Our mystery shopper first visited these two Essex towns in 2001. We went back in 2009 to check up on the same showrooms. Now Chris Frankland visits the towns again to talk to two of the original retailers plus a local merchant and a brand new bathroom showroom to see how KBB retailing in the area has progressed over the past 13 years
When we last visited the two Essex towns of Billericay and Basildon, the country was still recovering from the financial crisis of 2007/2008. This time around, the country is still reeling from another kind of crisis – the coronavirus pandemic – and the aftermath of Brexit.
Two of the original businesses have closed. In one case, the owner died and the proprietor of the other business simply retired. Two remain – Hutton Kitchens in Billericay and Manor Design in Basildon, so we made up the numbers to four with Beggs and Partners, a long-established plumbing and heating merchant that also does bathrooms, and Luck and Fuller, which opened last July and is a finalist in the kbbreview Retail & Design Awards 2022 – New Bathroom Retailer of the Year category.
High streets have taken a pounding with shop vacancy rates at around 14.5%. The latest figures for the Basildon district show 54 business closures per 100,000 population and 64 start-ups. So that is a positive. And KBB retailing is going strong just now, with many retailers reporting record order books, boosted by the home-improvement boom.
Basildon District Council’s Local Plan promises six new housing development sites and town-centre improvements for Basildon and more than 3,000 new homes for Billericay by 2034. Good news for KBB retailers.
The consensus of the retailers we spoke to was that this is an affluent area with a good demographic. Basildon centre is bigger with a large shopping mall and many chains, whereas Billericay has a more traditional high street with lots of independent food and artisan-style stores. This explains why our two Billericay showrooms are adjacent to the high street, whereas our Basildon duo are on industrial parks.
Cranes Farm Road, Basildon
This is one of the original retailers we visited in 2009. Unlike our Billericay ones, Manor Design is on an industrial park on a main dual carriageway and describes itself as the largest interior design centre in south Essex.
The company moved to its current premises in the late Eighties and needed the space the site offered because it used to manufacture its own kitchens. By the time of our first visit in 2009, it had stopped doing that and now sells Beckermann, Stoneham, Ashley Anne and Allengray. Its bespoke kitchens are from Peter Thomson of York.
Owner Colin Harvey (pictured) says: “This road is one of the busiest in the area with thousands of cars going up and down. We have a big, visible building with plenty of parking. Our immediate catchment area is not Basildon, but the surrounding areas of Southend, Wickford, Shenfield, Billericay, Upminster and Hornchurch.”
Of its 8,000sq ft premises, 2,000sq ft is showroom space and the rest is warehousing and a workshop. Manor Design used some of the space previously used to manufacture kitchens to put in a bathroom showroom, although it has retained some workshop space for making bespoke furniture. Harvey explains: “We make MDF furniture and doors, which we can paint in our own spray shop. We are currently doing a whole house and working on a bookcase with a secret door into an opening in the wall, where he has two very large safes built into the wall. We are doing more whole-house projects now.”
Manor Design sits squarely in the mid- to top-end, with average kitchen sales of £30,000 and £18,000 to £20,000 for bathrooms. Harvey adds: “We deal right across the board. We work with developers and architects and a builder may have us do a £1m house as one project and then the next one might be four cheap flats. We offer full installation.”
Harvey explains that over the past few years they have been selling more bathrooms, which account for 40% of sales, with 10% being bedrooms and the 50% lion’s share being kitchens. Manor Design is a Villeroy and Boch bathrooms solus centre.
Commenting on business since 2009, Harvey says: “It’s been a bit of a see-saw. Around 2009, the recession kicked in and we had a few lean years. We have been very busy over the past couple of years.
“Because we have been established since 1990, we get people come in who bought kitchens 20 years ago and are looking to change the doors, worktops, or all of it.”
He adds: “Companies have fallen by the wayside, so there is less competition. Our turnover has gone up from around £1 million in 2009 to £1.7m now.
As for future plans, Harvey says they will be using part of the bathroom display area for bedrooms.
BEGGS & PARTNERS
15 Seax Centre, Southfields Industrial Estate, Basildon
This bathroom, heating and plumbing specialist is the one of two new businesses we visited in Basildon this time around.
Beggs and Partners is a family-run business that started in Belfast in 1960 and has grown steadily, having recently opened its seventh branch in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. It now has five branches in the UK. One in Cambridge and four in Essex – Grays, Hockley, Hutton and Basildon, where we’re talking to divisional operations manager Rock Goodey (pictured).
Beggs has a large commercial sanitaryware and heating division and Goodey tells us they have two or three vehicles a day going into London to serve the city and surrounding counties.
Although Beggs sells plumbing and heating supplies, make no mistake, it has a very serious bathroom offering and has sold bathrooms from day one. They represent somewhere between 40% and 50% of its business.
As you enter the building, you are greeted in the foyer by a bathroom display before venturing further in to find the plumbing and heating sales counter. But the main bathroom showroom is upstairs, where it has many well-appointed displays, including its own Instinct brand.
Goodey explains: “Beggs has invested a lot of money into the Essex branches and has just had brand new bathroom showrooms built. We have a good relationship with all of our suppliers, which include Armitage Shanks, Roper Rhodes, Grohe, Hansgrohe and Roca. The retail side has been growing. We always had plans to open a new bathroom showroom in Basildon, but because of Covid we had to delay completion. Since it opened, we have had lots of customers coming in.”
Goodey explains that the typical complete bathroom sale at Basildon is £4,000 to £5,000 and for those customers that need it, Beggs offers a design service, based in Belfast.
“If someone gives me a set of plans, we send that to Belfast, they do the CAD drawing and then we provide the customer with a presentation. We get the designs back within 48 hours. We’re thinking about installing the software into our branches in Essex.”
As for installations and installers. Goodey says: “We have a big book of tradesmen that we deal with that we can recommend to customers.”
Goodey says the local area is thriving with plenty of businesses.
Radford Way, Billericay
At the northernmost end of Billericay High Street and within a stone’s throw of the station, this spacious two-floor, 3,000sq ft showroom is one of those we visited back in 2009 and is still going strong.
One of our kbbreview100, owner Ed Scott (pictured) says they opened the original studio in Hutton in 1992 and that when we last visited, the Billericay showroom had been open for less than 10 years. Now, this family-owned and run business is in its 30th year.
Scott reflects on how the market and his business have changed. For one, they have seen the rise of the internet and online retailing.
He explains that while in the past they used to have many sales of solo appliances and sinks, that business has largely gone online now and margins have suffered accordingly, so the company now concentrates on higher-value, complete kitchen sales.
He explains: “We moved into high-value kitchens. We always did the full service – removing walls, electrics, plastering and we still do a lot of that. The average value of our kitchens has gone up but customer expectations have also gone up.”
And that meant changes to the showroom. He tells me: “The showroom was refitted nine years ago to show fewer kitchens, but much bigger displays.
“Before we had 14 kitchens and lots of appliances and sinks. Now upstairs we have six, fully working, displays. We do a lot more live cookery events, which we didn’t do before.”
Scott says that with the business now being far better established, more customers are happy to come in and spend £50,000 to £60,000 on their new kitchen.
Turnover since 2009 has risen by half-a-million pounds, and over the years he says they have achieved efficiencies by converting what was a paper-based business to one that has automated systems to handle all the stages of a sale.
Back in 2009, Hutton was buying carcasses and doors from different suppliers but has now settled on buying in complete kitchens from Mereway and Häcker.
And although most customers want modern, handleless kitchens, Scott has found that “in the past 12 months, there has been a move back to warmer, more homely traditional kitchens and so we have been selling more painted shaker designs than we have for a long time”.
Another big change he has seen is with supply chain issues. He now tends to hold around £100,000 worth of appliances rather than ordering just in time as he did before.
He adds: “We have good cash flow and no borrowings, so we can handle that. We have a very strong business.”
Scott believes that the studio is in a good location, with affluent customers and a buoyant high street.
LUCK & FULLER
High Street, Billericay
Our second Billericay showroom, at the opposite end of the High Street from Hutton Kitchens, is newbie Luck and Fuller, which opened last July.
Co-owner Kenneth Luck (pictured)has made an excellent job of the showroom, with bold displays that show a good variety of colours, finishes and styles and the business is also a finalist in the New Bathroom Showroom of the Year category of the kbbreview Retail & Design Awards 2022.
And what a cracking location they found. Luck explains: “This was slightly out of our price range, but we fell in love with it. They say it’s all about ‘location, location, location’ and that has proved true. We have caused a few near accidents at the roundabout with people rubbernecking the bright pink bath in the window.”
And Luck is no stranger to the KBB industry. “I was a sales rep selling into bathroom showrooms for the past seven years,” he explains. “I learnt a lot about what I wanted to show.”
And so far it has been going well: “Business has been better than good. We had quite an optimistic business plan and we exceeded that in six months. We are booked until July and that is beyond our wildest dreams.”
And there is a good mix of brands here. Luck says: “When we opened, we wanted to make sure that if someone wanted to spend £2,000 on a suite, they could. We have RAK, MyLife Bathrooms and Saneux, which cover that. We also have Vanity Hall, Catalano and Laufen, which will look after that £20,000 sale.
“And we wanted everything in between. We also have Thomas Crapper and Sbordoni for a more traditional look, although 98% of sales so far are modern.”
Luck also explains how average sales values have increased: “When we opened, we were trying too hard to win orders and were more price-sensitive and the average sale was £12,000. Over the past three months, we have been pushing Catalano and Laufen and the average sale is more like £17,000.”
Luck and Fuller employ their own installers. Luck explains: “Quite unusually, it doesn’t matter whether you are having a £50,000 or a £12,000 bathroom fitted, providing it is the same amount of work, we charge the same install price.”
Luck says the local high street is thriving, with lots of independent restaurants, coffee shops, bars and antique shops, and has found that people in Billericay like to support local businesses.
So what of the immediate future? Luck says: “A big market that I personally think we will be tapping into next year will be house builders. We have employed Gemma as showroom manager so I can focus on running the business. If you rest on your laurels, you will be overtakEN by younger, hungrier companies.”