How to sustain a family retail brand

The picture below was taken in 1912 in Oxford, UK a city about 60 miles to the North West of London. It features Gill & Co, an ironmongers and a branch of J. Sainsbury, a food store.

Gill & Co was established in 1530 during Henry VIII’s reign. At the time it was the first ironmonger in the country. It has been in business ever since and has witnessed the English Civil War, two World Wars, a couple of global economic depressions, three recessions, the birth of the railway, the car, powered flight, electricity, the Internet and more.

Originally the firm supplied ironware and related products for Oxford residents however as times changed it tried to reinvent itself and also stocked equipment for chimney sweeps (think Mary Poppins), farming equipment, tools and gardening supplies. Although Gill & Co moved locations, it was always a one store operation in Oxford.

In 2010, after 480 years in business Gill & Co is closing down, beaten into submission by large DIY and home improvement suppliers like B&Q the 3rd largest DIY retailer in the world, largest in Europe and the largest in China and Homebase.

Sainsbury’s, at a mere 141 years old, a relatively new brand was established in 1869 in Drury Lane. Although now at the centre of the theatre district, this was once a very poor area of London.

Sainsbury has also witnessed much, including 2 world wars, 2 depressions, a couple of recessions, the automobile, manned flight, the moon landings and more. Sainsbury soon became an institution, offering high quality products at low prices. By 1882 Sainsbury was selling it’s own label brands.

Although lacking the heritage of Gill & Co, Sainsbury invested heavily in its staff, employing women as managers when it was unheard of in the early 20th century and developing its own training school to train managers.

Sainsbury also invested in new stores and although at times it has had a rough ride, today it employs more than 150,000 people, has 800 stores in the UK and there are on average more than 19 million customer transactions in Sainsbury’s stores every week and the company has a 16% market share.

It has diversified into non-food products and services and non-food is growing 3 times faster than food. It has a bank with operating profits of £19million and its Internet home delivery shopping service is responsible for 100,000 deliveries every week.

Asia has many small family businesses. In fact in Malaysia, Small Medium Sized Enterprises (SME’s) make up 99% of Malaysia’s total registered businesses. Hanoi in Vietnam has over 90,000 SMEs.

These organizations have a critical impact on the business of a country. In Japan, known for its heavy industry, approximately 70% of the Japanese work force is employed by small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) and half the total value added in Japan is generated by SMEs.

Asian SMEs, many of them well established with years of heritage cannot sit by and hope that they will be safe from bigger, more aggressive retailers. They need to start planning for the future now before it’s too late.

Here are 5 recommendations for Asian SMEs to help them become a Sainsbury

1) Keep an eye on retail trends, especially in your space
2) Talk to your customers, not just about the weather/politics/sport. Ask them what their needs are, what they would like you to stock, when they would like you to open and so on
3) Build a database of customers and their preferences. If you do sell up, this will help you secure a better price for your business
4) Leverage what you have against the big retailers in your space. You can’t compete on price and probably can’t compete on choice but you can compete in other areas – convenience, personalization, customization, free alterations, returns, speed of delivery and more
5) Develop a brand strategy that includes succession planning. If you have sent your kids to university overseas, are they going to come back and work in your hardware store? If you don’t think so, look to create strategic relationships with other players in your space now before it is too late.

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