With its roots dating back almost 160 years, Fairway Furniture is now a sixth-generation family business based in the South West of England. Victoria Noakes speaks to current MD Peter Harding about the retailer’s impressive history and the changes it has seen through the years ...
Starting out as a furniture maker, undertaker and builders’ merchant, founder John Harding established original business J Harding & Sons in 1856 in premises near Plymouth. The business gradually evolved into a specialist furniture maker and retailer by the early 1900s and operated from a series of premises in Plymouth until World War II, when bombing of the main premises forced the company to move to other sites.
In the early 1950s, the company was granted a new site in the post-war Plymouth city centre as it was being rebuilt. A prestigious new three-floor store was built and traded successfully through to the 1980s. When Peter’s father joined the company in the early 1970s – after a short spell working for furniture stores in London – he saw the future of furniture retail as being out of town. In 1976 he opened the first store under the Fairway Furniture name in Tavistock, about 20 miles north of Plymouth.
In the 10 years that followed, the company grew to four stores serving the South-west – in Plymouth, Tavistock, Newton Abbot and St Austell – with the post-war Plymouth city centre store closing and sold off in the early 1980s as part of the transition from in-town to out-of-town retailing. The company now employs almost 70 staff across the four stores and a large central distribution centre. Its aim is to provide a full line furniture retail offer – upholstery, dining, beds, flooring, rugs and curtains – where customers can get great customer service in an easy-to-shop format.
“I’m the sixth generation of the owning Harding family to work in the business. I chose to join the company as a fresh-faced 21-year-old in October 1995 after studying at the University of Reading for a degree in geography and economics. I’d always wanted to work in retail, after watching my father, John Harding, change the face of the business and grow it to a regional multiple,” says Peter.
“During my first four years in the company, I also took a day release course to qualify as a Chartered Certified Accountant, and I completed my final exams in 2000. This gave me a strong and very useful financial grounding, which I think is crucial for running a business. I took over from my father as MD in 2006 when he stepped up to being part-time chairman – he’s now retired but maintains a healthy interest and as well as chairing board meetings, he visits the stores regularly.”
Fairway Furniture targets its product offer to be in the mid market, selling established mainstream brands including G Plan, Parker Knoll, La-Z-Boy and Tempur together with a large selection of own label and imported products. The company makes use of exclusive ranges under its own label to segment the offer across all categories, as well as maintain profit margins. There has also been an increased emphasis on introducing more contemporary, colourful ranges aimed at a younger customer to widen Fairway’s market.
“There’s been a clear shift over the past 10 years – consumer tastes have become notably younger. What a customer of 40 would have bought 10 years ago is now seen as core for shoppers of perhaps 60, making the task of shifting our demographic more difficult. The more traditional product markets are shrinking, and volume manufacturers who bring on-trend or great value product to the market are benefiting,” Peter says.
Fairway stands out from its competitors because of its well-established heritage, which is a strong tool in marketing the business and maintaining consumer brand loyalty. On top of this, the retailer makes sure its product offer is relevant to its target customers, as well as competitve.
“This is something which is vital and takes up a lot of my time and the time of my management team. We also offer other reinforcements, like a free five-year structural guarantee and a genuine low price guarantee, which we’ve been offering for over 30 years,” explains Peter.
“Making sure the customer gets the best quality shopping experience is really important to us. We try to provide a relaxed environment, with free refreshments, knowledgeable sales consultants and great value products. We also run innovative promotions, make use of a range of advertising media and try to maintain strong community links by supporting organisations local to our stores.”
However, one of the best ways Fairway has of competing, Peter states, is by being a member of trade associations which help drive down buying prices for the SMEs trying to keep up with national mutliples. The company has been a member of AIS for almost 30 years and takes advantage of a great range of services it provides to boost its effectiveness.
“From the selector team who put on great member-only sample shows to the other services which are targeted more directly at cost reduction – like streamlined supplier invoicing – without these we just wouldn’t be able to compete in the way we do,” Peter expands.
In response to the needs of a constantly changing market, Fairway is in the process of putting the finishing touches to its newly-updated and fully transactional website which is soon to be launched, and will be investing significantly in adding functionality and services for its customers. In addition, it will be transferring offline advertsing spend online to boost traffic and reach a wider audience.
“There’s no doubt that the furniture retailing landscape is changing massively because of the influence of the internet. Though a lot of customers are reluctant to order big ticket items online, more than 60% of them start their research for a new purchase online. This natually has a direct impact on which retailers are most successful, because of the sheer economies of scale,” says Peter.
“Consumers don’t take into account an organisation’s size in terms of the online environment – they expect a regional multiple like us to have a website just as fully featured and in-depth as our larger competitors. That creates a huge challenge in maintaining brand authority when we can’t spend the same amount on our online presence.”
Now is certainly an exciting time for Fairway, with the refurbishment of its 24,000ft² Newton Abbot store just completed, with the hopes of providing an enhanced shopping environment. This coincided with the appointment of new store manager, Andy Green, who joined the company from Topps Tiles where he had been an area manager for 12 years.
Peter concludes: “I’m always looking for opportunities to grow the business, whether it’s through new stores or by diversifying the business. With the economic climate still fragile, this has been difficult over the past 5-10 years, but I’m optimistic for opportunities that might surface in the coming 12-18 months. The main aim for now is to maintain, and hopefully enlarge, market share in our current locations, and push forward in the years ahead.”