Ben Algate, owner of contract kitchen business Jackle Design, has opened his first retail showroom.
With a 20-year career spanning contract kitchen sales from Howdens to Miele, through to Alternative Plans, Ben Algate is not your average retailer. In fact he openly admits he’s not a retailer at all “and never will be a retailer”. Despite that, he has opened his first showroom in the leafy and affluent area of Barnes in South West London. The showroom adds to his successful contract business, Jackle Design, which he established around two and half years ago following the demise of Alternative Plans. Ben picks up the story: “The first contract my company had was to finish all the work Alternative Plans had outstanding at the time, which was 40 kitchens at that time.”
But with a flourishing contracts order book, including 400 orders in one week alone, why move into retailing at all? Ben says: “For me, this really is a stream of revenue. I don’t believe the contracts bubble is going to last for evermore. We have some very big work on at the moment. We are tending for circa 2,000 kitchens at this moment in time. We’ve got marketing suites going into quite prestigious developments on The Thames. But I’m savvy enough to know the replacement market will always be there – the contracts business may not be. A lot of people caught a cold and lost their businesses because they were a one-trick pony.”
However, recognising his skills lie in the contract business, Ben has brought in a dedicated team of three to run the retail showroom. “I’m good at running a business and it would be arrogant for me to think that I could just walk into this [retail] and I’ll be amazing at it. So what I did was put together a concept that the right people would be able to work well with.”
But rather than dip his toe in the retail water, Ben has taken a prominent location on a high street, which he says is the second largest unit on the road: “I was never interested in opening a subdued showroom in an area and hoping it would turn over enough money to work my way up. There’s only one unit on the High Street that’s bigger than us and that’s Sainsburys. It is just over 1,000sqft.” And the Jackle Design showroom has already played host to John Burton-Race on its opening event, with plans for chef events to be held each month to create an entertaining space. “For me, the showroom has to be an active space. I hate kitchen showrooms [just as] as kitchen showrooms. I find them quite snooty and if you’ve haven’t got X amount of money to spend, it can be quite an intimidating area. I want it to be a fun space to come into”, exclaims Ben.
And Ben has taken a rather unusual approach to showroom design, with only four displays and just three appliance manufacturers but nearly 40 models instore. Ben continues: “We have 35 operational appliances in one showroom. And yet, the place looks like it has a huge space everywhere. I think we are the biggest or one of the biggest independent displays of Wolf and Sub-Zero outside of Brompton Road. We’ve got over 10 Wolf and Sub-Zero appliances in one display.”
In terms of furniture, Ben has also limited the number of furniture suppliers with Rotpunkt and handmade furniture from Jane Cheel. “We are the only dealer than has Jane Cheel product on display outside her showroom in St Albans. Also because I wanted the showroom to be quite unique, we are only one of a handful of dealers that’s got Lapitec [sintered stone worktops] on display.”
He continues: “With the location I had, to be honest with you, kitchen suppliers were falling over themselves to try and get into this location. For me, Rotpunkt, I think is the sleeping giant and people are starting to prick up their ears and listen to what it is doing. They seem to be almost taking elements of Italian kitchens into a German manufacturer i.e they will make any size unit. You’ve got 20 colour-co-ordinated carcases from a price group 0 upwards. How many price group zero German kitchens are putting their doors on a colour co-ordinated carcase? Their textured wood laminates are some of the best I’ve ever seen. When I look at what Rotpunkt produce for the price they do it at, and I look at some of the brands out there, I wonder how in the hell can you justify a 40% uplift in price that is exactly the same specification.”
Limit for loyalty
Limiting the number of suppliers also Ben explains helps create a better relationship, as it promotes loyalty. This is something he believes is missing in abundance in the kitchen, bedroom and bathroom industry: “A retailer has always believed they are being shafted – and don’t get me wrong I have stern conversations with my suppliers. I think suppliers have got their mentality wrong, at times, about how they should approach retailers. They don’t see behind the scenes cost you’re incurring to sell their appliances for them. So I ask where would they be tomorrow if 1,000 showrooms shut down. What you think you’re going to pick that business up direct online overnight? Business relationships work both ways. They need us as much as we need them and if you can show a bit of loyalty and you can show that you’re willing to fight as hard for them, I’ve had some amazing things done for us by suppliers because we’re been loyal to them.”
And Ben believes it is retailer fear of losing the sale which has created this lack of loyalty with manufacturers: “I speak to some kitchen showrooms who have six kitchens [manufacturers] they sell. I think its fear and I also think they’re being governed by a savvy client who will go into them and say ‘I’ve done my research and I want this, this and this.’ Rather than spending the time and selling into them the benefits what they have and how it will work with their scheme, the easiest way is to say ‘I’ll get you that’.”
Use your experience
Ben also has no fear of internet sales and says retailers should realise they will be short-lived even for appliances, as he explains: “Retailers are screaming about Miele selling direct but just remember what you do for a living and the service that you offer and how that differs from going online and having a box turn up at their house. The other thing is – the clients will do that once and I guarantee you they won’t do that again – when an oven turns up and they’ve got to phone an electrician. It’s shortlived. I think clients buying directly online will die a death by its own accord. I think people will realise there’s no value in it.” And he exclaims that retailers should better promote their knowledge, as they do in general conversation when they meet each other: “The first thing someone will say to you is ‘I’ve been in the industry selling kitchens for 25 years’ – So you have 25 years of experience. Fine. Use it. That’s what you’re selling. You’re selling the fact that you’ll sit down and explain all the pros and cons of everything and not figures off a website. We’re very quick to tell people how long we’ve been in the industry, what we’ve done and what we’ve achieved, then the minute we see a tiny little bit of a threat from someone selling on line or whatever, we’re all folding, shying away and bitching with each other on online forums and trade magazines.”
No risky business
His £1million investment into a showroom and the retail business could be considered a fearful step by some high street specialists, but not for Ben who says: “A lot of my business life has been about taking huge risks. You’ve got to bet big to get a big return.” And so far, so good as he exclaims in terms of turnover, he predicts the showroom achieving “between £1.5million and £1.7million a year. We’ve had four orders in, already, of about £40,000 [each].”
And he explains why he believes the Jackle Design showroom will succeed: “We have a good reputation. For me it’s about putting together an area and a salesperson and saying ‘look I can’t give you any better than this. I’ve put you in one of the best areas of London. I’ve given you the best appliance manufacturers. I’ve given you handmade. I’ve given you contemporary. If you can’t sell out of here, you need to go and do something else for a living.’”
In fact, Ben believes his contract business gives him an edge and suggest all retailers should spend some time in selling to big developers, as he says: “I think every kitchen retailer should spend some time in the kitchen market because it gives you the skill and sharpness to bring back into retail because you cannot afford to drop the ball. The penalties are 10X what they would be with a retail customer and you’ll lose a relationship that has taken you four years to build up overnight. So you absolutely have to – not allowing yourself to get railroaded – but you’re probably dealing with the most demanding client you could ever wish to deal with.”
Challenging old guard
And Ben isn’t sitting back in retail, as he now plans to challenge what he sees as the old guard of high street kitchen sales. “I know people are sitting up and looking. For me, there’s this old guard that exists in the kitchen industry that is slowly starting to filter away. There’s an influx of young people coming in with new thoughts and they are a little bit more hungry. A lot of guys who have had an established base for 20 years have had it their own way for quite a long time.” He openly admits he is targeting particular local businesses. And now he is planning expansion of his retail business: “Guildford is going to be the next location. Then we are forecasting 4 or 5 showrooms over the next five years, so I’m looking at opening a showroom every year over the next five years.” Certainly we’ll wager his blossoming business is a safe bet as any!
This article first appeared in the April 2015 issue of Kitchens & Bathrooms News