The community business

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Dorset-based independent Holmans has earned the trust and loyalty of its customers by being a part of the local community for over sixty years. Anna Ryland reports.

Holmans was founded in the historic market town of Wimborne, Dorset, in 1948 by William Holman, the grandfather of Gary and Steve Holman, who jointly manage the company today.

Originally the business was called Holmans Radio and it sold radios and charged accumulators. Roger Holman, son of William took over the business in the mid-1960s. Gary became involved in the business in 1984 and, together with his younger brother Steve, they have been running the company since 1990s. Just before their father retired, in 1989, they opened the store in Ferndown. Their Panasonic store in Bournemouth was added to their portfolio in 2010. Holmans has its own warehouse which also accommodates its servicing facility.

Gary Holman was trained to be a history teacher but soon realized that he didn’t enjoy teaching. Steve graduated in computer science and was self-employed for five years before joining the business. He wrote his first software system for Holmans when he was still at school.

Over the years the Wimborne store has expanded four-fold, gradually absorbing the premises of the neighbouring retail outlets.

Although Holmans deals with both CE and DA products, it is a predominantly consumer electronics retailer, with brown goods accounting for two thirds of its business. “Panasonic is our strongest brand,” says Gary. They also deal with Sony and Bose, and have a small selection of Sharp, Toshiba and Linsar televisions. On the white goods side, they stock Miele, Bosch and Hotpoint. “We are very strong in custom installation,” says Steve. “We had this business since the early 1990s when we dealt with Bang & Olufsen and Armour. “We found that custom install is an excellent string to our bow. If someone needs more than a basic install, even if it isn’t a full custom installation, we are able to provide a tailored service having very wide expertise in this area,” adds Gary.

Holmans has also been offering rentals for many years. “We rent mostly brown goods. The core customer base for rental has declined. However we still have a group of people who prefer to rent a television knowing that they will always get the latest technology and support if anything goes wrong. Rental works for us because we later refurbish these products and sell them at discounted prices,” says David Woods, manger of the Wimborne store.

Holmans’ customers

“The profile of our customers differs from branch to branch. The age of the Ferndown store’s customers is ten years higher than the Wimborne store, and in Bournemouth is ten years lower than in Wimborne,” explains Steve. “Wimborne is an affluent historic town and our customers here are predominantly middle class professionals or retired people, and an average age here is 45 plus. Having said this, we have strong competition here. In addition to a large Currys, we have John Lewis at Home in Pool and two other Euronics dealers in Wimborne,” says Gary.

“However because of a wide range of brands (such as Bose which has a dedicated part of the store) and products we sell, we appeal to different customer groups,” adds David Woods.

“Our customers are very loyal,” explains Gary. “We have a huge database going back to 1948 which we probably don’t use as much as we should although we have done a lot of well-targeted direct marketing over the years. We used the traditional mail format before our customers started using email. As a rule we target people with specific offers. For example, we would target our customers who haven’t bought a television from us during the previous three years with various TV offers.”

Steve adds: “Our electronic database is not as extensive as the paper one and with our customers being older, not all of them use email so this form of communication is less effective for us.”

The Holmans team

Holmans employs 30 staff (including two bench engineers) in three stores and at the warehouse. There are eight people working for the Wimborne store. “Some of them have been with us for many, many years,” says Gary.

“I have been working for Holmans for 26 years,” smiles David Woods, who has spent all his life in electrical retail both at the multiple and independent channels. “A couple of engineers who retired last year have been with us since they left school. This is probably because the staff enjoy what they do and how we conduct the business here,” adds David.

Being different

“We try to give our customers the best service possible,” says David. “They know that if they buy from us and have a problem with the product they can come back and they will get help. We offer our own service with the warranty and this gives customers confidence that they call for help when they need it. Most importantly, we offer ten-month interest-free credit which is a tremendous help in gaining new business. This also gives us another excuse to contact them at the end of the ten-month period.”

“Indeed the most effective form of contact with a customer is not an offer but a thank you message for their business,” stresses Gary. “It works best for us.”

Then he adds: “We have been a part of the Wimborne community for sixty years. There are not many shops here with the same record. As a family we are well known in Wimborne and this certainly helps. We actively participate in the life of the town, for example, in the recent efforts to improve the town centre. We also sponsor local charities and the local rugby club.

“Although people are now less loyal than they used to be, they will pop in and give us a chance to make an offer. When people come in and tell us that they have seen the product on the internet we ask them to closely examine that offer. Does it include installations, delivery and a five-year warranty?”

David says: “We also invest a lot of effort and money in making the store look nice as it is very important nowadays to match the service with the right ambiance.”

The challenges ahead

“There is an opportunity in custom install and, once the housing market will start going again, there will be growth in white goods. Comet has done a lot of volume in white goods and not of this will go to Currys,” says Gary.

“We have been in different recessions, and up to now they were generally good for us because we had a stable business and we were able to offer an interest-free credit. However this recession is different, as interest rates have been very low for a very long time. The television market has become saturated so we have to sell other products. Some of them, like cameras, are very difficult to sell and margins on them are small. The only area where we c
an make up the shortfall is white goods.”

Steve adds: “We have always tried to put profit back into the business and consolidate what we have. Most of the premises we have we own, with the exception of the Bournemouth store.”

Although they consider the internet as a key challenge, the Holmans embraced the web. “We have separate transactional websites for our Panasonic store, the Holmans and for Bose. Our prices on the web are the same as in store. We have also dispensed with some old stock through Amazon,” explains Gary.  “We have also had a couple of sales through EuronicsDirect site. This was after the Euronics ads were screened. Some of them were shot in our store and David was the star in them. “This is how I became famous,” laughs David. “In a small way it works for us because people still recognize me – even after I had a hair cut!”

“If I could change one thing about the industry I would try to get the government to balance up the level of tax paid by the companies for their internet sales with the bricks and mortar sales,” says Gary. “High street retailers pay a lot business rates to have shops while e-tailers do not. Somehow the balance has to be reached. Unless the government wakes up to this fact, there will be even more empty shops on the high street.”

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