PCR has thrown a spotlight on the independent retail sector, highlighting some of the most innovative and inspirational indies in the UK trade.
In alphabetical order, here is our list of the top 20 indie retailers doing their bit for the UK High Street:
Not only does 121 offer lifetime free support on any product sale and price competitively, it’s also the largest independent reseller of Brother printers in the UK.
“Whether it’s over the phone or face-to-face, one of our enthusiastic members of staff are always willing to help. Not only are we extremely competitive on price but our unique after sale service is literally priceless,” says shop floor/ sales manager Karl Steggles.
As well as allowing customers to bring their computer in for advice and help, 121 also offers a large product range including its own hand-built computer systems. It even offers a huge range of designer laptops.
It has a large on-site workshop where staff repair and maintain over 100 laptops and PCs each week.
“In November 2015 we had our own version of ‘Black Friday’ and called it the 121 Big Event which ran all day on Saturday November 7th, resulting in our biggest takings and largest footfall of the year,” details Steggles.
“We heavily discounted products by obtaining discounted stock from our suppliers to pass onto our customers for the event.
“We are now an Advantage+ partner with BullGuard, a premium partner with Brother UK and Trust, and a Gold partner with Asus and Devolo,” says Steggles. “Many brands such as these have recognised how we sell their products with our service with a smile attitude and lifetime free support policy, and therefore trust us to shout about their brand name.
Airedale has built a strong reputation for refurbishing PCs, recycling broken equipment and giving its profits – as well as some of its computers – to charity.
Development manager Keith Sorrell says this generates a lot of positive PR for the company, and gives worthy causes the chance to improve their IT offering.
Airedale also helps the unemployed get back into work. It employs a number of volunteers, giving them the skills and confidence to build a career.
Sorrell comments: “We take work experience placements from local schools, we do traineeships for school leavers, we do apprenticeships, we do volunteer places for the local colleges and people who want to learn. And then other unemployed people are sent from the job centres to help in our recycling centre. The Department for Work and Pensions send us the long- term unemployed, who work with us for 26 weeks. We pay our full-time employees.”
Airedale is an award- winning business with a turnover of almost £500,000. Sorrell tells PCR some of his personal highlights at Airedale: “Our technicians built the computers that were used to design the Olympic Village in London.
“We built up from scratch to have three very successful shops with an envied reputation for our repair service. Even big multiples send us repairs.”
Being aware of changing trends and listening to staff advice has helped Black Bear become one of the UK’s top independent retailers.
“We used to be a very traditional laptop/desktop retail store and repairer, but around 18 months ago one of our younger staff suggested gaming should be our focus and this has transferred the store,” explains Black Bear MD Richard Alford. “We now build our own gaming PC range and have a large stock of gaming components and peripherals from Corsair, Razer, Cougar and EVGA amongst others.”
Black Bear staff can suggest brands and products the firm stocks, which has recently been extended to include capture cards and high-end gaming monitors.
On local marketing, Alford says: “We have tried many different approaches, including advertising in the papers, on roundabouts and billboards,” says Alford. “However, we find the best marketing is word of mouth. By offering support and always being helpful we get more recommendations than any advert can bring you.”
Black Bear sponsors charity events, including beer festivals, comedy evenings and dinners. “We have a monthly stand in our local shopping centre with our gaming car and rig. We’ve just sponsored the local radio station’s bear mascot too,” says Alford.
Last year Black Bear refitted its store with a new counter and slat wall, it changes the products on display to keep stock fresh and also has TVs playing videos of different products and services.
Having started out as a call-out only service, Chips Computers is now an award- winning store that even turns everyday toys into computers.
Chips started life in 2005 as a call-out only service, where staff would go to residential and business users to handle repairs and upgrades. While it still offers that service, the firm opened its first store in 2013 and has gone from strength to strength.
Identifying market trends and popular products is key, according to owner Phil Griffiths: “About a year ago we had five or ten per cent of the store dedicated to gaming – it’s now about a third of the store. One of the things we do is go to the extremes in building PCs.
“We can turn old toys into computers, for example the Star Wars Millennium Falcon or Doctor Who’s Tardis.”
Chips takes every customer’s needs seriously, especially those with disabilities or other very specific requirements.
“For our customers with special needs, or disabilities, we work hard to provide them with essential services,” says Griffiths. “Some of our customers need specialist software for things such as dyslexia. Others may have dementia or autism, so it is very important to have their computer set up to be user friendly for them.
“We always take pride in everything we do and want our customers to have a five star experience – this shows on our five-star Google and Facebook ratings,” says Griffiths.
“We feel a happy customer is the best advertising you can get.”
Although it’s described as ‘a small shop’ by founder Geraint Whitley, behind Computer Wizard lies a 4,000 sq ft warehouse full of stock. The firm is also a member of Trading Standards Approved Traders and provides training for adults with difficulties.
It has been open for nearly 17 years, so the staff are now serving three generations of the same family.
Computer Wizard provides a suite of services including computer repair, managed IT services for over 40 local companies, IT recycling and disposal, wholesale computer sales and asset redeployment.
Its hard work is paying off. Turnover has shot through the £1 million mark, and founder Geraint Whitley was invited to become a Liveryman at the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists in London. He also says the company’s online sales channel feedback is ‘exceptional’.
“The small shop is a Tardis occupying a few hundred square feet – but behind it we have over 4,000 sq ft of warehouse storage full of stock,” Geraint says. “I enjoy striking deals with other traders, having to make quick judgment calls on big deals.
“We are a member of the Trading Standards Approved Traders scheme and we are about to join the Which? Magazine scheme too.
“We also provide training and support for adults with difficulties such as autism and Asperger’s.
“The average time spent working with Computer Wizard is now nine years, and I am very proud of them all – they really look after the business.”
We’ve all been there – walking into a store for the first time only to leave feeling intimated, or simply ignored by sales staff occupied with other jobs. That’s something that DTec Computers tries tirelessly to avoid.
“The first impression is important,” says DTec’s Steve Barker. “We try to speak to customers promptly and not leave them standing waiting for ages, or hanging on waiting for us to answer the phone. Accurately finding out what the customer needs is key.”
Ultimately, DTec strives to give customers a personal experience, in the belief that this builds trust and loyalty.
“The after sales service we offer is our biggest selling point – all the products we sell come with free lifetime after sales support,” says Barker. “Customers can call into the shop with any problems, or we can offer remote assistance over the phone with Team Viewer.”
Having the right initial sales approach is undoubtedly key to any company’s success, but marketing and in-store displays also play a central part to DTec’s business plan.
“The layout of the store is organised into sections – laptops, desktops, accessories and components,” explains Barker. “All of our staff know where the products are located and everything is priced. I generally know what our customer base is looking for and the displays are tailored to meet their needs. The majority of the store is dedicated to laptops and PCs.
“The store is very hands-on and we encourage customers to try before they buy.”
GBIZ IT is one PC retailer that likes to go beyond just selling and repairing computers.
Garry Stonehouse tells PCR: “We started offering cloud services long before the bigger retailers started taking notice of the then new service.
“We’ve been a Google Apps reseller, and have also offered online backup for over four years now, but recently we’ve been developing our own cloud- based offerings. Not content with reselling other companies services, we’ve developed a host of our own cloud services, unlocking better returns and more control to tailor exactly what we offer our customers.
“Two years ago we experimented with building a VoIP service, initially only hosting our own phones, until we’d developed it enough to take us to market. We’ve since installed over 100 VoIP extensions whilst retaining the control and bulk of the margin.
“Last year we expanded our offering into web-based applications, and we now offer Job System, a HR system and a Task Manager, all hosted and based on open source software, allowing us the quickest route to deployment, and again retaining the bulk of the margin ourselves, rather than reselling another company’s services.”
Stonehouse says selling monthly services is now key. “Selling hardware is so competitive these days that it’s become unsustainable on its own. The only way to survive is to offer services alongside – beyond repairs. We offer our hosted services out for a low cost monthly recurring fee.”
Reliability and dependency has helped GHI Computers become one of the leading lights in the indie PC retail market.
“We are Which? Trusted Trader accredited, which cements our impartial and honest customer service with a nationally recognised brand that is known for being trustworthy,” explains GHI’s co-director Gavin Holder. “Trust is everything – by gaining a customer’s trust you can count on them to recommend you to their friends and family.”
Having a Which? accreditation certainly helps with any business. But how does a modern PC retailer keep a product range innovative and fresh for existing and potential clients?
“Being a one stop shop, we offer everything from consumables and cables right up to business support,” says Holder.
“In store we focus on ordering less stock but more frequently. We increasingly find that vendors are competing for our business, which has lead to SOR deals or display stock free of charge.
“These vendors, in my eyes, will be around for years to come as ultimately the independents are the core of the industry, not the multiples. We are the ones who will sell their product by demonstrating it for them.”
GHI Computers has also recently teamed up with Kodak to offer instant prints, large format printing, canvas printing, frames and gifts as a Kodak Express Centre. On top of this, it specialises in PC, laptop, console, tablet and printer repair.
Focusing on a traditional face-to-face service with local customers, IS Computers also operates a same-day repair service for those customers who bring their system in during the morning.
The computer supply and repair specialist has a long track record in the trade, having been established back in 1998.
Clearly a lot has changed since then, but IS has focused on keeping its offering clear and simple.
“We offer a traditional face to face local service with the facilities to respond to the demands to both business and consumers,” the firm says in a statement.
“We soon gained an excellent reputation in Rugby for supplying high quality custom built PCs and offering honest advice for upgrades and repairs.”
IS Computers stocks laptops, desktops, hardware and a range of consumable items, maintains an in-house workshop and can also offer on-site visits to customer premises.
“Our in-house workshop can offer a very competitive range of services,” IS adds. “As well as looking after our own custom made PCs, we are also happy to offer services for nearly all major brands. In fact, we normally can operate a same day service for customers if they bring their system in first thing in the morning.”
IS Computers also takes its responsibilities under the WEEE Regulations extremely seriously – the retailer has taken steps to be compliant with its corporate and social responsibilities.
THE LAPTOP FIXERS
With two stores, a repair centre, a focus on apprenticeships and a host of products and services on offer, The Laptop Fixers does much more than just repairing notebooks.
“Although we are called The Laptop Fixers, we not only specialise in laptop repairs, but we repair pretty much any electronic device,” owner Paul Betteridge explains.
This includes tablets and mobile phones, desktops, Apple Macs, game consoles, TV, audio and Hi-Fi equipment and even GHD hair straighteners.
The Laptop Fixers has two stores and a large repair centre used as backup for repairs when it is exceptionally busy.
“This keeps our customers happy knowing we can get repairs done relatively quickly,” Betteridge adds.
But it’s more than just repairs that the retailer focuses on.
“We have recently released a new service called PC Protect which provides our customers with 24/7 proactive checks, virus and web protection, cloud backup and remote repairs whenever they need it,” Betteridge states.
“PC Protect also reminds our customers of any AV/ annual servicing renewals which is great for recurring income.
“Our plans are designed for home users as well as businesses and have proven very popular.
“I am pushing towards more online/remote repairs services this year as almost 80 per cent of all our repairs can be done remotely, which frees up a lot of workshop space for hardware-related repairs and optimises our repair processes.
“I also design software for computer shops which sells worldwide over at www. ComputerRepair- ShopSoftware.com.
“This is an area of the business I am expanding to include PC Protect, which allows other PC shops to also offer this service to their customers. This will be released shortly.”
Elsewhere, the Laptop Fixers bundles its annual service plans with Bitdefender and Livedrive, upgrades Windows 7/8 machines to Windows 10, and sells refurbished tablets and laptops. It also has its eyes on virtual reality – and has an apprenticeship scheme.
“I am a big believer in the apprenticeship scheme and two years ago Chantal Simpson was hired as our first customer services apprentice,” Betteridge says.
“She is the first person our customers speak to when they visit or call us, and liaises between our technicians and customers.
“We have also recently taken on Liam Newman, our technical customer services apprentice who has equally excelled himself, and we’re looking to take on a third apprentice very soon.
“I highly recommend everyone to take look at the apprenticeship scheme as this is a great way to bring in great new talent who are very keen to learn.”
The Laptop Fixers was recently recognised for its hard work, being named finalists in the Blackmore Vale Business Growth Awards.
MICRO PLUS COMPUTERS
Successful customer retention and a proactive marketing strategy helps Micro Plus Computers stay one-step ahead of the pack.
How exactly can a retailer keep a customer? According to Micro Plus Computers owner Chris Innes, successful customer retention starts the moment the person walks into the shop and (if executed properly) can continue throughout the lifetime of the customer/ retailer relationship.
“We make all the staff aware of the lifetime value of customers,” says Innes.
“Whenever they are dealing with a customer, they are encouraged to remember that keeping the customer happy is the most important part of their job, whether making a sale, dealing with an issue or even just giving directions – the customer must leave the store impressed and ready to recommend us and use us again in the future.”
So you’ve got a happy, returning customer, but what attracts them to the store in the first place? Does marketing and in-store displays still make a big difference?
“We use Google Adwords, Bing and Facebook for online advertising, which works well for marketing specific products and services to our target audience,” adds Innes.
“It’s also very easy to measure ROI on these via click through stats, enquiries and online conversions. We’ve also had a lot of success using old-school leaflet drops, door-to-door, advertising repairs and upgrades. All of our showroom point of sale is designed in-house and we are planning a major refit in the next few months.”
As well as end users, Micro Plus Computers works with around 200 businesses, schools and charities throughout Shropshire, Cheshire and Wales to help them get the best value and best performance out of their IT equipment. It also helps around 250 home users every week with problems ranging from broken iPhones to wireless network problems. Over the past 24 years it has fixed problems for over 23,000 local customers.
With a retail showroom that doubles up as a collection point for business customers, an increase in demand for repairs, and one eye on emerging technology like virtual reality and the smart home, Midland Computers is ready for the future.
Having been established for more than 15 years, Midland Computers aims to provide a more personal service than larger retailers in the area.
It aims to make it easy for customers who are not confident in choosing the right product, avoiding bombarding them with technical jargon.
The firm builds systems, offers repairs and does its best to offer what it calls ‘Everything IT’ to customers, plus a wide range of products.
Showroom supervisor James Pilling says: “Customers appreciate having a company they can go to for any IT-related query. Nurturing every customer is vital, before and after the sale. Regardless of the customer’s level of knowledge, we’re happy to discuss how we can exactly meet their requirements. Also, as more devices are becoming associated with the IT industry, we’re seeing a steady increase in repairs.”
Midland Computers offers a three-day turnaround for all repairs, and has fixed prices for common services such as fault investigation or data recovery. Midland Computers is also eyeing the virtual reality and smart home areas.
It’s said that little touches can make a big difference – and that seems to be the key to PC-PartX’s success.
The retailer has a few ‘museum pieces’ on display (fresh from owner Paul Middleton’s loft) that aren’t for sale, in order to grab the customer’s attention and create a talking point. These include retro games items like the Nintendo 64 plus classic Brownie cameras.
PC-PartX has a well- structured store which it says is always being improved, plus it offers a mix of repairs and servicing. It also has another company called Gadget Tech which focuses specifically on iPads and smartphones.
“Good service and a smile goes a long way with our customers,” Middleton explains. “I believe our success is achieved by hard work and constant improvements to the shop.”
With a background in the motorcycle trade, Middleton has developed a good business sense.
“I think we probably differ from a lot of other stores. I try to get a lot of refurbished equipment rather than new – because I can’t get good deals on new stock.
“In the motorcycle trade, we made a decent 33 per cent margin, and I try to stick to that with this shop too. And I think that’s why we have done so well.”
PC-PartX is also a family business, run by Paul and his wife Marie Middleton (pictured). Their nephew Tom also works at the store, as do two apprentices Liam and James. Former apprentice Craig has just been taken on full-time. PC-PartX is now looking to open another shop.
PCS MADE SIMPLE
Offering an informative, personal service helps PCs Made Simple stand out from the crowd.
“We try to ensure that our customer service is as personal as possible,” explains Clifford Johnson, MD at PCs Made Simple. “We also make sure we understand exactly where they are coming from and what it is they want to achieve before we start suggesting any of our products and services. The customer need is the priority – what we want to sell and what we have in stock should not be a factor.”
PCs Made Simple thinks this approach sets it apart from other businesses who might try to sell customers whatever laptops or PCs have been in the stock room for too long. Johnson says that as a result staff get to know the people who visit his shop, many of who will end up returning when they face a problem in the future.
“Repeat business is, and continues to be, the key to a successful retail premises,” explains Johnson. “Creating the right kind of sales environment is crucial. I try and maintain a fairly informal atmosphere in our shop.”
The company also runs free workshops for parents and children, to teach them how to build systems.
PCs Made Simple doesn’t have performance-based targets for staff and doesn’t operate with a commission structure.
“I believe that this detracts so much from the personal aspect of what customer service should be – it effectively turns customers into ‘potential sales’, rather than the beautiful people that they are,” Johnson says.
Providing the highest level of customer service is not an easy task, by any means. But through attention to detail and speed of repair, PC Solutions’ hard work is paying off.
The firm provides IT solutions and repairs to consumers and businesses in Perthshire and beyond.
“We believe that good customer communication is essential,” comments director Keith Fergie. “Through the development of a custom CRM, every time a machine is touched by an engineer, or a part arrives, the customer is automatically sent an update via text and email. This means that the customer knows the status of their job at all times.
“We go to great lengths to protect clients’ data. We clone their data before any work is started on their machine. To date, we have never lost nor corrupted any client’s data. In fact, a very large national chain recommends us to their customer for the trickier repairs that they do not want to touch.
“Our workshop is also in full sight. This means that customers can see exactly what is going on – nothing is hidden. Customers can speak to our repair engineers at any time.”
PC Solutions has developed its own workflow system that means it can complete a full Windows rebuild including updates and software in an hour. It also offers a Sentinel Computer Protection Plan, including internet security and unlimited virus removal.
All of this has helped the store grow its turnover 28 per cent year-on-year.
Over the past couple of years, Southend’s Premier Computers has won 10 independent IT reseller awards, and its large workshop means it can work on 20 systems at once.
It offers a full range of IT hardware and peripherals from speakers to graphics cards, PCs, laptops, iPhone and iPad repairs, on-site callouts and business IT support. The shop also has a dedicated PC and laptop showroom, a workshop and an in-store PC builder system (provided by Target Components).
“We have this on a purpose-made touch screen kiosk and this enables us to offer over 300 trillion combinations,” says manager Tony Eves.
On the showroom, he adds: “It set us apart as you don’t see many others who have that much space dedicated to new and refurbished systems. It’s been completely built from scratch by ourselves.”
Its level of service has rewarded Premier Computers with a number of recognitions, including a nomination for Independent Retailer of the Year at the recent 2016 PCR Awards.
“We have won 10 IT reseller awards in recent years, which has given us a boost in confidence,” Eves explains. “We’ve also had fantastic reviews from customers on our website and Facebook page. We are a hard-working unit and everyone works as a team.”
Retail markets are constantly changing. New technology brings innovation, which in turn leads to conditions that can sometimes be difficult for the bigger retailers and multiples to keep up with. For Pudsey Computers, it’s an opportunity.
“The ability to react to the market as it changes has got to be the biggest benefit of being an indie,” says Steven Lightfoot Jnr, director at Leeds-based Pudsey Computers. “Sales channels are constantly evolving, vendors are constantly innovating, product ranges and models are being renewed almost by the week – the freedom and flexibility of being an independent allows us to react and hopefully stay one step ahead of the game.”
Pudsey Computers is undergoing a store refit which should be complete in June, plus last year it opened a training room for clients, where it hosts different classes and demonstrations. The firm also offers smartphone and tablet repairs in-store. Pudsey will be branching out into a lot of areas in the future, to broaden beyond traditional over-the-counter sales.
But what key issues do indie retailers face today?
“I would say the biggest three issues are pricing, building relationships with vendors and distributors, and adding value,” says Lightfoot. “It’s becoming harder to prove you add value.”
As one of the biggest independent PC retailers in the UK, SimplyFixIt built a reputation for being a true expert in repairs. But when the firm was set up as Ideal Computing in Edinburgh in 1996, it was like many other computer shops at the time.
It built PCs, sold other components and products and had a support team who worked on offering warranty service for the computers it sold. Over time, the team saw more customers asking for support and repairs for other computers, so it developed SimplyFixIt and opened its first store under that brand ten years ago.
Today it is one of the biggest independent PC retailers in the UK, with eight repair stores in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
“Although that’s a bigger number than most indie brands, we’re still staunchly independent,” general manager Jason Eccles tells PCR. “We are managed by the same team that was put in place in the late ‘90s and we still have the same interest in all things tech that is common in other independent shops.”
SimplyFixIt offers repairs on computers, Macs and iPhones and iPads, as well as an alternative to Apple’s own ‘Genius Bar’ for customers.
“In Edinburgh and Glasgow we opened shops within 500 yards of the Apple Stores because we’re so confident we can offer a better service than Apple for out of warranty repairs,” adds Eccles.
The repair specialist has an average 4.8 out of 5 score with independent review company eKomi, and its website was visited by almost 500,000 unique users in 2015.
Over the last 12 months, one of the UK’s longest- running independents has focused on two areas to grow – innovation and people.
Set up in 1977 as a newsagents, Sweethaven changed 15 years ago to become a specialist computer reseller – not the usual path to tech dealer success but one that the firm has walked with aplomb. It now has consumer, business and education divisions.
“Customer feedback for our retail services has been outstanding, with praise for our ability to act in the customer’s best interest and meet their needs without hard-selling,” says Sweethaven owner Paul Rambridge.
“We provide customers with innovative products and services, while solidifying the building blocks for growth through development of people talent.”
The company has worked hard on in-store design to increase footfall, including areas for ‘concept selling’, the connected home, gaming and demos, plus targeted seasonal window displays.
“We offer a bespoke design service for the customer, so we can visit their home and connect everything up as they like. Also, our apprenticeship programme is key for us and staff development,” Rambridge adds. Its hard work paid off earlier this year, when Sweethaven won Independent Retailer of the Year at the PCR Awards.
Director Craig Hume explains how an author and motivational speaker influences the staff and working practice at Utopia Computers.
“All of Utopia’s team know our company values and our ‘why’ – why we’re in business and why we do what we do,” he says. “The author and speaker Simon Sinek has had a huge influence on the way we work – we want to create a family environment that brings out the very best in our team, ensuring every customer receives an unforgettable experience.”
For a company that bears the same moniker as a 1516 Sir Thomas Moore novel that describes a fictional island society, one would think nothing less. But how does a company operating in the 21st century achieve such an ideal modern worth ethic?
“We ensure that every customer really gets a taste of our passion, company culture and most importantly, happiness,” continues Hume.
He says the Living Wage has been a great way to make the entire team know they are important to Utopia, in addition to building teamwork with tools like PerkBox and fun days out.
Let’s not forget – the firm builds some astounding performance machines.
Over the years it has transitioned from a PC store to a national system builder that now ships across Europe and rivals some of the bigger performance builders.
Find out how the High Street is holding up in our recent analysis piece on indie retail.