Ben Gilks spent his lockdown not just improving areas of his Bristol-based business, but instead completely rebranding and opening new premises. It was a big move to become NE Appliances during such turbulent times, but talking to Jack Cheeseman, he says it’s the best thing he’s ever done!
Retailers have been though testing times recently. If dealing with the effects of a global pandemic wasn’t enough, one appliance specialist in the South West embarked on a huge rebranding project – with a new superstore showroom and a brand new website.
Nailsea Electrical has become one of the best- known electrical appliance retailers in the Bristol area since it began trading 38 years ago. After occupying various premises during that time, the company ended up at its flagship 8,000sq ft store on Gloucester Road in the city.
Ben Gilks (left) took over the business from his father Pete Gilks back in 2004 at the age of 19. He always had big plans for growth. Then, when the pandemic hit, he took the plunge to expand and re-launch the business as NE Appliances.
The first step was going live with a brand new transactional website to help with the transition of sales, followed by opening an impressive, brand new 15,000sq ft showroom on the outskirts of town. There are 22,000 cars passing by the busy junction outside each day, and it is only six miles from Nailsea Electrical’s previous location.
“I’m extremely proud of our new store,” says Ben Gilks. “It’s what I always wanted and I think it will stand the test of time. I had my eye on this building for years and it just so happened that the previous occupier moved out so I snapped it up!”
The huge new appliance store opened in May. It is split over two floors and features over 300 working appliances covering built-in, range cooking and side- by-side refrigeration with general price points ranging from £160 up to £20,000. Plus there’s a full BSH cooking demo area and Live Quooker Tap Zone.
But it wasn’t an easy project. Refurbishing the whole premises during lockdown with up to 100 people on site threw up a number of hurdles, including a few positive COVID cases which set things back, explains Mr Gilks.
“It was tough-going at times, that’s for sure,” he says. “Everyone was working flat-out for six weeks to get it finished. And I personally unboxed every single product going onto the shopfloor.
“My partner had our baby during this time as well, so things were crazy at home too! I barely saw my son for a whole week just before we opened; things were just so busy, I was leaving home at five in the morning and getting back at 8 o’clock at night. The day we opened the store I was simply running on adrenaline!”
All the shopfloor items for the new store were cherry-picked for their features, style and popularity and there is an area for Best Buys, where five different products are displayed each month which are the same as those promoted on the website.
While the ideas for the displays and the sweeping curves that follow the shape of the building came from Mr Gilks and the design company, Otrovez, it was the job of local company Exhibitions & Displays Direct (EDD) to put the plans into action and refit the building. Mr Gilks invested £900,000 in the new showroom.
Q: What made you want to re-brand?
Ben Gilks: I originally had the idea of changing to NE Appliances seven years ago, but I was never fully concentrated on it. Our previous store was all about the luxury end of the market and it was solely reliant on people walking through the door, so as soon as the pandemic hit we went from big business to nothing. While we were closed I had time to think about completely diversifying and how I could improve the business.
The first thing I did was set up the new website – neappliances.com – and I could suddenly see that the amount of stuff we were selling called for a better distribution network. That’s when I started looking for new store premises.
The website is a massive part of the rebrand because so many appliances are sold online these days and I thought I’ve got to make the transition in order to continue to be successful.
Q: And how do you feel now you’ve made the move?
BG: It’s the best thing I’ve ever done! There was an incredible amount of work to make this all happen but now we are settled things are definitely going in the right direction; we’ve just had a record month and that’s given us all a real buzz! I don’t want to be the biggest appliance retailer in the country, I just want to have my fair share of the market.
I was quite nervous about changing the name from Nailsea Electrical to NE Appliances and moving from one side of the city to the other, but we put together a huge marketing campaign to ensure that we maintained our local business. We sent personalised letters to all of our customers, we had billboards around Bristol and we did local radio and TV advertising.
Our customers have been blown away by the transformation. A lot of our regulars still see the Nailsea team and they keep coming back to us because they know we go the extra mile. New customers have been utilising the website, so it’s the best of both worlds and that is what we are aiming towards.
When we went into the first lockdown retail changed immediately; bigger home projects were put off initially and it switched to distress purchases. We still had loads of orders coming in between five and seven o’clock every evening because people were sitting at home browsing online. If someone’s washing machine breaks down they usually just jump online and order it as soon as they can. We were losing out on business before by not being in that online space, but now we are 24/7 and it’s changed things completely.
We’ve also now got a trade aspect to the business with the new trade counter in store and that’s really started to pick up; customers with one of our trade cards can get 10 per cent off appliances and they’re ready for collection within minutes of their order.
Q: So how have you adapted your delivery and logistics operations?
BG: Every day we’ve got vans going to Birmingham, London, Wales and Cornwall and these are always full; we’ve also got three vans delivering locally. To be honest business is growing almost too quickly and I cannot find drivers quickly enough to keep up with the demand!
You just can’t turn business away. And as soon as a customer has any form of negative experience with a retailer their opinion and recommendation is tainted from then on. So we’ll do whatever we can to help our customers and get all our deliveries out.
One thing I’m really keen to do is build up the website and offer national delivery, but it takes some working out and serious organisation to scale up to that level.
We’ve currently got another warehouse in the city that is full to the rafters with stock, and there is also our old store which we’re running as an outlet centre; it’s not a massive part of the business, just a way of selling off and getting rid of some older product.
Q: How important is the local community to your business?
BG: In Bristol we are almost the only appliance retailer left, so we certainly dominate the area. Our customers always like to visit us instore to see products in the flesh – and there is plenty to see here. But the benefit we have now is the addition of the new website to encourage people in.
We’ve got celebrity chefs coming in doing cooking demonstrations and Facebook live streams to all of our customers – Dean Edwards, who won MasterChef, is local to us. This will really bring the showroom to life and merge our instore and online offering. It’s just nice for customers to enjoy some free food and drink without the sales pressure, but fully showing off our appliances. Advertised properly, we could see hundreds of customers coming in over the weekend.
And talking of marketing, we are a sponsor of Bristol Bears Rugby Club and they play all over the country so that gets our name out to wider areas. I’d also like to get them more involved in things like meet and greets maybe next year!
BG: I presented to all of my partners to explain the rebrand and show my vision of the new business and I got full commitment and support from all the manufacturers, which was really great. This is a real destination store so I wanted branding on the outside to show what we are all about; at the end of the day, it’s a showcase of so many products and the brands really got behind the project and wanted to be part of this journey.
One of the best things was ensuring supply of stock for opening day! Especially with all the ongoing issues and setbacks due to the pandemic. Thankfully we were only short of three products when we first opened so it could have been a lot worse.
Q: What are your plans to take the business forward?
BG: I think the biggest growth area for the business will be the website and that is going to be one of my focus points.
I now also have two sales reps on the road looking after all our contract clients and developers – we supply appliances for a lot of house builders, local councils and the like. It takes a lot of managing so I’ve invested in a small team to develop that side.
Overall, within three years if I can double my business I’ll be happy; after that I’m not quite sure! I can never sit still and I can be very impatient; I like things to be done instantly, so when I get an idea I usually run with it!
The whole company looks very different now and if we can maintain recent sales figures since we opened, that would be great. But retail is going through very up and down times, so we’ll see what happens in the coming months.