All kitchen needs are catered for

Roger Trapp finds that if you want to sell kitchens, you must look after the customer
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If anybody is in a position to know about the vagaries of the kitchen market, it is John Lewis.

A decade ago the chairman of John Lewis of Hungerford presided over a tidy little business that employed 85 people in seven factories and as many shops supplying those made affluent by the 1980s boom with kitchens averaging pounds 25,000 each.

Then recession struck and Mr Lewis, who had drifted into the furniture business in 1972 after working at the Ministry of Agriculture as an adviser, was forced to retrench.

"All of a sudden, the bottom fell out of the market," he says, adding that he was forced to close the showrooms and most of the manufacturing capacity, losing most of his employees along the way. I just contracted and did all sorts of things, including making tabletops for McDonald's."

But the man who had built his first fitted kitchen for his mother when he was just a child was not about to give up. After analysing the market, he came up with the concept of the Artisan range of kitchens and furniture, which has turned around his fortunes since being launched in 1992.

Whereas previously he was serving customers for whom money seemed to be no object, he decided to blend quality and affordability and come up with something that costs less than people are expecting.

The average size of his order is - at pounds 5,000 - at the top end of the ranges offered by another kitchen company that claims to be enjoying buoyant sales at the moment. Launched last July, Simply Kitchens is a much younger company. But Ian Matthews, the commercial director, is convinced that its twin focus on affordability and customer service has helped set it apart from other players.

Mr Matthews adds that business has been so good from the concessions the company operates in outlets of Harveys Furnishings that it is looking to increase the number from 30 to 90 by the end of the year.

The approach of Mr Matthews and his colleagues is straightforward. Acknowledging that they are operating in a mature market, they see the only way of gaining significant market share is to do it better than the opposition - and that means paying attention to delivery times, ensuring that packages have all the pieces required and communicating with customers.

Customer service is also central to Mr Lewis's approach. Long proud of the glossy catalogues designed to enable would-be customers to almost feel the quality of the kitchens they are considering, he sends each one out with a packet of deluxe biscuits. When he opened a showroom in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, last month he hired old-fashioned bicycles with large baskets to distribute the biscuits throughout the town to draw in customers.

The Tunbridge Wells venture is a further sign of how Mr Lewis is once more expanding. Though last year's profitability was hit by the public listing of the company and the fallback in consumer confidence, turnover still advanced from about pounds 2m to pounds 2.6m. Joining the Aim market last year raised pounds 900,000 to build a specially-designed factory and office space at its base in Hungerford, Oxfordshire. At the same time, the company has moved beyond concessions throughout the UK to open outlets in The Netherlands and Belgium and is looking to expand into Germany.

But, though Mr Lewis's approach may sound rather intuitive, he is in many ways similar to the people at Simply Kitchens in basing decisions on hard facts. Close analysis of his market demonstrated that a substantial number of customers came from the Kent area. Therefore, realising that many of them had young children who would be loath to travel to Hungerford itself or the nearest showroom, at the Liberty store in London's West End, he decided to open an outlet close to them.

And, while he talks about the quality of the kitchens, Mr Lewis is anxious to dispel the notion that his premises are loaded with craftsmen slowly creating magnificent works of art. Though some of his 35 employees are highly-trained specialists, the building of the kitchens has been carefully broken down so that most people cannot do complicated things all the time, he says.

Such an approach has an added benefit in that, rather than having to recruit well-trained craftspeople, he can hire "on personality". The result is a team of like-minded individuals who are dedicated to serving the customer, he says.