“I was losing sleep – there are lots of unknowns”

South Wales Euronics retailer, AF Thomas Electricals, has closed both its stores due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but Owner and Managing Director, Andrew Thomas, is single-handedly running the online business and manning the phones.

Here, in part one of this article, he explains how he is coping and outlines some of the benefits of being a member of Euronics.


Part One

Combined Independents (Holdings) Ltd (CIH), the electrical buying group which is part of Euronics, Europe’s largest electrical buying group, is offering ongoing support to its members during the COVID-19 lockdown by providing a well-stocked warehouse, twice-weekly deliveries and regular two-way communication with its suppliers.

One of those members is South Wales independent retailer, AF Thomas Electricals, which has a 10,000 sq ft flagship out-of-town superstore in Newport and a smaller 1,200 sq ft outlet in the market town of Abergavenny.

“Our goal is to continue offering a service to our customers and anyone who wants to buy from us,” says Mr Thomas (pictured), who is a Deputy Chairman of Euronics.

During the lockdown, the business, which normally employs 16 staff, has physically closed both its stores, but Andrew is holding the fort at the Newport branch and dealing with any enquiries.

“I’ve been answering the phones and emails and having online web chats, but it’s a pretty lonely existence,” he says. “But with technology these days, we’ve been able to achieve certain things, like diverting our phones and emails from the Abergavenny shop to the Newport store. If the crisis had happened 20 years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to do that.”

Online

Over the past two years, AF Thomas has been developing the online side of the business, which has proved crucial during the COVID-19 crisis.

“I appreciate that our website is nowhere near as good as it could be, but, as independent electrical retailers’ websites go, I think it’s okay,” says Mr Thomas. “We’ve seen a massive spike in online traffic, chat and sales – our online turnover in March more than doubled.”

During the lockdown, domestic appliances have accounted for 95 per cent of AF Thomas’s sales, with brown goods making up the rest. In normal trading conditions, it’s an 80:20 split in favour of domestic appliances.

Key brands that do well for the business include Beko, Blomberg – its freestanding appliances are exclusive to Euronics members – Bosch, Neff and Siemens, Hotpoint and Stoves.

“We push Blomberg because it’s a sheltered brand and the margin is good,” says Mr Thomas.

Past, present and future

So how is he feeling about the short-term future of AF Thomas in the wake of the coronavirus?

“I was losing sleep over it because there are lots of unknowns, like how much business will I be able to take on with only three members of staff rather than 16, and what’s our breakeven figure when we’re not paying rent and rates, etc.?” he says.

AF Thomas was established in Newport in 1932 by Andrew’s grandfather, Albert Frederick Thomas, who was an electrician working on the local docks. His first shop sold radios he had made. The business then expanded its offering to include TV sets and then domestic appliances.

In 1992, an opportunity arose to purchase a local spares distributor in Abergavenny, which was then converted into a retail outlet. Andrew joined the business in the same year – he gave up a music career in London, where he was a drummer in a funk band, and was persuaded by his father, Ray, to come back from London to run the Abergavenny store, after a potential recording contract fell through.

The flagship Newport superstore, which is across two floors, opened five years ago – it is located on the Mendalgief Retail Park, near Argos, TK Maxx and Smyths Toys.

“When we moved here, the first couple of years were very good and we tripled our turnover, but in the past two years, we have lost one of our neighbours, Next Clearance, which closed down. That has affected us – footfall has been a challenge,” says Mr Thomas.

But AF Thomas has diversified into other areas – on its mezzanine floor it sells kitchens by Hanak and is also offering other kitchen furniture brands, including JJO, via a Euronics partnership with the Der Kreis buying group.

“There’s a lot of hard work needed to sell a 25 grand kitchen and, if you get it wrong, it can be an expensive mistake, but it’s been good – I don’t have any regrets about moving into it,” says Mr Thomas. In fact, selling kitchens is a return to the business’s roots – in the 1960s it sold furniture.

Look out for part two of this AF Thomas profile, coming soon on ertonline.co.uk!