Street wise

07 Oct, 14

Merchant-owned Howarth at Home has moved out of the builder’s yard and into the high street, to compete for higher-end projects

Timber and builder’s merchant Howarth Timber and Building Supplies, has extended its Howarth at Home brand of showrooms, opening its seventh store in Barrowford, Lancashire. It is the first of the company’s showrooms to move out of the builders’ yard and onto the high street. Marketing and product development manager, Neale Brewster explains the decision to make the move out of the merchant premises is in a bid to capture bigger ticket sales: “We felt there was another level of sale that we could get – a higher value sale. The products that we supply are very high quality and there is a market that’s above the £20,000 level you might achieve in a kitchen studio showroom…and which is something these days every merchant would like to have on their books.” Kitchen Manager of Howarth, Craig Fielding continues: “It was always my thought, from day one, to take [Howarth at Home] out of the merchants and put it somewhere where it can realise the true potential.”

Merchant to retail

The company chose Barrowford for the trial high street showroom as it is an affluent location, near to its Blackburn depot, and in an area where people are familiar with the Howarth brand name.  The double-fronted showroom stands on a main road in Barrowford, and the retail premises had just been refurbished. Kitchen Manager of Howarth, Craig Fielding picks up the story: “We found the premises in January. We got the keys in February and within three months we were trading.”

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In fact, as Craig Fielding explains, the high street location acts as a marketing tool in itself for the Howarth at Home Brand: “What you’ve got is the opportunity or the chances to get people in here. Where the showroom is in Blackburn, you’ve got to park outside and walk through a builder’s yard. It’s a very masculine environment. People don’t realise it’s very intimidating for a 30-year old lady on her own. She just wouldn’t entertain the thought. And at the other end of the scale, there is an element of kitchen snobbery in the purchase of kitchens. People like to ask ‘where did you get your kitchen from?’ And when they are asked where they got their kitchen from, consumers don’t really want to say ‘Howarth’s Builders Merchants’ instead ‘I got it from Howarth at Home kitchen studio’. It’s semantics isn’t it? But it’s true.”

Meeting two markets

The showroom features six displays, which are all exclusive to Symphony, and the furniture is joined by recognisable appliance names such as Rangemaster, CDA, Caple and Neff. All these brands are already offered at the merchant stores but the company believes its high street location will give a greater opportunity to showcase them to a bigger audience. But Craig Fielding points out: “We’re not kidding ourselves as to where we’re aiming. We’re not aiming at the Siematic market, although we’ve had people in who’ve also had Siematic quotes. I’m doing a design now and that size of kitchen I wouldn’t have had an opportunity to design and quote before – it’s 5 x 4m.”

And while it has half a dozen competitor studios within a 10-mile radius, Craig suggests the merchant background of Howarth Timber puts the showroom at an advantage. He explains, for consumers who haven’t got the budget of a Howarth at Home kitchen, using Symphony furniture, the company has the advantage of leveraging a sale using lower-cost Rixonway furniture from its merchant branches. “If they come in and don’t perhaps have the budget – do we let them go because we don’t want to drop our margin or do we say ‘I tell you what, I’ll see what I can do with a purchase through one of our merchants branches. So we get two bites of the cherry which is very clever. So we don’t lose a sale, we just lower our sights on the expectation of the  margin to keep them. They are grateful for that and the most important thing to me is that the customer is happy and the customer recommends us.”

Pebble in pond

But Howarth at Home hasn’t relied on word of mouth alone, as a new business it has invested into marketing to reach consumers using radio, local press and leaflet drops. And Craig has been keen to monitor the results by asking how people have heard of the showroom: “The radio advertising wasn’t really a success. And the one that we expected the least from has been the most successful – A5 leaflets.”  He has even ensured to highlight a well-known shopping destination on a map on his leaflet to show the proximity to his showroom.Craig explains: “It’s the pebble in the pond scenario when you’re starting a new business. You start in the immediate vicinity and work outwards.  I would say we are advertising within quite a small radius, really, probably a 10mile radius. I don’t think there’s any mileage in spreading that until you’ve got it established in the locale.”

Success so far

So has business been? “I think it’s pretty much gone to script, so far”, says Craig. “It’s very much suck it and see in terms of footfall. But we’ve got the level of enquiries to sustain the business and put some thickness on the bottom line – which is all important.”

Despite having no parking outside, Craig actually sees this as advantageous, stating it actually helps qualify his customers:  “If someone has a mind to look for a kitchen, you will make that effort to park somewhere. So, ultimately, people who do come through the door – 90% of them are serious.”

Although, he says it’s a little too early to calculate how many of those customers have been converted into a sale. “We have got people who have said I’m happy with the quotation but I’m one of those who believe we haven’t got a sale until we’ve got a deposit. The next step is to send the installer out to do a feasibility study and we’ve got plenty of those. If people have had their home visit, then of their own volition say “I’m happy with that”, they are already price-conditioned so usually you get them. If all of those come in, I’d probably say it was 50-60%.”

In fact, Craig suggests his biggest challenge going forwards will be to handle the growth of sales.

“Barrowford is really up and coming. You’ve got a shop down the road called Scruples where David Beckham has shopped. He’s been there once. So I just need David to come in here and ask for a kitchen”, he laughs.

But Craig believes it will really take at least a year to judge whether the showroom has been successful. “There’s peaks and troughs in the buying calendar, with a product like kitchens it is seasonal. So you have to go through all of those to get a true picture. Three to six months, you can say, is bedding in, with people becoming aware of you.”

Growing forwards

However, he is already considering how he will need to adapt the business to grow it, from taking on additional showroom staff to consider the best way to manage the installation. “We are currently sub-contracting out to third parties installers, which is fine when you’re at the bottom end but when you’re at the middle end it works to a degree but a couple of sales have been done and you can tell it isn’t going to wash for some customers. I sold a kitchen for £23,500 and the client doesn’t want to deal with the electrician, they want to deal with the project manager.”

Certainly if the Barrowford concept is successful, Howarth Timber & Building Supplies will continue to expand its empire of kitchen showrooms onto the high street, competing directly with independent retailers. Neale Brewster adds: “There’s no reason why the Howarth Group won’t look to expand and extend more into this particular sector. I would suspect that what we’ll always try to do is keep the Howarth at Home shop in an area where people know our brand.”

But this move will continue to put it at the heart of the specialist arena, which is recognised for its knowledge and experience in kitchens, and how can a builder’s merchant compete? Unphased, Brewster simply retorts by offering consumers peace of mind, through the backing of its parent company, will not only set Howarth at Home apart from high street kitchen showrooms but spur its success. He concludes: “One of the things we think – as we move forward – is that people will want the security and safety of a long [standing] brand. Howarth at Home has got the support of a company that’s been dealing with tradesman, in every aspect of the building sector, over 175 years. We’ve got a pedigree. Our staff are trained to give best practice knowledge and advice to people and hopefully that will put us above the rest.”