Technology; Novelty value

Business was alien to Jonathan Elvidge. Now his gadget shops are worth millions. By Benjamin Mee. Photograph by John Angerson

Christmas Shopping Panic is not a pleasant experience. Reeling between ever-diminishing options, by 4pm on Christmas Eve you're wedged into a palpitating mass of humanity, prepared to pay any price for any meaningless token. Boxed sets of port, Stilton and woodshavings sell well, as do novelty chocolates and socks.

But it was during one such Christmas Shopping Panic that Jonathan Elvidge first had the idea for The Gadget Shop, "I always hated Christmas shopping," says Elvidge. "Rushing around at the last minute, ending up with terrible presents. And, as a big gadget fan, I was always looking for a place which just sold unusual, innovative gifts." Intensive research told him that there was indeed a gap in the market. "I went to trade fairs until they were sick of me," says Elvidge. "They'd say, 'Here comes that nutter with the imaginary shop.'" But soon he was convinced he had stumbled on the entrepreneur's holy grail - an untapped human universal trait, in this case a fascination with gizmos.

He decided to commit himself completely to the project. Giving up his job as a telephone engineer and remortgaging his house, he launched his first Gadget Shop in 1990 in Prince's Quay, a new shopping centre in the centre of Hull. Unfortunately, 1990 was also the middle of a recession. "And I launched in March, which I now know is the worst time for retailers," says Elvidge. "Interest rates were at their highest, retail spending at its lowest, and the locals weren't entirely sure about Prince's Quay. We were a new format too, with everything under glass, which one fellow trader kindly informed me would never work."

But Elvidge also had a stroke of luck. He got shafted on his rent by landlord Andy Hobb. "He knew nothing about negotiating," says Hobb, the man who shafted him. "I said, 'Right, it'll be pounds 35,000 for the year,' and he just said 'OK.' So I said, 'And while you're fitting out I won't charge you rent for those six weeks.' And he said, 'Oh, great.' He could have negotiated a much lower rent and a free refit if he'd known what he was doing." The lucky bit for Elvidge was that it got Andy Hobb watching him very closely.

Swimming with the sharks in such hostile waters could have been the death of Jonathan's project, but for the strength of the basic idea, and Andy's subsequent intervention. "Exit polls showed shoppers rated The Gadget Shop as their second favourite shop in the whole centre," says Hobb. "So I said, 'Come with me, and I'll make you a millionaire. And I have, 25 times over." Hobb's initial pounds 25,000 investment is now also worth pounds 25m.

The Gadget Shop spans 25 towns with 28 shops. The latest two opened in central London recently, first in Piccadilly, then in Covent Garden. Within weeks of opening, each became the new record-grossing store within the company. This is partly because Elvidge has tapped into a demand - "People love gadgets, there will always be new ones, and we will always keep up to date" - and partly due to the placing of the shops.

At 35, Elvidge has made a decision to enjoy his position as much as possible, like getting his private pilot's licence, sponsoring the first English women to trek to the North Pole and then flying out to meet them.

"I don't open envelopes any more," he says. "Just packages. The heavy, interesting ones." He buzzes between offices, deciding on logos, fiddling with gizmos and trying to get me to play with his paintball blowpipe. Meanwhile, Hobb is equally passionate about the width of the doors in the shops. "Most of ours have a good 3m span," he enthuses. But Covent Garden bucked the trend by becoming the biggest-grossing shop despite having doors which are only 80cm wide. The entire door-width-to-profitability ratio was out of the window.

With his slightly detached view of his customers being sucked into the gaping jaws of his stores, Hobb is definitely the hard man of the outfit. Jabbing an imaginary map on the table, he recalls encouraging investment in Prince's Quay in the Eighties by flying retailers over Hull in a helicopter. "Most towns quickly thin out when you get above them.

"As the high street shrinks you start seeing sheep or moors in the distance. Hull just sprawls. Then it dawns on the retailers there are 100,000 people down there." And every dwelling contains wallets, purses and credit cards which will inevitably be carried to Prince's Quay - and through the 3m doors of The Gadget Shop.

Most retailing is the art of gently prising small sums of money out of large numbers of people, and The Gadget Shop does this exceptionally well. Keeping products under glass makes them seem more attractive, cuts out theft, and doesn't waste any precious shelf-space storing stock. "M&S make pounds 5m on pounds 100m turnover," says Elvidge. "We make that on pounds 25m." With 50 per cent of that turnover taking place in the last 10 weeks of the year, as far as Elvidge is concerned, Christmas Shopping Panic is now a Very Good Thing - and something his love of gadgets has helped him capitalise on even more. "In many ways my best gadget is the touch-screen till system we developed, which automatically feeds stock information back to the central warehouse," he says.

As shopping centres begin to clog up in November, the warehouse works 24 hours restocking each shop every day. Elvidge sits at the centre of a machine whose tendrils are feeling the pulse of the crowds, taking the blood pressure of the feeding-frenzied beast and turning the numbers into money. And, for the rest of the year, he does what he likes to do best. He goes around the world shopping for interesting and unusual presents, at a nice leisurely pace

Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

    £40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    ***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

    £30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    ***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

    £35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    Senior Research Fellow in Gender, Food and Resilient Communities

    £47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: The Centre for Agroecology, ...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker