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Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

Powerhouse doesn’t stand still. The Jersey retailer used lockdown to make changes in store while sales staff became delivery drivers, call centre operators and even online product reviewers! “We learned a lot from the challenges in the past year,” says Head of Retail, Gavin Murphy. He speaks to Jack Cheeseman.

Occupying a former power station site in Jersey, Channel Islands, Powerhouse (Jersey Electricity) offers a 12,500sq ft ‘out of town’ retail park-style store. It is a one-stop shop for everything in home electricals. The impressive showroom includes a huge variety of departments, from MDA, SDA and cook shop to TV, home audio, smart home and office technology… and even electric transport!

Back in December, Powerhouse won the Best Independent Consumer Electronics Retailer award at the ERT Awards. It was the retailer’s investments in its store and staff that impressed the judges.

In the past year, it’s put nearly half a million pounds into a smart home and heating demonstration area with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant voice connected integration.

Not only this, but during the first lockdown in Jersey last year, the Powerhouse store was closed and the company used this time to rejuvenate the look with new flooring throughout and updated product displays to encourage a more experiential approach.

At this time, the business was supported by the Powerhouse.je 24/7 transactional website – which, like many retailers, has proven to be invaluable. The company was transformed overnight from a traditional retailer to a pure e-commerce business with a free next-day contactless delivery service.

Many of the staff adapted and took on various roles to support the business online; sales assistants became pickers and packers, delivery drivers, call centre operators and bloggers… a few have even been doing product reviews from home to help push traffic and interaction towards the website.

Since restrictions began easing on the island in May last year, the store has remained open – as it was classed as an essential retailer by Jersey’s own governing body.

Gavin Murphy is Head of Retail at Powerhouse and speaking exclusively to ERT, he explains that Jersey followed a similar trajectory to the UK in terms of the pandemic, adding that it was the company’s decision to close its doors during the first lockdown due to the severity of the situation.

“We’ve made some significant investments in recent years to keep us on the digital route, so everything was already in place to move online,” says Mr Murphy. “Staff were out delivering products every single day; as it’s a relatively small island it’s easy to get out and about for even small orders.

“In the second lockdown – which here was just before Christmas – we remained open but we were quite cautious.”

Mr Murphy says in order to be safe he used a local security firm to manage the doors to only let a handful of shoppers in at one time. He adds thankfully now things are getting back to normal.

Q&A

Q: So when you moved online-only it must have helped that you already had the infrastructure in place for this?

GM: We certainly didn’t plan for changes to come in as quickly as they did, but for years we’d invested in the digital side of the business and made sure our platform could do everything we needed it to do.

Online sales were probably around four per cent of total business before the pandemic, but now it’s moved to almost 100 per cent, as you can imagine.

The website took the strain but our team really stepped up and filled in where we needed. It was a great show of flexibility within all of us to keep things running as smoothly as possible.

We learned a lot from the challenges thrown up in the past year; we knew where there were some pressure points in the whole online process, so we looked to improve those. During the second lockdown things ran a lot more smoothly.

Also, in the past, we didn’t really have a call centre as such, as most of our customers made the trip to our store. But since the pandemic hit, the amount of phone calls has increased massively so we invested in that as well.

Q: Your store really stood out at the ERT Awards last year. Have you made any significant changes since then?

GM: We refitted all the flooring to solid wood – this has now transformed the store, it looks bigger and it’s easier on the eye with immediate effect as soon as you walk in.

We also installed a new e-mobility display. We’ve got a great central atrium space in the centre of the store with really high ceilings stretching three floors, it’s a unique space to work with so we invested in a large artificial tree with some greenery to accompany our electric bike display – it adds to our strong sustainable ethos and the tree creates a huge impact in the store. It’s something a little bit quirky!

A few years ago, our store looked very different, with products packed in around the place on much higher shelves, but then we decided to lower all the product displays and open things up much more so you could see across the whole store. We also moved away from using glass cabinets so customers could touch and feel the products.

Now everything is segregated and spaced out to create the right look. We’ve got nice rows of coffee machines with space between them so customers can really explore the functions. Before we had coffee machines sitting on top of white goods and it felt a bit cluttered, so we needed to make some changes.

And we sell loads of computer and internet equipment; we’ve got routers set up with digital information screens. We thought it was becoming a lot more important to get these kinds of products out, plugged in and working for customers to interact with.

Q: What about your brown goods departments? How do customers interact with these products?

GM: So, we’ve got a home demo area; one side we’ve got a big wall with our most premium flagship TVs and in front of that there’s a sofa and coffee table with speakers and other smart products, so it sort of replicates a living room area for customers.

It’s a real connected space where people can see how things work with Alexa or Google or pair up with their phone. There’s also a door with a Ring Doorbell demo; there’s so much smart technology on offer these days but customers really prefer to try before they buy if they can.

Q: How important is it to you to have these demo areas?

GM: If we didn’t have this space in the store, so many products would just end up in boxes. Customers want to see how things work, they want to press buttons and speak to smart speakers, and doing all this certainly helps towards the sale.

If we just had shelves of boxes it wouldn’t be much different to shopping online, so we try and offer a bit more of an experience by having a curated product selection and giving customers that hands- on experience they crave, especially after not being able to visit many stores in the past year or so!

Q: You’ve mentioned before the importance of customer service. How do you ensure you’re on top of your game?

GM: In our management meetings we always talk about customer service before we talk about sales to be honest. It’s so important to us, as it is to any retailer. We value true customer feedback so we do mystery shopping and regular customer surveys, but we have also got three ‘Happy or Not’ feedback stations at the exits to the store. This is a great tool as it gives us a real time feel of what’s happening in the store, rather than waiting for a survey or for mystery shopper results to come in; we can quickly look at what happened yesterday or even live on the day, and if something isn’t right then we can address that. And that is invaluable information.

Our staff are the key to the success of the business. They are the ones the customers interact with, the ones with all the product knowledge; having loads of great displays is one thing but using that to demonstrate a product and close the sale is the crucial next step.

And, of course, there’s so much going on at the moment, but it’s always the teams on the shop floor that really do all the hard work.

Q: How does your unique location play a part in your business ethos?

GM: Being in Jersey, we do have a finite number of customers and we cannot scale up too much more so we really have to look after the customers we’ve got and future generations. Retention is absolutely vital. There are other retailers on the island and the internet giants do operate over here, but people choose to come to us and we have to ensure it stays that way.

There’s population growth here and new people come to the island all the time; like in most areas, there are plenty of young people setting up homes and we have to capture them when they’re buying their first TV or dishwasher so they continue to shop with us. Given our unique location it’s really important for the longevity of the company… which has been going for 96 years!

Q: What are your plans for the months ahead?

GM: There are a few things going on. We will continue on our journey of digital transformation with a big project to bring in new automated systems to make sure everything works together properly.

And although we are running out of space in the store, we’re always looking at more diversification. So we recently moved into electric bikes – with some electric mopeds on the side! – and that department will continue to grow into other complementary categories as well.

Our big thing is introducing more services. We have already invested in workshops, like our bikes workshop and servicing team which we needed to support those sales, but we also want to introduce more smart services by visiting people’s homes and installing things like smart lighting, heating and security. We know the customer would get a real benefit from these advanced systems, but for us it’s all about the additional advice and sales we can offer in the future as it seems the smart sector is never-ending right now!

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