A family business

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A fresh approach to business and the willingness to constantly adapt to the changing market lie at the heart of the business strategy of the Carter family that won them the accolade of the Best Independent Retailer in the Domestic Appliances, Large category,   in this year’s Independent Business Awards. Anna Ryland reports.

When the Carter family bought in October 1991 a store in Haywards Heath selling furniture suites, lighting and graded domestic goods they had no experience of retail. It was to be a business sideline only. “I was working as a freelance accountant and lawyer and my brother Richard was employed as a manger of an international removal company,” reminisces Robert Carter. “But it was a true family business as Jessica’s brother was involved in it as well.” Jessica Carter, Robert’s wife and a bi-lingual secretary, was bringing up their two children at the time. Now she is the face of the company on the sales floor and both their sons are also involved in the business. 

“The first couple of years were hard but we turned the business around and started making money,” explains Robert. “We began selling domestic appliances, in addition to lighting and lawn mowers – which we did for a period of time. When we joined CIH in 1994, the company became a true domestic appliance business.” Richard was the most hands-on member of the team – working on the shop floor and managing the deliveries, while Robert was busy behind the scenes running the accounts and looking for ways of expanding the operations.

In 1994, the Carter family opened two more shops – in South Wick and Horsham, in 1995 they acquired a store in Hove and it was followed by a property in Burgess Hill in 1996. In 1997, they opened a store in Cranleigh. The same year they made a bold move of investing all their savings in a property in Brighton which became the company’s flagship store.

The company currently has seven stores, including a shop attached to a warehouse in Storrington – with 37,500 square feet of space. “This enables us to buy white goods at a right price that gives us an edge over our competitors,” says Robert. Carters are the owner of all but two of their stores.

The company deals predominantly in white goods. Yet, since they have opened a Panasonic account, the brothers have been considering stocking some of the Panasonic televisions.

“We analyse all our business lines by profit,” explains Robert. This year Blomberg became our biggest profit earner. It is a CIH agency product that comes with a decent margin – but it’s sold on features not on price. Next comes Beko, then the BSH Group’s products and Miele. This is mostly due to us having the Miele Experience Centre in Brighton – which is also featured on the Miele website.”

The customers

“With our stores we service the whole population,” says Jessica laughing. “One of the reasons of our success is the fact that we have a range of stores which attract customers from different socio-economic groups with varying requirements,” clarifies Richard. “Our monthly management reports show that the average price of appliances we sell is raising so we don’t offer the cheapest price but the overall deal is very good. We still offer free delivery and free connection in Sussex and Surrey.  We charge a nominal amount for taking away the old appliance.”

The company has its own service department and services all appliances outside the manufacturers’ warranty.

“Our number one priority is customer service. We treat our customers the way we would like to be treated,” says Jessica. “We have many loyal customers but we particularly fuss around the elderly who come to our stores.

“We also support the Dodgson Foundation: a local charity set up to help people over 55 who have fallen on hard times. Some of them live without any heating, cooking or laundry facilities. To the people supported by the Foundation, we sell domestic appliances at cost price and help them in whichever way we can.”

The team

The company employs 40 people including office personnel, accounting, warehousing staff and drivers. On the shop floor there are 23 sales staff and “at the moment we looking to recruit more sales staff,” admits Robert.

Their ages range from 20 to beyond the retirement age of 65. “Now we also have an NVQ apprentice who is proving to be a real asset,” adds Jessica.

Since most of the staff stays with the company until they retire, I ask Robert how they motivate them. “We treat them like members of our family and they are better paid than many retail staff. There are also plenty of staff incentives – provided by the manufacturers and our own. We organize ‘social interaction days’, family parties, a Christmas dinner for staff and their partners.

“We are trying to be a caring employer – because you get out of people what you put in.”

The successful formula

“Our business came into being in a recession and we have always expanded in a recession,” says Richard. “We have always taken a long term view. We are continuously reinvesting in the business – developing, updating and modernizing the company. And we constantly analyse our performance – using computer models and spreadsheets – and this gives us a clear picture of the business; which areas are profitable and which are less so.”

Jessica stresses: “We have been working in different businesses before; so we took a fresh look at our company and we continue doing this. Some retailers stick to old and tried formulas – they do what their fathers did although the times have changed.

“Most importantly we love what we do. Every Monday I come to the shop with pleasure because I truly enjoy working with the public. I think that our staff also like working here and the customers can see it. A miserable face behind the counter must be one of the most off-putting things a customer could encounter.

“We have a policy of doing each others jobs if a need arises and we would never ask a member of staff to do something that we wouldn’t do ourselves – and this includes cleaning the loo.”

“A key to our success is also the fact that we operate a number of stores – with varying focus,” adds Robert.  If you have only one store you may have a very quiet week – and the whole company is not doing well then. With several stores – you have peaks and troughs – and you can balance them better.

“Our strength is also a good communication system. We have one broadband for the accounting system for each store and the second one for inter-store communications. It is the VOIP system that allows constant communication between all company’s personnel, including drivers.”

The industry in the new era

“We like to think that the old fashioned values of good service and choice are important to the customers – even in the era of internet trading. The internet market is getting bigger – whether we like or not – we should respond to the challenge and stay ahead of customers’ requirements,” stresses Jessica.

Carters has its own website which is an e-commerce site “but it’s different from other online retail sites. It’s interactive as it encourages people to answer questions about the products they are looking for, such as spin speed, size or colour, and it channels them towards products meeting their needs. Our sales people also use it in the store, “explains Richard.

“Everything in the independent sector now tends to be price driven. Customers come in asking for the cheapest appliance. We respond by asking a few questions, trying to establish their needs and suggest that the cheapest does not necessary means the best for them. By explaining features and benefits of an appliance we are often able to convert an entry point sale to a mid-point sale.

“But there is no doubt that the independent’s slice of the cake is getting smaller. Some multiples have lost their ways; others such as John Lewis found their own business formula and are thriving. But as long as we are happy to change and evolve, we feel that we can meet these challenges,” concludes Robert.

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