrooms and we want to be treated like VIP customers. I also keep mentioning Brexit in my columns, because it isn’t going away. Any suggestions at the start of next year of vast price increases or lock-in deals where I have to display a given number of appliances in my showroom will not be regarded as good customer relations.

What will, though, is to ensure there is sufficient stock in the UK so that you can deliver my orders on time and I can keep my clients happy.

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