Retail Focus with Harrison & Brown

Mandy Brown, owner, MD and chief cook and bottle washer of independent furniture retailer Harrison & Brown in Sunderland, shares an update into recent investments from external consulting to online expansion, as well as plans to hit the small screen and why quoting production times needs more clarity.

Meet Mandy

Day-to-day my role is very hands on and whilst I am a key member of the team I also manage and lead the team to create a friendly and warm environment for all our customers. Key responsibilities include buying, marketing, visual merchandising, people management and overseeing all finances. I also enjoy being active within the city and in my network to create a positive environment for everyone to trade. We have been in Sunderland under this brand name for over six years, however the building on Holmeside has been a furniture retailer through most of the last century. We can capitalise on this history and reputation and we also employ some of the same team from years gone by, this helps us to create consistency for the generations of customers that have shopped with us previously.

Recent investments?

I have recently engaged and commissioned an external business consultant with extensive retail knowledge to support me and take the business forward. I want to personally grow and feel we have many opportunities, however with support we can stabilise our current plans in preparation for business growth as we emerge from the “cost-of-living” crisis. It became apparent that many business leaders get stuck in “ground hog day”, and I was no different. I was moving through each day without clear focus and the changes that were required, thinking I was doing as much as I could in the difficult trading situation we are experiencing. With support I now realise that we can control more than we think – in a positive way! The changes instore have been considerable in the last three months, this will help us to attract new customers whilst retaining our loyal customer base.

I was quite reluctant to go online, however we have taken the catalogue style website to an ecommerce platform for our gifts and homeware. This is currently collected from store or we offer a local delivery but we have further plans to move to a full postal service for the less bulky items. Dropship is also a consideration where suppliers will engage and support. We have also spent considerable time ensuring our products are all listed for the website and barcoded. This will ensure we maintain an accurate stock file to support the longer-term buying strategy.

With new POS the clearance floor is working well! Not only generating cashflow from ex-display items but also increasing footfall. The clearance event is on the top floor, encouraging customers to visit all five floors of our beautiful old building. This will also allow us to create space for new products and exciting ranges for our new customer. We have ramped up our marketing to increase the footfall. The new branding and layout on the ground floor is starting to increase a new customer base and over time this will create a new loyal customer. We have changed the layout on four of the five floors with the bed and bedroom floor in the plan for June. Focussing on the priorities and making changes within our current payroll costs will support the financial position.

With funding support from our local council, we have also re-lamped the building to not only reduce our ongoing costs but also to meet environmental targets. There is a lot of funding support available and maybe some businesses aren’t aware of this, it is always worth asking your Business Investment Team.

Future plans?

I have planned for a local TV campaign when we have finished changing the store layout and we are happy to shout about the changes. This is planned for an autumn launch in line with new products.

I am further investing in branding on the beautiful windows on each floor, I want every customer to know where they are shopping. We are also creating some beautiful 3D internal signage with a local print company to give clear direction to segmented products. We are also going to invest in display equipment to enhance the gifts and homeware range and the table lighting department. Working with my consultant and mentor we have a strategic plan for future buying incorporating product ranges and lines that will continue to attract our new customer and offer something exciting to our loyal customers.

What is your mission?

To provide the best service on British made furniture in Sunderland City Centre. I’m going to further add to my team too. I feel I’m missing the support required to take the business to the next level and enhance our service. The team are fabulous and very focussed on the customer, however with an extra pair of hands I’m sure we can go above and beyond.

On sustainability, what is your business doing on this topic?

Currently we recycle all waste and we are reducing our carbon footprint with lighting changes in store, auto-lighting on quiet floors and removing as much paperwork as possible from our admin team. We are focussed on finding new ways to operate to be more economically and environmentally sustainable. To avoid landfill and support charities we work with our customers and a local contact to recycle as much upholstery as possible. One person’s rubbish is another’s treasure! We will be conducting an exercise on social value in autumn and with this will come new actions to help us make further progress.

How has recent business been?

Sunderland is experiencing a massive transformation programme, millions is being invested in the city centre and whilst in the short-term this can have its challenges, the long-term picture is very positive. The progress within the city is vast, new buildings and new infrastructure taking us forward. Business has been slow recently. We are noticing a decline in customers spend but also in footfall from our current customer profile. This is one of the key reasons for expanding the offering to a new customer to help us overcome the challenges. The challenges have been coupled with Brexit, Covid-19 and the cost-of-living crisis and this has meant an overall reduction in footfall within the city. Customers are bargain hunting to make the most of each pound in their purse and we feel that the extra value, or a perception of gaining extra value, is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

What would you change in the industry?

Many factories are quoting incorrect production times which leads to a disappointed customer and a potential complaint. This isn’t good for business and is generally creating issues in the store for the team. They don’t like to phone customers with a delay particularly when it can be weeks! Accurate production times being quoted would give everyone clarity and enable the retailer to continue to offer a fabulous service. I would also like to see an improved level of consistency in product manufacturing. We have recently experienced some poor levels in upholstery.

What challenges do you currently face?

We are experiencing a reduction in footfall and the pound in our customer’s purse. We are facing into this challenge by adapting the business to suit a new customer profile and increasing our marketing spend. As the city transformation continues, I will continue to be an active participant in networking to support the challenges we all face. I’m also going to support my team with job descriptions and clear expectations. This isn’t something that we have had previously and with my new focus on how I lead the team and work on the business and less “in” it, a new clear people strategy will be supportive to take us forward. I want to ensure that our reward and recognition focus aligns with our expectations to ensure the team are onboard with the plans.

Do you have any staff you would like to pay special thanks or recognition to and why?

The newest member of our team is a young lad, Matty. He is learning the business as we progress and he is working hard and using his initiative. He has been a massive help in updating the website and getting products ready for launch. I would also like to recognise Richard for the ideas he has had in relation to the changes within the business lately, many of which we have actioned. Lisa has also done a fabulous job of updating many of our admin and finance processes which have allowed us to be more streamlined and focussed.

Why do you think customers choose your business?

The friendly service we offer is one of the key reasons, however, I also think they like feeling recognised by the team and feeling special to us. We have great products at keen prices and they enjoy the 1-2-1 service we provide. Many furniture stores pounce on customers and follow them around the store, we are relaxed and helpful. We offer a local delivery service where we build the furniture on site and leave it in the desired location. There are many funny stories about negotiating rather large pieces of furniture around some very narrow stairs in a city centre flat on the 14th floor! We always do our best for each customer. When there are issues (hopefully not too many!) we go out of our way to help, support and overcome! I think our customers appreciate this level of service. There aren’t many furniture businesses in a city centre location anymore – for those customers who don’t have easy access to a retail park, our location is key.

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