“We vastly underestimated the strength of the independent”

Reflecting on what he learnt during his career at Magnet, TKC’s Anjum Ahmed reveals the advantages he feels independents have over their national corporate competitors

I spent 22 years at Magnet, and, in that time, I have to confess that independent retailers really weren’t on our radar. You were a different animal, doing your own thing. Our fellow nationals were our competitors and we all spent millions on advertising, building brand awareness and vying for top spot in the Boxing Day sales figures.

However, since moving to TKC, I’ve realised we vastly underestimated the strength and potential of the independent.

Whether you like it or not, everybody is competing with Howdens and Wren. Why is your product better, regardless of price? Would having one of their cabinets at hand help you demonstrate it? I’ve seen retailers do this really successfully.

The push for standardisation often means that cabinets are the weakest part of the nationals’ offer, whether that’s colour choice, size options or reducing the specification of hidden elements. It’s impossible for nationals to know the vast range of product available to independents, but not vice versa. It’s inevitable that the sheds will have larger buying power, but the product specification is often poorer. My advice is always: don’t enter the race to the bottom but be able to justify your pricing. Consumers don’t buy a kitchen regularly so they need to know that not all gloss white kitchens are the same.

Social media isn’t going away anytime soon. There’s 30.6m people in the UK with an Instagram account alone, which is almost half of the UK population. Embrace social media, post regularly and – while a high number of followers can boost your ego – engagement with your posts is the true metric to understand if consumers like what you’re doing. If it’s not your thing, that’s fine, outsource it to a professional to do it for you. But it must be part of your business mix.

The classic saying of “people buy from people” is particularly relevant when it comes to high ticket items. Nationals can have a lot of staff churn, whereas independent retailers are mostly driven by the owner, which gives consumers more confidence in having an invested and meaningful relationship. But for sanity, you need to have staff that are engaged, incentivised and there for the long term.

Recruitment isn’t easy and arguably more difficult than ever, but this is an area where you excel over the nationals.

The nationals have a pre–determined product range. I know this because it used to be one of my responsibilities. The product range for an independent is limitless and the choice of suppliers not enforced by head office or ‘someone in an ivory tower’ as I was once referred to

The best independents I’ve met have the ability to do business with a wide range of people who walk into their showroom and this dramatically increases your conversion potential. TKC have a Paint to Order offer that includes over 2700 colours – this is the sort of flexibility that cuts through versus a nationwide cookie-cutter approach.

It’s easy to walk into a B&Q or Wren. Customers can walk around quite comfortably, “kicking the tyres” or “skint dreaming”, looking for some inspiration. Compare that to a smaller independent, where there’s less floor space, often a couple of staff and potentially far more instant interaction.Customers can feel a bit daunted to walk through the door.

Take a moment to walk out of your showroom and walk back in looking through the eyes of the customer. Are you portraying the best possible impression? Is everywhere as tidy and organised as you would like? Independent showrooms are busy working environments, often with staff multi tasking and sometimes things just get missed.

Language is also important. The polite “Can I help you” is likely to get a “No, I’m just looking thanks”. A former colleague of mine used to say “What brought you in today?” – it opened conversation immediately and made a friendly impression. Independents may not have the deep pockets of the nationals, but you have the knowledge and agility to far outperform them any day of the week. Courage!

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