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‘Mobility showrooms must modernise in evolving world of retail’

john payne and sharon king kent mobility

Retailers in any sector are continually adapting and updating their shopfronts and interiors to keep up with consumer trends and demands. Evolving your showroom every now and again should be a core part of your strategy for keeping one step ahead of competitors.

There are concerns however, that the mobility industry is generally slower than other retail sectors to adapt. And according to some, an unwillingness to change is holding back certain businesses.

While the shutterboards on the high street may be enough to push some businesses into revamping their brand image, it is worth considering the opportunities of a showroom refresh rather than viewing it as a do-or-die situation.

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A new store fit-out can indeed protect a business in today’s retail climate but more than that, it can catapult companies into a new chapter of growth.

One mobility dealer based in the South East is testament to the success of the strategy for updating showrooms. Kent Mobility’s revamp two years ago saw it gain a new lease of life and it continues to refresh its face to ensure it stays ahead of competition and keeps customers interested. In operations director, Sharon King’s words, the shop went from a “dark, dingy lock-up to what it is now”.

Stressing the importance of a light and airy shop, King says the aim was to create a retail experience and to make it much more accessible for customers, hence the installation of things like automatic glass doors.

The shop, which is situated on a business estate in Tonbridge, feels expansive thanks to a mezzanine area and the products have been carefully spaced throughout the modern and minimalist environment. The light coloured walls are tastefully designed and are not occupied by countless living aids on hooks, which can create a cluttered or busy look.

Not only is the space formed by Kent Mobility a pleasant place for customers to be, it represents an essential business move. That’s how managing director, John Payne, sees it. He thinks that store updates are going to be “a must” for mobility dealers in the near future.

“The people that have up-to-date showrooms will probably survive but there are an awful lot of people who have a lock-up shop where it’s just absolutely crammed and where you’re climbing over things. I think they’ll slowly die. If you look at any modern day shop people want to be able to walk about freely and browse.”

Payne notes that mobility retailers have, in most cases, been slower to evolve than in other industries and cedes that he himself has not always been as proactive as he ought to have been. His view of, ‘if it’s not broken, don’t fix it’, rings true across the industry.

But far from resist change, Kent Mobility has embraced it as part of its growth strategy. The shop revamp is just part of the business’s transformation which, planned around three years ago, involved expanding its HQ to include an assessment and training centre.

Payne describes: “We planned a new centre because some clients really need the space and specialist area. I was convinced on the new centre and the showroom wasn’t doing particularly well in those days; the turnover was going down.

“But I was persuaded to do the showroom first and when we did it virtually trebled the turnover in the first month. It rocketed. We advertised it well and it was a nice environment for our customers to visit.”

King however, admits that to invest in the showroom update first was a huge gamble because it meant the shop had to be shut for around four months meaning weeks of business was lost.

Payne adds: “I had a feeling that it might never start up again, to be quite honest. But it came back better and stronger.”

The risk therefore, evidently paid off. Payne knows that to close the showroom for the length of time he did was “a huge risk”, as it would have been in any industry. But these kinds of risks are often essential to survival and updating any company is a necessary part of business.

In fact, Payne says every seven years a dealer must change direction slightly and modernise their product range. Some retailers think this should actually be done every five years. But most can agree that a refusal to be proactive and change can spell a firm’s demise.

Payne comments: “You need a big shake up quite regularly. Even now we’ve started to change our invoicing to make it look more modern. I think our industry really needs a boot up the backside otherwise there are going to be businesses that die.

“I think if certain dealers don’t update then they’re going to close because their turnover will just go down and down. With base products like mobility scooters, why would people go to a dark lock-up shop when they could go on the internet?”

Indeed, customers have a broad choice of where they buy mobility products from these days, whether that’s from the internet, specialist dealers or general retailers. The need to entice customers in therefore has never been so important.

King says: “You’ve got to make people want to come and see you. The whole showroom is about getting customers in the door and making them feel comfortable. If it’s not easy for people to come and see you then they won’t do it.”

While the needs of most customers are arguably unchanging, their demands are certainly shifting, Payne feels. Both he and King agree that consumers now demand a certain level of cleanliness, minimalism and professionalism.

The business has found clients expect certain things and are generally more demanding, having done their background research on the internet.

King adds: “People want to know where products come from and they’re interested to know where it was made. The problem is that it’s really hard to find anything for them that’s manufactured in the UK.

“A showroom can look nice, clinical and modern but they still want the old-fashioned customer service.

“They’re not looking for faceless, clinical staff; they want a friendly face and to build a relationship. It’s not about the one-off purchase, it’s about regular customers and they’re loyal because of the environment and the staff.”

The minimalist nature of Kent Mobility’s upgraded showroom is a key design feature designed to improve the customer experience. But just how far do you go where minimalism is concerned? The industry knows all too well the pitfalls of getting the balance the wrong.

Retail concepts in the sector have closed in recent years because of missing the equilibrium between a novel, experiential outfit and somewhere that shows enough products in-store. It is a tough model to perfect and learning lessons is key.

For Payne, striking the right balance is about picking your products carefully. He advises: “You’ve got to look at a range of products but not stretch yourself too thinly.

“There are some products we don’t sell at all like slippers and shoes. There are so many shops with piles and piles of boxes that obviously never sell, so you’ve got to pick what you sell.”

In King’s experience, lower value living aids, such as slippers, can be problematic stock. She describes how customers can be disappointed if they come in for a certain size or style only to find it is unavailable.

The layers of admin such products can add and the small margins they make mean the business dropped similar lines when it upgraded.

Kent Mobility’s buying strategy therefore focuses on products that can support decent margins and ones that are available to customers immediately, rather than problematic ones that take up precious stock space.

Payne comments: “You could hold a few thousand pounds worth of stock that might sit there for years. It’s better to say to the customer that we can order a product in if they know what they want or point them to Boots down the road. With slippers, surgical splints and so on, we send people to Boots, who send customers to us.”

Meanwhile, King suggests that product packaging is important. Of course, it falls upon suppliers to box their products well but the dealer should always consider what displays, POS and marketing material manufactures can offer them when picking partners. She also points out that when considering product ranges, dealers have to know their limitations.

“You can’t be an expert at everything and we’ve tended to concentrate on the things we know we’re good at. We know we can’t stock everything so we don’t try and be everything to everybody.

“We have connections with people in the community to be able to signpost customers. You don’t want any customer disappointed but you want to know that you’ve been able to help them in some way and point them in the right direction, even if you’ve phoned up for them and made an appointment for them elsewhere. That might go against the grain but in the long term it keeps customers.”

King is keen to add that in the mobility industry, a lot of customers chat to each other in various disability groups. This makes it all the more important that retailers are able to help clients out in some way, even if that means pointing them to another business.

It also means that showroom staff must be able to match the pristine, experiential feel of the store. Shops cannot be lifeless shells shifting product, they have to be run by enthusiastic, knowledgeable and capable staff. Kent Mobility, like the vast majority of UK dealers, has found recruitment to be one of the most considerable challenges.

In the past, Kent Mobility has experimented with the multisite model but it was a major headache for Payne, who decided to contract to expand. He says that a chain model is “only as good as its worst employee”.

One of the “nightmares” Payne found from running multiple sites was ensuring staff opened up on time and were at the store all day.

Training staff on the huge array of products across different suppliers is also a large task and even then you need employees who are willing to learn.

As such, Payne says it is hardly surprising that a lot of poaching goes on within the industry. A lot of retail staff have a background in the care industry, King adds, with a lack of mobility-specific training courses meaning dry pools of young talent.

It is tough to encourage young people to join a mobility retail business. While roles that offer satisfaction are appealing to millennials, King notes that it is not for everyone.

She comments: “You’ve got to be a people person first and foremost. You can’t be phased by what you might hear or see. You have to deal with some very sad scenarios, whether that’s end of life or disabled children.

“When you find a good staff member, nurture them and keep them. They either stay five minutes and realise it’s not for them or stay 25 years.”

Perhaps the same is true of businesses in the mobility sector. The ones that are really invested in helping the customer generally seem to stick around much longer than those only in it to make quick cash.

Kent Mobility has certainly made it clear that it intends to be in the industry for the long term. It will soon open its new assessment centre and no doubt it will be looking to refresh its brand and showroom image once again in a few years’ time.

Viewed as a case study, the mobility dealer proves that you get out of a business what you put in. As long as mobility retailers continue to budget for investing in their stores, product ranges and staff, they can generally expect to enjoy growth for many years to come.

Tags : dealerkent mobilityretailshowroom
Joe Peskett

The author Joe Peskett

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