‘Independents have the flexibility to meet challenges head-on’
As bathroom retailer Aston Matthews approaches its 200th anniversary, owner Howard Birch considers what 2023 has in store for the industry.
Next year Aston Matthews will have been in Essex Road, Islington for 200 years. As we approach this major milestone, I have been reflecting on the history of the company, from its beginning as a builders merchant to where we are today with showrooms in London and Guildford as well as our thriving website.
We have enjoyed digging out old black and white photographs of the shop and reminiscing over the stock we used to sell and the characters we’ve known. But more importantly we have also been looking to the future. Trying to predict what’s in store for us and the bathroom industry in general.
I joined Aston Matthews in 1978. I’ve certainly seen my fair share of industry peaks and troughs, but the past few years have been some of the most challenging. Brexit, the pandemic, war in Ukraine, fuel shortages and the blocking of Suez have led to extended lead times and price rises.
We used to expect price increases from our suppliers annually, now we are getting six to seven price hikes per year. We have always been fair with our pricing and kept moderate margins, which has left us little wiggle room to absorb this. Price rises have had to be handed on to the customer. Fortunately, we have many loyal customers, we have forged close relationships, so we are honest and open with them in explaining exactly why the prices have had to go up.
We also adopt this policy when it comes to extended lead times, which will continue to be a challenge next year. We explain the problem to our customers and so far, I don’t think we have lost any business because of it. It helps that we can hold stock so that many items are still available immediately. We are buying more than we ever have before, which puts pressure on our cash flow, but service has always been important to us. We take the long approach at Aston Matthews rather than chasing the quick fix.
As well as facing the challenges, we also see opportunities ahead. We have been looking to source more products in the UK and this is proving popular with both consumers and interior designers. There is far greater awareness of sustainability now and customers are asking all the right questions. We have looked at the products we sell in terms of materials, manufacturing process and packaging so as to be more sustainable.
We also see opportunities for repeat business by developing our contacts with interior designers and we are attracting younger customers through our work on social media.
After the disruption of the pandemic, which resulted in unpredictable buying patterns, we’re finally seeing a return to more traditional purchasing having had a busy January and Easter, quiet August and busy autumn. This makes it easier to plan our business and marketing strategies for the year ahead.
In terms of predicting trends for 2023 I think alternative metal finishes will continue to be a strong option. We have worked hard to curate a collection of pieces from different suppliers that match across an entire bathroom from taps to shower door hinges and this has proved popular with interior designers. Our alternative metal finishes account for 70% of sales, chrome is now only 30%. However, chrome is easier to produce and often on shorter lead times, so we may see a resurgence of the chrome tap in 2023 purely because of availability.
Colour has been a big topic this year with coloured sanitaryware popular at the shows. However, we have found that, while customers are attracted to the coloured pieces in the showroom, they tend to buy the same item in white. There’s no doubt that bathrooms have become more of a focus in the home and as a result more decorative and less functional, but I think colour will be added through wallcoverings and tiles rather than a blue WC.
I can see definite challenges ahead. But as an independent retailer, we have the flexibility to meet these challenges head-on, hopefully ensur-ing we’ll still be here in another 200 years.
The biggest opportunity for retailers in 2023 is…
Since the pandemic consumers have gained the confidence to buy even big-ticket items from the comfort of their own home. The internet gives us access to a wider customer base.