At last month’s PCR Bootcamp in London, I found out how independent retailers are coping with a declining PC market, thin margins, new competition and a world of new opportunities based round IT services.
My first conversation was with Craig Hume, Director of Utopia Computers, an independent award-winning retailer based in Ayrshire. “Do you use social media?” I asked, as I prepared to take part in a panel on how to beat Apple on service. My idea was that, as Apple does not engage with their customers on social media, indies could definitely score points there. Craig told me about his social media approach: he is present and active on Facebook with 2,500 likes and on Twitter with a good ratio of followers to following (7:1) and so far little presence on Google+.
Here’s a snapshot of Utopia Computers comments page on Facebook:
I have to say, I was impressed by the outstanding comments about Utopia Computers’ level of service. I referred to them in my 30 second intervention, and thanks to our chance discussion, Craig helped me articulate the message that retailers have to engage, like Utopia, with their customers on social media, if they want to build relationships in today’s digital and online world. Whilst today’s 18-24 year olds – the majority of those engaging on Facebook – may do more liking than buying at this stage, they are tomorrow’s buyers. It is no surprise when you see this Facebook page that Utopia has won Independent Retailer of the Year three times in the last 5 years.
I read up the latest Apple news before coming to Bootcamp, and saw that Angela Ahrendts, the new Head of Apple Retail has said that she is going to reinvent the entire customer experience. This is radical when you think that for many the Apple customer experience is the benchmark. If she can do that, I thought, there is no reason why the indies should not have the same obsession about improvement – that is a way to excel and, yes, beat Apple on service.
Throughout the day at Bootcamp, I was curious to find out how indies are adapting to changing market conditions and customer requirements. I spoke to one for whom life is good now – an Apple reseller with demand for tablets from education establishments at an all-time high. Why do their customers not choose the large multiple retailers, I asked. Because they trust us and we are local. This is OK Just as long as the nearest Apple store stays safely in Birmingham, 60 miles away and tablet demand remains high. But there is a cloud on the horizon looking at our data for Q1 as tablet demand is definitely slowing down (Q1 2014 showed 9% Year-on-Year unit growth compared to Q1 2013’s YOY growth of 403%). On the other hand, change, I discovered, has been forced on non-Apple resellers. I spoke to a veteran who has stopped selling products, focusing entirely on service. Importantly, they have innovated, and as Darwin said, it is not the strongest species who survive it is those most capable of adapting. As CK Kohli, founder and owner of YOYOtech said in our panel session “Think local. Think solutions.”
One of the Bootcamp keynotes by Himanshu Pal from Kantar Retail addressed the risk of a resurgent Dixons following their merger with Carphone Warehouse. So, how worried are independent retailers about the merger and will Dixons invest in a capability which will threaten the strength of independent retailers, their proximity and ability to deliver service? Dixons will have a challenge to match the customised services or solutions that indies offer, was the sentiment I walked away with. Indies are investing in long term training for staff, so that consumers leave with a positive experience, said Rich Marsden, Director at VIP Computers and also a panellist. “Relationships with customers don’t come naturally – you have to invest.” We had heard in the Chairman’s introductory remarks, Christopher Phin of MacFormat, how Apple invest in weeks of training for their sales staff, so it was encouraging to hear that indies are taking the same serious approach. Note to PCR for next year’s agenda – it would be good to hear Dixons present!