‘We’re not brand-led, we’re style-led…’
Since Andrew Crellen took over The Bathroom Shop in Carlisle he’s had to cope with a general election, floods and now Brexit. But after refocusing the business and revamping his showroom, the future apparently looks bright. David Harris hears more about his approach to retailing
The past year has done a lot to focus the minds of retailers on how much political events affect business. Is Brexit going to mean that fewer bathrooms and kitchens are sold? Did last year’s election have any effect on trade? And if so, what precisely were the repercussions?
It often seems that although everybody agrees that outside events have consequences for retailers, the real skill is in knowing what those consequences might be in practical, everyday terms.
Outside events have certainly been much in the mind of Andrew Crellen since he bought the Bathroom Shop in Carlisle two years ago, in October 2014.
He had been working for the previous owner for five years, when he bought it for around £20,000 with the intention of injecting new life into the business. He has succeeded – at least partly – but it has been in the face of not just the election, referendum and Brexit, but also the floods that ravaged Carlisle last year.
Of course, these events are very different from one another, but his experience indicates that what they have in common is how their outcome is not necessarily straightforward and predictable.
Take the floods. Crellen is diplomatically restrained about admitting that the floods in Carlisle did mean that some people needed to replace their bathrooms, characterising it as “unfortunate but welcome demand”.
But perhaps the most interesting feature of that demand was in the specifics.
Crellen says: “It is undeniable that the floods did do us some good, but bathrooms are often on the first floor, so many homes were unaffected. However, Carlisle does have a large quarter of old-fashioned terraced homes with bathrooms on the ground floor, which did need replacing. Our job was to make sure we were mindful of overstretched resources and limited client budgets.”
Mind you, in situations like this, it is sometimes possible to leap to the wrong conclusion altogether about business peaks and troughs.
Since Crellen took over in 2014, he has had his own series of ups and downs. Initially, he increased turnover by around 20%. In the first six months, he took £300,000 against an annual turnover previously running at between £400,000 and £500,000. It was helped because, in his first month, he had a single job for five bathrooms in one large house, which earned the shop £30,000 on its own.
Crellen says: “I thought OK, that’s brilliant, I don’t have to worry too much for the moment. I used part of the money for a refurbishment of the shop and new displays, which cost £35,000 altogether, but made a real difference. The shop wasn’t what it should be and changing the showroom a bit was one of the key elements of improving the business.”
Staff also matter and Crellen is happy with his team of five, made up of “a cleaner, a delivery man, two sales staff and myself”.
So far, so good. But then in March and April of 2015, around six months after Crellen had taken over the shop, business “dried up”, in his words.
He says: “At first, I put this down to the election having the effect of making people put off buying a new bathroom. Now, I’m not so sure. My dad was convinced it was because this was also the time that we were refurbishing and that customers were put off coming into the shop because we were working on it.”
It could have been a combination of both, but the fact that Crellen is unclear about the reasons for the sudden dip underlines the difficulties of attributing the vagaries of trade to any single cause.
Fortunately, trade has recovered again since and he is sure that part of the reason for this is that the first phase of the refurbishment, which included increasing the number of displays to 27 from about half that previously, is now complete.
Crellen says: “One of the issues with this showroom is that it has always been seen in Carlisle as expensive and posh. It has put people off in the past. One of the ways the previous owner tried to combat this was to put a sign in the window saying that we can match internet prices, but then filling the shop with stuff you can get cheaper online. This couldn’t work. It needed a completely fresh approach.”
That approach included offering a good range of products across price ranges, with some that customers are unlikely to be able to buy easily anywhere else near to Carlisle. Brands on offer now encompass the Thomas Crapper range, for which The Bathroom Shop has the only representation in Cumbria and south-west Scotland. Other brands include Burlington, Perrin and Rowe, Porcelanosa, Heritage and Kudos, among many others. The point, for Crellen, is to provide choice.
He says: “We are not a brand-led showroom, we are a style-led showroom. What we try to do is find out what a customer wants in terms of style and then source something that is within their budget. People are quite likely to look at something they like, decide it is too expensive and then look at another style altogether. We try to encourage them to say what style they like and then we find something in that style to fit the money they have to spend.”
Crellen says: “Overall business has increased and I like to think that a degree of that is down to the improvements in the showroom. The shop looks expensive, but that is a double-edged sword. We want to pull people in, but not put them off. It’s one reason why we don’t price anything in the shop.”
Part of this is down to the nature of the Carlisle market. Its population of around 75,000 is, says Crellen, “mainly working class, made up of ordinary people”. Not many, in other words, will spend £20,000 on a new bathroom, so any bathroom retailer has to structure itself accordingly.
Crellen says: “Consumers now want as much return on their investment as possible, with a personal service and retail journey that guides them through every stage.”
The competition in town, he says, consists of just a handful of shops, with one offering luxury bathrooms, “plus a load of little plumbers whose main principle is that they are cheap”.
The Bathroom Shop’s typical customer spends between £2,000 and £5,000 on a bathroom, supply-only, with fitting often being done by one of six or seven independent fitters that Crellen is confident about recommending. The main sales area for the store is within a 25-mile radius of Carlisle.
He does have a website, which has been updated since he took over the company, but as with many retailers, its main purpose is to get customers into the shop. It does not sell directly.
Crellen’s view of websites is respectful in terms of their commercial success, but less so in the service they provide.
He says: “A website does not allow consumers to touch, feel and experience products first-hand. Although detailed information is often provided, you can never really get a feel for its size or quality of manufacture. A showroom and its staff can instil confidence in a product range, overcome design hurdles and even save both time and money for the user.
That seems a remarkably good hit rate and Crellen confirms that Brexit does not seem to have affected it at all.
He says: “It’s always hard to tell, as I say, but for the past few months our business has been 50% up on the same period last year, which is a good thing as that was a difficult period.”
Crellen is cautious about the future, even if recent increases in sales have left him in reasonably good heart.
He says: “My confidence is definitely growing, but the market still has a lot of work to do, as the level of investment for the bathroom has dramatically decreased over the years. Customers now seem to be working to a much tighter budget, with us retailers really having to battle against outside influences: online-only discounting, social media promotions and even exclusive show offers we can’t compete with.
“So, for us, it’s all about added value and what other incentives we can offer our customers, such as a free design service or full project management.”
Carlisle is also one of those places that has a strong local loyalty. People often like to buy in their own town and Carlisle’s sense of self has been bolstered by the way the community stood together during the floods.
Most retailers should be able to use that to their advantage and bathrooms are no exception.