Knowing your customer

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Stuart Wiggins has been running an electrical independent business, in Rothbury, at the heart of rural Northumberland, for the last 20 years. In 1967, he joined the parent company, The Seaton Valley Relay, which specialized in sound and vision line rentals, as an apprentice radio and TV engineer. Having worked for the company for twelve years, during which it had undergone several transformations, Stuart bought its Rothbury branch (which he had run since 1967). In 1989, he started trading under his own name “as everybody knew me as such”.

Stuart employs two full-time and two part-time staff (one of them has been with them 16 years). Stuart’s right hand man, who joined them straight after leaving school, has been working with him for the last 15 years. His wife, Audrey Wiggins does the bookkeeping and staff payroll for the company.

Rothbury is a small village off the beaten track, deep in Northumberland. “Its only claim to fame is Cragside House, the home of an eminent Victorian, Lord Amstrong, and the first house in the world lit by hydroelectricity.”

Apart from retailing consumer electronics products and domestic appliances, the company specializes in aerial installations – not only in private houses, but also in communal buildings, caravan sites, hotels and guesthouses. The main CE brands he sells are Panasonic, Sony and Samsung, while on the white goods side he deals with Bosch, Hotpoint, Indesit and Whirlpool. His business model is determined by the size of his operations. He doesn’t deal with manufacturers directly “as I need flexibility in terms of size of orders and prompt delivery. I use distributors and wholesalers as and when I need it.”

His main competitor, apart from the internet, is a large agricultural cooperative shop twelve miles away which sells brown and white goods.

Local means special

The rural location of Stuart Wiggins’ company determines his business approach and the relationship he has with his customers. It is also the key to his success.

“Rothbury has a big farming community. Among my customers are lords, farmers, people on income support and council housing tenants. Their needs could be very different. But I treat all of them the same.”

He wins and keeps his customers by “being true to myself. My customers know me well. Many of them come back to me after a number of years because they had good experience with the company and remember us.”

At the same time, Stuart has a very clear customer focus. “You cannot be all things to all men. The customer is always right but not every customer is right for you. So you soon find out which customers are right for you. There are some people who look for basement bargains, where there is no room for profit and no way of sustaining a business. I have to be honest with them. However, I try to give the best service I can to anyone who comes to me.”

The company does a limited amount of servicing, the majority of white goods repairs passing onto another retra member. At the same time Stuart tries to convince his customers to take extended warrantees. He delivers and installs almost all of the products without making an additional delivery charge. However the prices of the televisions he sells include the installation charge.

Beating the competition

Together with the knowledge of his customers and their needs, Stuart Wiggins’ competitive weapon is his professional expertise.

“We are in a unique situation here in the valley – there is not much specialist technical expertise (which is also true of the rest of the country as vocational qualification training is getting scarcer) and not many people can deal with installation or servicing of the increasingly sophisticated consumer electronics products. Few customers see the difference even between various TV cables.”

The rapidly growing cost of overheads is the greatest challenge for the company. “As a result we have to work harder than ever before but the income is smaller.” Meanwhile the internet is both a threat and an opportunity for him.  “People buy flat panel TVs off the internet or in the supermarkets, go home and cannot get them working. Then they call me for help.  The internet won’t duplicate my technical expertise and the service which I can give.”

Opportunities for independents

For Stuart Wiggins, Freesat and Freeview represent the most significant recent business opportunities. “Bryan Lovewell of retra has done a fantastic job getting Freesat away from the jaws of Argos and delivering it to the hands of independents. We have done a lot of work with Freesat here, for example by installing it in rows and rows of caravans.” 

Being an electrical independent business is an opportunity in itself, says Stuart. “My motto is: tomorrow is another day, tomorrow is a different challenge. The independent electrical business is changing all the time and you have to be prepared to move with the times. Being independent means that you’re free to respond to business challenges in any way you feel fit; although you need to change and adapt.”

Winning the Independent Business Awards 2009 didn’t go unnoticed in Rothbury. “When I put the picture from the Awards evening in the store window many people came to congratulate us. In such a small community it counts for a lot. One of my customers even took the picture and framed it for us free of charge. Others told me how proud they were of us.”

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