A while ago I was helping my partner find a sofa for his new flat. We toured many furniture showrooms and warehouses finding the sofas either too large to fit the flat, too small, too garish, too nursing home-ish, not comfortable enough, too saggy, too expensive, too badly made (many seem to be held together with just staples these days), before I located a furniture emporium online which boasted it was the largest in the region and a proud family business since 1911. We duly trekked to the town in question to find to three capacious floors of furnishings with the upper floors in darkness. It turned out they only put the lights on when customers went upstairs as an ‘energy saving measure’. We toured each floor and whilst the furniture was somewhat unimaginatively displayed, we finally found a sofa which seemed to tick most of the boxes. ‘Can you deliver this by Christmas’? my partner asked. The shop assistant seemed doubtful even though Christmas was over six weeks away. My partner then asked if he could buy the display sofa if there was not enough time to have one made. Again the shop assistant looked doubtful and summoned the boss, a lean worried looking man in his forties who bore the same surname as the business, presumably a descendent of the founder.
He seemed to have no straight answers to our questions about the sofa availability either, until finally (and reluctantly, it seemed to us), he agreed to sell the display model, even though we didn’t want the matching easy chair to go with it and that might be a problem from his point of view with fabric matching re a future consignment (which seemed odd to us as surely a sofa should come with two easy chairs and not just one to form a standard 3-piece suite)...? Just as it seemed a deal was about to be struck my partner requested Saturday delivery. The boss stated this would not be possible as they had set delivery days according to when they had enough deliveries to travel to each area, but it was FREE delivery and a white glove service as they retained their own fleet of vans. My partner explained he was at work during the week and that I lived in a different city so could not take delivery either, and volunteered to pay for delivery if it could be on a Saturday morning when he was in.
Much to our amazement, the boss stated this would not be possible. We left the shop which evidently didn’t want to let go of its stock, despite our being virtually the only customers, and began the drive home. As luck would have it, we accidentally took a wrong turning out of the town and came across a huge furniture warehouse we had never heard of. We decided to stop. Lo and behold my partner found his ideal sofa on the sale floor at half price and with delivery to suit at an extra £50. Nothing was a problem for the friendly sales staff (sofa was delivered the following Saturday without incident) and they had a wonderfully eclectic range of furniture in all styles and to suit most budgets.
I reflected what a shame it was that some upstart furniture warehouse could so easily outrank a family business which had been running for over 100 years and wondered if the family ever set foot outside their own store to check out the competition. Much though the internet is playing a part in the sad demise of our High Streets, so are businesses which refuse to move with the times and operate as if still in their 1970s/80s heyday when every home possessed its own 24/7 housewife to receive furniture deliveries at the stores’ convenience, no matter that today’s footfall might tell a very different story to its glory days. In addition had the son ever had any business training/experience of the outside world, or had he just gone straight into the family business from school to continue running it the way it had always been run, his masterstrokes of innovation being the installation of eco light bulbs and the introduction of a website which was bound to disappoint in that it seemed far more impressive than the store and created false expectations.
Here was a business which was literally committing Hari Kiri by refusing to move with the times, or at least match up to its website, so how sorry should we feel for it?
In my last property job our Land Agent announced the demise of one of the quaint independent businesses in our premises across the road. I opined that it would be a sad loss. ‘Not really.’ He replied. ‘I wasn’t impressed with their business plan and frankly I wasn’t going to let them have it at all. In the end we compromised on a one year lease with an option to extend in the unlikely event they made a go of it.’
In an instant, I saw this business with its friendly, intellectual and earnest owner in a wholly new light. The leaseholder was in love with the idea of being a shopkeeper to his lovely shop, rather than someone who’d done their sums/market research and was in touch with it as a viable reality. I have since observed many hobbyist businesses which close all too soon after opening, much though some might succeed if they possessed more business acumen or more support from the banks.
But modern businesses once they have succeeded have no room for complacency. Last night at Halfords I spent the best part of five minutes waiting at a deserted till to pay for coolant, money in hand, despite half a dozen staff floating around and even fewer customers. My local Co-Op is similarly lackadaisical in its approach to customer service, frequently abandoning all tills to stock-take or shelf-fill, no matter that several customers might be waiting, and when they finally notice us, to inwardly tut as if customers were an unexpected inconvenience rather than their lifeblood.
As for my local B&Q, that replaced ALL of its manned tills with self-service tills taking DIY a step-ladder too far for most customers like me who fled. It has now closed down leaving Oxford B&Q-less.
In the most successful pubs and businesses, it is noticeable that they do not stint on the staff or the customer service. Nor are they reluctant to sell or deliver the goods and even dare to chase up customer satisfaction levels afterwards. As for advertising, 'advertise or fossilise' as famous Victorian wit and whiskey distiller Thomas Dewer once said.