John Bell & Croyden’s mobility retail overhaul forges unique shopping experience

Over the last 20 years, the Royal Household’s officially-appointed pharmacist, John Bell & Croyden, has earned its place as the centrepiece of healthcare services giant Celesio’s retail offering. A complete store refit two years ago unsurprisingly saw turnover dip and over the last few months it has been working hard to make good on the investment. AMP paid a visit to see what the 200-year-old Central London retailer is doing to boost profit and attract new and existing customers by rethinking mobility and offering a unique shopping experience.

A self-confessed “sadly well-guarded secret”, John Bell & Croyden is by no means a major high street name but it is the go-to business for some of the world’s most privileged individuals seeking mobility solutions. Among its clients, the Central London outfit serves the glitterati of the City, high-profile celebrities, wealthy Middle Eastern tourists and the occupants of Buckingham Palace no less.

But behind the extravagance of its £45,000 gold plated, Swarovski-adorned Sport Rider scooters and crystal-encrusted walking canes, lies a serious business, led by an experienced team of 100 staff and built on a solid bed of retail and healthcare principles.

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A written-off Jag has been salvaged for boot scooter testing.

Heading up the 200-year-old brand is operations director Robin Winfield. Having worked for major high street retailers like GAP, Diesel and Molton Brown, Winfield was well-placed to take on the task of clawing back the investment John Bell & Croyden ploughed into a total store refit two years ago. Turnover dropped from £12m to £9m between 2015 and 2016, largely due to the refurbishment and a temporary loss of store space, and part of Winfield’s strategy to pull the firm’s profits back up has been to broaden and improve its mobility arm.

“The store hadn’t really had a major investment in it for about 15 years and in retail you need to keep updating,” explains Winfield. “Most retail businesses will need to be refitting every five years to keep it modern and updated. My challenge was to demonstrate that this business could grow and be profitable and we could ultimately pay back the investment. Thankfully, that’s going very well so far.”

“For a lot of suppliers they just want to be in here. They know that the customer base is there and that our customer has little price resistance”

On the personal order of the chief executive of parent company Celesio, which also owns Lloyds Pharmacy and Betterlife Healthcare, the store was given a complete facelift and restructure so that a premium retail experience was created. The environment was completely reworked and the whole store was money-mapped so that everything which takes a certain amount of income acquires a particular space. As part of its initiative Winfield has installed the rear half of a Jaguar onto a wall so that customers can try loading different folding boot scooters. Aside from its award-winning redesign, which beat the likes of John Lewis in a national retail competition, the business has made a number of minor tweaks that have been very wellreceived. For instance, the shop has relaxed and adapted its tone of voice — its incontinence aisle is branded ‘in control’, for example.

John Bell & Croyden

Another small but effective initiative that has secured loyalty from customers is the specially-made carrier bags John Bell & Croyden packs its walking sticks in. Winfield explains the reasoning. “Often if you buy a walking stick they’ll just tie a plastic bag around it to confirm your purchase,” he says. “But we designed a special carrier bag so that when you buy a walking stick it doesn’t feel like you’re a second-rate customer. We wanted to show how we view immobility.”

And it is this outlook on mobility which attracts certain new customers who may have previously been sceptical or put off by ‘traditional dealerships’. Winfield draws on the flamboyant bejewelled scooters and canes, revealing that far from being impractical or a novelty, they are intended to act as a tool to demonstrate John Bell & Croyden’s approach to mobility to customers. They have since proved a strong marketing asset for the company.

“Mobility can still be fun, it can make you smile, it can be modern, it can be flash, it can be sexy,” he outlines. “Some of those products are not to everyone’s taste, we understand that, but it wasn’t about that. Because you’re in a mobility scooter, it doesn’t mean you want to have fun any less than anybody else. Everybody always talks about the scooters we have and they smile, because it is quite funny and it is at the extreme end of the scale.”

Taking stock
Many single-store businesses are plagued with the challenge of trying to predict stock levels and have to face telling their customers that they will have to wait for certain items to be ordered if they are not readily available.

Fortunately for John Bell & Croyden, its building is vast considering it is situated in a prime Central London location. What’s more, the whole of its downstairs area is dedicated to stock such as wheelchairs and mobility scooters, which allows for instant access to products — something Winfield says is extremely important for his client base.

Even so, managing inventory at John Bell & Croyden is a tricky task. There is an in-store buying team comprised of category managers and buyers who have their work cut out given that some items can unexpectedly fly off the shelves. Many of the retailer’s Middle Eastern customers like to shop in bulk, Winfield says, meaning the buying team has to be quick to react to fluctuating levels. Similarly, the team can see firsthand which products are struggling and need to be changed.

Winfield reveals: “Recently we bought in a folding mobility scooter that we had a few issues with because there was a lack of consistency in it performing at the level it was meant to. We’re very close to it on the shop floor so we can say, ‘this isn’t good enough, too many customers have to bring it back, we’ll have to source an alternative one’.”
Thankfully, Winfield enjoys a strong relationship with numerous key suppliers including the likes of Roma, Drive, Tena and Classic Canes, meaning that stock can be continually reassessed. And even with only one store location, Winfield insists it is not difficult to negotiate with suppliers.

“Some of those products are not to everyone’s taste, we understand that, but it wasn’t about that. Because you’re in a mobility scooter, it doesn’t mean you want to have fun any less than anybody else”

He declares: “People are often very keen to be stocked in here. We’ve been around for 200 years so the heritage of this brand means that people are familiar with what we do. Our category management team will negotiate on margin and things like that but for a lot of suppliers they just want to be in here — we’re a warrant-holding company, they know that the customer base is there and that our customer has little price resistance. A lot of brands are proud to be in here. We have long-standing relationships with a lot of those brands and eventually you find that happy medium — we’re happy with the margin and they’re happy with the sales.”

John Bell & Croyden has been working hard to revive profits after a complete store refit.

Best of both worlds
John Bell & Croyden’s unique business model and pharmacy status means it is does not fall directly in line with competitor mobility retailers. Even so, the oldest brand in the Celesio group of healthcare companies knows that there is pressure to perform. But this means working alongside its siblings, Betterlife and Lloyds Pharmacy, rather than against them.

“If someone comes in for something specific that we don’t stock but we know Betterlife does, we have Betterlife brochures in-store so they can have a look. We can order it in from them and get it into the store. Between us and Betterlife it’s a partnership,” Winfield says, continuing: “It’s about the service we offer. If they know that the advice you’re giving them is genuinely for their benefit, if it’s not a sale that comes from this store, then we’ve still built trust and they might come back to us in the future.”

Robin Winfield says the crystal-encrusted scooters are a good customer draw and marketing ploy.

John Bell & Croyden may work closely with its partner retailers, but it boasts an autonomous position where it can buy and source its own products. And as part of Celesio, Winfield’s team enjoys the added buying power from Coventry as well as marketing, and strategy support. The combination of being a self-contained business alongside the support and advice from Celesio is a winning one for Winfield.

“It’s a massive benefit. Having the support of a larger company means we can try new things and take a few risks. We now have a deal with Amazon Prime and we have an in-store GP. We’re always looking to innovate our products and service. It’s exciting from my perspective. If you have many, many branches, you are slower to change. And it’s also a very proud position we’re in — we’re very much the jewel in the crown of the whole Celesio network. We are only one store but I believe we are the best. I’ve worked here for nearly four years now and you can become slightly blasé but when you have visitors and you get to show them around the store, they’re blown away and it keeps you grounded. It looks and feels like a department store but it’s still a pharmacy.”

Branching out
So with an evidently successful model that claims to be making a return on the major refit investment, does Winfield envisage more stores in other cities?

“On a smaller scale, yes,” he says. “There’s potentially that opportunity. But moving into any other bricks and mortar business at the moment would be a challenge and could be regarded as a bit risky, especially as the business here is doing so well. There are certainly lots of other premium locations, even within London, where we could open a smaller shop. We also have a big Middle Eastern client base and there could be opportunities there.”

John Bell & Croyden gained its first Royal warrant in 1909

Although Winfield admits that any new, smaller outlets would not necessarily carry larger mobility items, they could well act as portals to its London store. Given that the business is investing in its online platforms and making deals with the likes of Amazon and ecommerce dementia aid provider Unforgettable.org, the mobility market could even see John Bell & Croyden become a more competitive player across the UK. But for now, the London firm will likely be staying focused on the job at hand — polishing its model and driving turnover to make good on the investment of the past two years.

While the firm remains a pharmacy at heart, it is showing the mobility market innovative ways of doing things which, in spite of its client base, are applicable to any customer. Winfield’s ethos of making someone who is buying an incontinence product feel as special as someone purchasing an upmarket fragrance is paving the way for an ever-growing and more loyal customer base. While £45,000 crystal scooters may not be for all dealerships to stock, the message they carry is certainly something for all mobility retailers to heed.

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