23 May 2024, 06:32
By Furniture News Nov 29, 2021

Shoptalk with Peter Green Furnishers

Chandlers Ford, Southampton, is home to Peter Green Furnishers – a comprehensive independent furniture and flooring store that handles both domestic and commercial business, and has served customers in the south of England for over 60 years. Here, the retailer’s executive chairman, Wendy Martin Green, reveals how she took the reins of the family business, and the decisions which have shaped it since …

Was it always a foregone conclusion that you would work in the family business? 

No, it certainly was not. Although I grew up with the business on a day-to-day basis and worked there on Saturdays and during my school holidays and university breaks, it was never my intention to work in or run the business on a permanent basis. 

Life, in fact, took me in another direction altogether – a degree in biology, followed by a job which I loved at the Natural History Museum in London, and then a move to New York where I earned a degree in fine art and a Masters in creative writing, and raised my three children. 

When my father died in 1980, my mother took the business over, and it was not until she passed away in 2010 that I was suddenly faced with the decision as to what to do with the business. 

It was then that I decided to take it on. I had picked up a fair amount of knowledge of the business and the industry simply by osmosis from my years of living with my mum and dad and the business. 

My background in art and design has been useful, as have my skills in writing. I had a number of small business enterprises during my 30-something years in the US, and the lessons I learned from those have not gone to waste!

It was never my choice, but I have to say I find the responsibilities of running Peter Green demanding and challenging, and the work enjoyable and interesting. I care greatly about the business I inherited, the people who work for me, our new customers and our loyal customers. I also care for the manufacturers that we have had such long and continued relationships with over the 65 years that we’ve been in operation.

Given that background, does it still feel like a family business?

Because both my parents have passed away and I am an only child, I’ve not had the pleasure (or maybe disappointments) that working closely with a family member can bring. 

That said, all my three children have visited the business from the US at one time or another, and assisted us with buying trips, helping out in our coffee shop and with deliveries, so they know the mechanics. 

At the moment they are all young and off doing their own thing, just as I did at their age. My daughter, however, who recently moved to Florida with her husband and baby, shows interest in the business, and helps out with the marketing and graphic design. She has a good head on her shoulders and good ideas – many of which we have employed. The benefits of working with her, for me, is that it keeps us close, moving towards a target together, and she can appreciate what a wonderful business her grandparents and mother have created, and how much care and effort goes into maintaining it on a day-to-day level.

Has your attitude towards the trade, or the way you work with the people within it, changed much over the past decade? 

Yes, of course – everything changes in 10 years in business, and the last 10 years threw us an obstacle course of recessions, Brexit nervousness and indecision, followed by finally leaving the EU, fierce competition from the big boys online, plus a pandemic to boot! 

I think if your attitudes and the way you work remain the same through all of that then you are dead in the water. You have to be flexible, you must be flexible, and flexibility is what being an independent business like Peter Green is all about. 

How has the business changed since March last year?

Well, for me personally, the changes that the pandemic has made have been great. I have not been able to visit my store for over a year, but now, finally, everyone is in tune with video conferencing and virtual meetings, and that makes a big difference. 

Years ago, with my business in the UK and me in the US, it was quite difficult to keep in touch with everyone, but now it is easy. I can now talk with HR, my bank manager and web developers as if I was in my own office at Peter Green.  

FaceTime and WhatsApp enable me to talk to my MD and my managers on a daily basis. When we were all working from home I saw inside their homes and met their children and pets, as they did mine. I think because of this we got a lot closer during that time. 

These technical leaps that Covid pressed upon us have changed things enormously from our customers’ point of view, too. Many of our older customers who were unfamiliar with the internet at the beginning of Covid are now pros, using their devices to go shopping, visit relatives and grandchildren and speak with their doctor – all as a result of lockdown. 

In response, we expanded our online offering, and the hits on our website have almost tripled in the last 18 months. We also now offer private, in-house, personal consultations, which are popular and can also be booked online. Most of our customers now go ‘window shopping’ on our website before they come to see us, and because of this we have noticed a shorter buying cycle. The usual four-to-five visits they were making a few years ago before they purchased has now been cut down to one or two. 

The pandemic also allowed us to concentrate on our commercial offerings, as the building industry largely remained open during lockdown – and other industries such as hospitality, general commerce, schools and places of worship, used the quiet time to revamp, and that kept us busy! 

Of course, like many, we also had to make massive changes to the operations and operating costs of the business to enable us to survive months of closure, and we are only just being able to recover from that now, by taking on a few more staff to handle the increased demand and deliveries. Perhaps our biggest obstacle right now is the huge lead times we are all suffering in the industry, and there is no way around that for any of us … is there?

Aside from the obvious winners (home office furniture, outdoor), have you seen any shift in demand for products/categories since the start of the pandemic?

We have seen a shift in the way people spend. The pre-Brexit nervousness seems to have largely gone, and people are very much focusing on their homes, both inside and out. The vintage and retro looks are still very popular, with velvet and bentwood being all the rage. 

Leather upholstery seems to be very much less in demand than it was pre-pandemic, perhaps due to the growing population of the more animal conscious among us. Three years ago we sold more than twice as many leather sofas and chairs compared to fabric ones – now I would say it is 50/50, with leather still on the decline. 

In the same vein, we are seeing a trend towards eco-products, with both our retail and commercial customers wanting the look and the health benefits that these materials have to offer. Sustainability is the buzzword with many customers, and they are happy to buy natural products that are harvested with the environment in mind, or recycled products. Thankfully, many of our manufacturers are responding to this need, with recycled or partially recycled fabrics and components. Seagrass and other more unusual fibres are popular for floors as well as wood, and in offices marmoleum is making a comeback because it is all plant based. 

Wool carpets, solid wood furniture, natural fabrics and organic fillings for beds are popular. People have become very aware of what might be inside a product in terms of fillings, glues and sealants, and they are very keen to know that they are not harmful in any way. 

There is a slight drift towards bed frames rather than divans with our younger customers, who like the clean lines and airiness that a frame creates in a bedroom. Others are looking for a little glitz, with Hollywood mirrors, big, heavily upholstered headboards, and liquid wall art. Home bars are popular, too – the funkier the better – and so is mixing it up with dining furniture to give a colourful, eclectic look. 

Of course, home office furniture, garden furniture and cleanable surfaces are all in demand as a result of the pandemic, and we have had a lot of fun in the past few months buying and writing about these products.

A result of people spending more time at home and outside during their breaks during lockdown is that many have rethought their office and hotel spaces. 

Biophilic interiors are in demand for offices, because it is thought that nature is more calming and increases productivity. This is not to say that all the products have to be natural, but the shapes at least should be organic in nature. Some hotels are going for a more homely look, as they are challenged by the comforts that staycations and Airbnb have to offer. On the whole, I would say people want more relaxed styles and organic products across the board, and they are willing to pay for it.

The ‘buy local’ movement that took hold during the pandemic still holds true, and a number of bigger commercial organisations have turned to us to fulfil their furnishing needs because we are a local, independent company, and they want to support businesses such as ours.

Similarly, what colour/material trends can you see gaining traction?

At the moment we are seeing imitation suedes now replacing the real thing. It is a warmer, more forgiving fabric, with a good performance record. 

Plush velvet is everywhere – upholstery, dining and beds – and is loved for its touch of glamour and its easy-care approach to life. Both are ideal for pet lovers (a population that also grew during the pandemic), as well as families. 

Headboards, too, are big, bold, and upholstered in bright fabrics. 

We see green, green, green in every shade, mixed with dusty pinks everywhere now, but for us it is the strong primary colours that are still the winners – the royal blues and mustards, and of course, underpinning it all, grey is still king, with beige in second place! 

We like to choose colour for our display models even if our customers eventually decide on beige. The colour draws them in and looks fantastic on the shop floor.

How important are brands to your offer? 

Our longstanding partnerships with what we call our British heritage brands and a number of other well-known overseas brands are extremely important to us, as they have excellent exposure on a national level. We have comprehensive collections of what we refer to as the ‘Big Five’, and people come to us because of that! 

These brands are the mainstay of our offering, but equally important to us is our ability to source from smaller companies, who have quality products at great value and are a little more tailored to the specific needs of our customer base. This more exclusive and non-branded merchandise is marketed under our Peter Green Hampshire label, and adds that point of difference to our offering.

Which suppliers do you work particularly closely with, and why?

Ercol, Parker Knoll, G Plan, Axminster, Brintons, Sealy and Dunlopillo were household names to me growing up, and Peter Green has sold products made by these well-established manufacturers right from this business’ infancy. 

In fact, the award-winning and iconic Studio Couch from Ercol was first produced in 1956 – the same year that my father opened his first store in Eastleigh, Hampshire. 

The most interesting thing is that all these mid-century styles have come around again, and we now have the updated versions of them on display. We are proud to have had a 65-year relationship with these companies, and to have grown with them. Like us, they have survived because of their good ethos, engagement with the end user and dedication to quality, service and value. We have enjoyed honest and honourable business partnerships with these companies for many years. 

Other British brands that are important to us are: Sherborne, who make well-designed suites and reliable lift-and-rise chairs; Ulster and Huge McKay carpets; and, more recently, Amtico LTV and Furlong, for fine wood flooring. 

Vispring, Mammoth and Hypnos are among the many brands which complete our comprehensive bed studios, and these are not new names to us. Their luxury, well-crafted and thoughtful products are a great fit for the Peter Green customer. 

More of a newcomer for us is Clemence Richard, who produces an extensive range of quality dining furniture and cabinetry. The ever-popular Stressless recliners, manufactured in Norway, are one of our several offerings from Scandinavia, which include the colourful Kebe chairs produced in Denmark and the wonderfully inventive designs from Skovby, who team simple lines with creative ideas for living and dining. Also from Europe is Status Italia – the height of modern Italian dining. 

For Peter Green, it is all about our due diligence, ensuring our partners meet expectations – we expect our suppliers to have good ethics and stand by their brand, because our reputation depends on them doing just that.

What customer demographic and geographical reach do you have? Has online selling widened your scope at all? 

Our demographic range has traditionally always been 45+ and our geographical range 50 miles or so, although a few come from much further away and most of our customers are much more local than that. 

We get quite a few customers from the Isle of Wight too, because of our close proximity to the water, and a number from east of Portsmouth and west of Poole, Basingstoke and Reading. 

Selling online has certainly attracted a younger crowd, particular with the less-expensive offerings. Our online offering is a little different to the kind of thing that we sell in our store, due to the lower AOV. We get a lot of enquiries from Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland, but, obviously, delivering larger products to these areas increases risk, and of course costs, for us. Online sales are a relatively new arena for us, and since we started we have shipped more goods across the nation than ever before – even as far as the Channel Islands!

How does the connection to the community around your store benefit you (and it)?

Peter Green has always had a strong connection to the community. My father was a keen charity worker, and was a member of Lyons and Rotary – he was made the first Freeman of the Borough of Eastleigh in 1979 for his services to the community. 

These days, Peter Green still supports local charities and sponsors local sports groups, and we have kept our ties with Eastleigh Rotary. We support local artists with in-store galley events provided by us, and we run very popular networking events to encourage local businesses to meet and exchange ideas. 

The community is important to us. In more recent years people in the community have begun to refer to our business as an ‘icon’, which is flattering! 

We have a long and interesting history in the neighbourhood. We have grown with this community that started life as a small market town with outlying rural areas, and has developed into an expansive conurbation that spans from Portsmouth to Southampton. We know our neighbours – we have carpeted and furnished their homes, their hospitals, their schools, their places of work and worship, local pubs, clubs, and eateries, and even their gyms! Being here so long, we have employed generations of local people, and we understand the needs of the community from the inside out. We are part of the furniture!

A few years ago I was asked to present a PowerPoint presentation on the history of Peter Green to the business community. After that, I was invited to do more for various interested groups. We still now offer these talks on request. 

It’s important to be part of the community, because people like to do business with people.

Can you summarise your consumer marketing activities — what works particularly well for driving footfall/website visitors?

Well, our marketing activities have definitely changed greatly in the past five years. Like others, we were beginning to lessen our exposure in print and concentrate more on other forms of advertising, and Covid accelerated that process for us. 

Radio has always been an important part of our strategy, and it still is. We choose local stations that broadcast to our catchment area – namely the South and the Isle of Wight. 

TV is still the strongest platform we use, but these days it’s very clever in selecting viewers who meet our demographic requirements, so advertisements are only served to those who are in the right area, age group and income bracket. 

Social media and digital marketing have become more and more important over the past several years, and it has increased hits to our website threefold. We are active on a number of platforms, namely Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram. LinkedIn has been very successful for us in the B2B world. 

E-shots are a very important part of our marketing activities, especially with our loyal customers, while blogging on a regular basis and on a wide range of topics allows us to tell people what we know, and gives us authority in the furniture and flooring landscape – but, most of all, it inspires. 

Shopping these days is an enjoyable activity, not so much a necessity any more. People shop online to relax, they want to read, to think, to explore, to imagine and see beautiful images … then they buy! We aim to provide them with ideas which do not push our products, but give our readers inspiration. When they are ready they can come to us, and we will help them create their dream – be it a living room or a hotel, we aim to make it exciting!

How would you describe your approach to selling? Hard, soft, promotion-led, or other?

Peter Green are consultative sellers, meaning that we listen to our customers’ needs and then match products and services to those requests, sometimes finding solutions just for them that we had never researched before! 

We never want to push anyone into a sale, as we all know that in most cases that does not have a happy ending. We are okay with customers leaving our store to “think about it”, because we are confident that our service and prices are competitive enough that they will come back. 

Our biggest secret is training, and we do a lot of it. There is nothing worse than a salesman who does not know their onions – we make sure that they are familiar with the whole vegetable patch, through in-store training and many manufacturer visits. There is nothing better than seeing how and where a product is made. Selling is about storytelling, and many of our suppliers have beautiful and fascinating stories. Tell the story, and the product sells itself.

How do you juggle serving both domestic and contract customers? Is the line ever blurred?

We have two different departments in two different part of the business. The commercial contract department is a little more tucked away, and at the moment we are busy designing a new showroom in which to entertain our B2B clients. 

Contract customers have their own account managers who look after their needs. Because commercial contracts customers rarely walk in off the street and are more likely to contact us by phone, email or through social media, the two worlds seldom collide (that’s not to say that we don’t encourage our commercial contract customers to come into our store and experience our product first hand, because we very much like that).

The contracts world works by making friends in the business community, through networking and social media platforms. Account managers need go out and make these relationships, and business is very often done on-site. It is less passive than the retail side, where your client base is more dependent on walk-ins.

The needs of a domestic customer and a commercial contrast customer are often quite different, but we do, however, treat both customers with the same Peter Green respect and dedication to solve their problems. There are similarities, in that many of our customers, both domestic and commercial, come back to us time and again, generation after generation. 

In a nutshell, does it really matter if the lines get blurred? We don’t think so!

From your perspective, what’s the biggest challenge in furniture retail right now, and how are you tackling it?

Oh gosh! It has to be the recovery from lockdown, and making up for all that lost time and lost revenue. Dealing with the post-lockdown pent-up demand, and then the enormous wait for goods. Component supply affecting lead times is a big challenge – it has to be the same for all of us in the industry – but with our heritage and stability we have the privilege of stocking several ranges in depth, so we can offer quick turnaround on key ranges.

It’s a big challenge for all of us to stay open and to keep our customers and staff healthy. Although masks are no longer required in stores, we want to respond in a sensitive manner, and if a customer is wearing a mask we have asked our team to respond likewise and wear theirs too. It’s all a matter of keeping everyone safe and feeling good.

This interview was published in September 2021's issue of Furniture News magazine.

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