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In October 2011, Aclands of Bridgwater was named the High Street Retailer of the Year in the D & G annual ROTY survey. Remarkably, Aclands won this accolade for the fourth time, securing this title also in 2003, 2008 and 2009. How did he achieve this? Anna Ryland asks Martyn Acland, the company’s owner.

Aclands was founded in 1896 by Martyn Acland’s great grand-father who originally run a bookbinders and tobacconists, then a cycle shop which also sold radios. During the 1940s, Aclands began selling other electrical products. The company has traded from the present location, on the edge of the town centre, since 1932.

Martyn began his professional life in London working in Lloyd’s Register of Shipping as a statistician. His older brother was destined to succeed his father into retail but when he became ill Martyn joined the family business. By then he was “fed up” with London

Aclands remains a family business, with both Martyn and his wife Venetia managing various aspects of the company.

On the brown goods side, the company deals mainly with Philips, Toshiba and Samsung. “I try to keep away from the brands which are widely distributed by multiples,” explains Martyn. “I have Samsung in the store because it’s the most popular brand at the moment and it attracts young customers. I occasionally sell Samsung TVs without making any money on them.”

Among the company’s DA brands are: Bosch, Siemens, AEG-Electrolux and Hotpoint. “We also deal with CIH agency brands such as Gorenje and Blomberg. They are not all over the internet and there is some margin left in these products.”

Customers vote with their feet…

Aclands’ customers live within 15-20 miles radius from the store. The majority of them are 45 plus. Some are very wealthy but the store also gets customers from the local council estate, some of whom come through a rent-buy scheme.

“Our customers are generally very loyal. However I noticed that we are losing customers who used to buy brown goods from us – now they are going to supermarkets for them.

“We work very hard to capture youngsters to buy televisions from us but the majority of them buy online or at the supermarkets. Yet, we sell white goods to them. Young couples setting up new homes come to us for their cookers, washing machines or dishwashers. However, once they are over forty they want to be looked after.”

With 116 years of retail presence in Bridgwater, the Aclands brand is well known. “We are not in the town centre so we don’t get much passing trade,“ comments Venetia Acland. “Since many shops disappeared from our street, when someone comes into the store we know that they’re looking to buy something.”

Customers who made a major electrical purchase voted Aclands the High Street Retailer of the Year in the D&G survey for the fourth time in 2011. It is the highest number of wins by any one store in the survey’s history. How do they get such customer recognition?

“Our staff is the most important part of the business,” says Martyn. “They give the customers an excellent service and they have established a personal relationship with them.”

Aclands have six full-time staff and one part-timer. “The majority of them have been with us for many years and they work very well as a team. Pay is not the reason why they stay with us for such a long time,” laughs Martyn.

Aclands have two engineers servicing their brown goods. One of them has been with the company for 50 years. “He is my diamond. He spends hours with our customers and that’s why they love him.”

Although white goods trainers come to the store, “my staff are self-taught to a great extent,” says Martyn. “They like to strip any new product to see how it’s built and how it works. Then they demonstrate this knowledge to the customers.

“We are trying to leave customers happy in whichever way we can. It’s impossible to keep them all happy all the time, but nine times out of ten we succeed.”

“Of course, our customer following comes down to service,” adds Venetia. “They know they can call on us anytime they need to. One of our elderly customers who has recently purchased a washing machine has already come six times to the shop asking for help.”

The Aclands use their website only as a shop window. They took a decision not to trade online as they feel that their internet presence won’t be strong enough to generate sufficient sales. Martyn also believes that the philosophy and practices of internet trading are contrary to the principles of his business and what he stands for.

Market challenges

“Footfall and profitability are the key challenges for us, “ admits Martyn. “Just before Christmas I became very frustrated when all we got were customers who wanted us to match internet prices.” 

He also argues that declining profitability is the main problem of the electrical industry at the moment, much greater than the recession.

“There is no profit left in brown goods. There are a few companies, such as Philips which are trying to keep profit within it but they find it very tough. Manufacturers should stop box chasing and think about their own and our profit. At the end of the day, it won’t be good for the public when everyone who provides goods and services is gone.”

“Survival battle is the main thing for the industry for the next three years. If the industry wishes to keep innovating they need retailers who will be able to sell these innovations. Shrinking margins have an adverse impact on the level of service the retailer gives to the customer; what he can include in the price and how much time can be spent installing the product and educating the customer about it.”

“I don’t see the expansion of this business into new markets,” admits Martyn. He feels that technology developments have overtaken customers. “Customers who haven’t yet understood the internet television technology are already receiving full web browsers. It’s not surprising, they are confused.”

Customer priorities

“People are becoming very conscious of energy efficiency and an increasing number of customers ask for A+ or A++ appliances,” says Martyn. He believes, however, that energy consumption should be explained it terms of cost per hour or a single use – the customer would understand this better – than annual savings.

In his experience, the majority of customers look for simple models of appliances that are available the same day. “Availability is more important than features,” he argues. Approximately 80% of the appliances he sells are distress purchases.

Winning the D&G award

“After we promoted our win in the local paper many people came into the shop to congratulate us and said that we deserved to win it.

“The nicest thing about winning this Award is the fact that we have done nothing to win it. Nothing other than doing our normal job,” says Martyn.

“It doesn’t convert into instant sales but it gives people reassurance that you’re whom they thought you are. If our customers take trouble to complete these forms and post them to D&G, they must believe that we’re giving them a good service,” concludes Venetia.

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