Winning the custom

In Features On

Blaine Upton, the owner of Blaines, an electrical independent business in Norfolk, won the title of the Best Large Independent, DA, in this year’s Independent Business Awards. He told Anna Ryland why running a business in a recession is like preparing for a marathon …

Blaine Upton became his own boss at an age when the majority of people have no idea what to do with their lives. “At 21, Nat West and I went into a partnership to buy the domestic appliances part of  my employer’s business, Graham Electricals. The owner felt he wasn’t making any money on white goods. A year later he became disappointed with the brown good side of the business so I bought it too. It was 1982. It all moved on from there,” recollects Blaine.

Today Blaines is in its 29th year. It consists of three stores located in Norfolk within a radius of 12 miles. The head office of Blaines is in the market town of Swaffham. Two other stores are in Watton and East Dereham. All shops are freehold properties – “this helps us to keep the costs down”. The company recently acquired a warehouse – in anticipation of launching its online operations. All shops attract customers from around 25 miles radius. Blaines’ local competition consists of Hughes Electricals, Bennetts and another electrical independent.

The business specializes in domestic appliance brands such as Bosch, Siemens, Hotpoint, Rangemaster, Falcon and Beko, aerial and satellite installation and a complete home design. Blaines also deals with some CE brands such as Samsung, Sony, Sharp and LG and stocks a range of small appliances including Bosch, Morphy Richards and Kenwood.

The next major development for the company is going to be the launch of its e-commerce site later on this year. “I will be selling online brown and white goods but also all our services – planning and design of kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms. But I hope to do this in a controlled way; only selected products will be on the website. I don’t want to be a busy fool,” stresses Blaine. 

The team

Blaines has 2-3 sales personnel in every store and two delivery staff who service all three shops. Their ages range from 35 to 45 and they have been with the company between ten and twenty years. “We try to employ more mature people as they provide more stability but they also better relate to our customers.”

He contracts kitchen and bathroom installers, electricians and plumbers for home design projects. “I have been using the same people for 25 years.”

 Asked how he keeps his staff motivated Blaine says: “I think it comes from the top. I still enjoy what I’m doing and we are always trying to improve things.

“This is a team effort and I like them to think that they work for Blaines not for me. I leave it to the managers to come out with their own ideas for store improvements, advertising etc.”

Blaines’ customers “are mostly middle aged, affluent people who require service. A good proportion of business is gained through recommendations and some of our customers are the third generation of the original ones. In a small community it is very important to uphold the reputation.

“We are trying to position ourselves in the middle of the market where people will pay a fair price for a good service. It could be compared to Bosch’s position in the market, that’s why I stock many of the brand’s products.

“I specialize in good customer service and we are very particular about how we treat our customers, and go this extra mile to keep them happy.”

Business approach

Blaine Upton starts his day with an early morning run. Running for marathons is his ‘hobby’ and his passion. He took part in the London Marathon and more recently in the Great North Run. His Sundays are often spent running smaller, half-marathons. He is now training for the New York Marathon.

“Business is like training for a marathon,” reflects Blaine. “As I get older I have to train harder to get the same results. I now work harder than ever before. It’s tough out there so you have to give better service, keep the shops nicer… Everything always changes: the business environment, customers’ attitudes and expectations. You have to keep on top of this.

“I do a lot of thinking as I run: I often reflect on the previous day’s issues and the next day’s problems. It helps me to keep a positive attitude.

“I just love what I do. Every day is different. I like taking on different products and seeing what the customer likes and what sells. It makes me very happy to hear that customers are pleased with my designs. It’s like winning against competition. I love to win and I will train as hard as it takes to achieve it.”

Blaine beats the competition by “being more helpful and knowledgeable, by giving customers a good shopping experience in a nice store environment. By making customers feel very valued. People buy from people. People have to feel comfortable with sales staff therefore we don’t employ sixteen year old boys to serve in our stores as many of our customers are mature.

“We also have to keep the store ambiance right – if it is too smart people feel intimidated and won’t come in. But it cannot look shabby or outdated.  I do my market research following my wife and three daughters as they shop for clothes. I can easily see what works and what doesn’t.”

This approach obviously pays off since Blaine admits: “this year we are doing better than in 2010 which was a good year for us. We are not sitting on our laurels though. The displays in store in Swafftham are about to be updated.

“I also invested a lot of money in the IT systems for the stores. We use the Cromwell system for stock management and accounts. Its daily reports give current information on how all the shops are doing and what I should pay attention to.”

Blaines is a member of CIH which he considers a “superb” organization. “Without them I would struggle. They allow the retailers to keep a tight stock as deliveries are every week.” He also participates in the Swaffham Business Forum and networks with local businesses “so we recommend each other to customers and raise funds for the town”.

Market challenges

Erosion of prices and margins is the biggest challenge for the independent, according to Blaine. “When going gets tough the big boys reduce prices but our margins go down at the same time. Some internet practices bring them down further.

“Electrical business is treading water at the moment. The key word is survival that’s why retailers have to keep their stock control very tight. Yet you have to invest to keep promoting yourself – more effectively than before. Our new website should help us with this.”

He sees custom install and e-commerce as future opportunities. “In the past w
e have also tried buying, renovating and renting properties and this worked well for us. This allows us not too rely solely on electricals,” adds Blaine.

He thinks that the return of the RRP could greatly help electrical business. “A bottle of good perfume costs the same in House of Fraser as in Debenhams, since according to OFFT selling this product requires a high level of skill.  What about a television or a washing machine – aren’t they high tech products which need selling? It’s time that something is done about this.”

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