‘We’re looking to help retailers get into CI’
We talk to Steve Simper, managing director of CI distributor Alltrade, about the uptake of the smart home, how retailers are still slow to get involved and what it is doing to help them in terms of training and a possible display loan incentive scheme
Q: How has business been going?
Steve Simper: Very good. Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen a gradual improvement, because we’re expanding the product ranges we’re taking on. We’ve seen massive growth in distribution of HD around the home. In the sorts of products that used to be quite specialised, such as the matrix type of HDMI distribution and point-to-point over network cables. It’s not new technology, but we’ve seen rapid growth over the past 18 months to two years. And we put that down to UHD and 4K, which is now the premium product, and HD, which is now the standard or entry-level.
Q: We understand you have plans to help more retailers get into the CI market…
SS: We’ve been talking about a lack of showrooms for this kind of product, and what we’re looking to introduce is the idea of vastly discounted products to enable retailers to have showrooms and some sort of demonstration area. We’re looking to assist retailers from that point of view by coming up with some sort of idea, where if someone wanted a showroom, we’d advertise that on their behalf, and obviously HDL, say, would want to advertise that too. That would enable them to make a display area, without having to invest too much money. We could lend them the equipment to be able to do that.
Q: You have also been building up your training programme…
SS: Last year, we spent most of our time introducing training rooms to each of our branch locations and we’ve now got an ongoing calendar – a diary of events, whether it be training on CCTV, wi-fi, networking, the installation of dSCR [digital single cable reception] or IRS (integrated reception systems). Some are supported by manufacturers, specifically on their product ranges. A lot are supported by ourselves and are written to be non-specific, so they’re not pushing one particular brand, but more the concept.
About a year ago now, we took on a range of products called Ubiquiti, which I believe is extraordinarily simple to install. It’s basically enterprise-quality wi-fi and it’s pretty much plug-and-play. You download a straightforward software program and if you looked at a normal two-up-two-down house, you could be controlling your wi-fi from the corner shop down the road because the coverage is that good.
So although on wi-fi we only supply Ubiquiti, that’s after trying out lots of different people who said this kit is just easy. Over the past year, we have concentrated more on the idea that training and knowledge is key, because we’re trying to drag installers’ customers into the 21st century. Because they’re doing a similar thing, they’re looking for what else can they do, and I suppose it’s the same for the retail market – what else can they bolt on to what they’re already doing?
Q: Is it still quite a bespoke, specialist sector in terms of sales?
SS: It’s becoming more mainstream. But for the retail side of things, I don’t know anyone that hasn’t got broadband these days, I don’t know anyone that hasn’t got a wi-fi router, and I don’t know anyone that hasn’t got a problem with it. In other words, they’ve got dead spots in their house or they’ve got issues with the range or the connectivity or how often it might fall over.
From a retail perspective, if you go into someone’s house, the first thing you want to do if you’re installing a Sonos or anything like that, is to find out what the wi-fi is like. And it’s very easy to have an app that will test your wi-fi. You can then physically show that to the customer and say that all you have to do is plug in a Ubiquiti router. You plug it in, and you can instantly show the customer what a difference an access point that is doing the job properly will make.
But I don’t know how many retailers get involved with wi-fi, I wouldn’t be surprised if many don’t get involved at all.
Q: Do you find retailers have been a bit slow on the uptake of CI?
SS: It’s difficult to say, because I think there’s an element of what retailer are you referring to? Because some retailers are bricks-and-mortar only, some are only online, some are online but have an installation team. But not everyone has the capability. Historically, a lot of our customer base didn’t get involved in IRS, didn’t get involved in putting aerials up and subcontracted that side out because it was a bit technical. But the opportunity is there certainly for wi-fi – that’s an easy sell and fairly straightforward.
Q: Do you think displays are needed in a shop for to get across the benefits of these products?
SS: I would suggest that most people that walk into a bricks-and-mortar retailer want their hands holding, want to be shown something that works, part with cash, and they don’t want the hassle. Some people are happy to walk away with a box and say I can plug a telly in, but I would assume any salesperson worth their salt would prefer to say ‘we’ll just do everything for you’, because that has got to be a major add-on sale in that marketplace.
That’s where the salesperson comes into his own, when he can give you the benefits. What is the selling point? Why am I bothering? What does it do? Realistically, that’s where some of things that we do, some of the manufacturers’ products that we supply, do come into their own, but it still needs selling. And that’s why you couldn’t sell them online.
Q: Do you think seeing it in a physical store as well helps?
SS: If you looked at the home automation side of things, one of the biggest things for me would be to have a control system for lighting. It’s essentially an on/off switch or it’s a programmable switch that allows you to do different things. That would be well worth having on display, because people can then see what it does, that it’s not just an on/off switch.
Q: How has the market changed over the past few years?
SS: When I joined the industry, the speed of change was driven by Sky, because we’re historically a signal distribution company for aerials and satellite TV. We’re still very heavily into IRS – which is distribution of signal around blocks of flats, hotels, developments, that sort of thing. And still that business is booming, particularly in London because of the amount of expansion of buildings and properties and developments that are going on.
Now, 20 years on, Sky is forcing the market again with Sky Q. Which means everything we’re doing will change. But that’s good news, because it means people are going to require technical support. The customer knows what they want, they just want to watch the telly, but from the point of view of installers and retailers, they’re going to need some sort of knowledge base.
On the back of that, we’ve moved through the audio channel, through Sonos, into the custom install world. What I’ve seen with home automation is loads of big-name companies coming out with massive marketing budgets, but ultimately what’s the connectivity between them? You see all this stuff about the Internet of Things, and how everything is supposed to be interoperable and interconnected, and it’s absolute bulls**t – they don’t talk to each other at all.
One of the companies we got involved with about 18 months ago is a company called HDL. Its product range is very broad and very interconnected. They’ve developed a wireless product. This is when it becomes very exciting, because it opens up true home automation for everybody.
The wireless side of things with retrofit is what’s exciting to us – the fact that it can not only control your lighting, heating, air conditioning and your electric blinds, but you’re also talking about the AV side of things. And with the assistance of Demopad, they work together. So it’s talking across a wi-fi network from your iPad or your phone and you’re changing the channels on your TV or you’re turning the lights on or off instantly. There’s no time delay with this. With some of the set-top boxes, there was quite a lag in the way that they would respond. With Sky boxes now, they’re very quick and people expect that instant reaction.
That’s really where that market is going and what I’m excited about is the fact that, although it’s not an easy sell and it’s quite complicated to install, wireless has become very straightforward.