Scott Wilkinson from Edinburgh retailer SimplyFixIT talks to Matt Grainger about building up the business to five branches and where it can go next…
What led you to start SimplyFixIT?
We’ve been trading in Edinburgh since 1996 as Ideal Computing, which was pretty successful in the ‘90s. We were building an awful lot of custom PCs and we got a lot of awards for it – we were even recommended in the Sunday Times in 2001.
We built up a solid customer base who would then recommend us to friends because of receiving good support. Support’s the thing that makes it easier – if you treat customers well they’ll buy from you and they’ll come back.
Everybody’s had that ‘Multiple’ experience. I’ve done it too. You know, when you walk in and you’re standing at the shelf looking at a TV or whatever and you’re not sure what to buy, so you ask the assistant and what do they do? They pick up the piece of paper you’ve been reading and read it back to you.
That’s not what people come to an independent for. They’re coming because someone can give them an informed choice and tell them the benefits of a product. Once they’ve asked a few questions, they’re able to make a recommendation and say, ‘this is what I’d buy and here’s why,’ and that’s something you don’t get from the multiples.
So going back to 2000, because we had a lot of success selling computers, we started getting people coming back to us for second and third computers. We also noticed we were missing out on other customers who were going elsewhere – John Lewis and the other supermarkets were starting to sell computers at this time – and we realised that there was an opportunity in repairs, because the multiples and supermarkets just can’t do that.
So you started out as a standard retailer?
Yeah, standard retail is where we started. That’s all we did and we were very successful at doing it from very early on. We achieved a lot of accolades from national magazines and we were putting out a huge number of computer. But we realised that many customers were coming back to us for repairs, as well as a lot of customers that we hadn’t seen before, and that’s what started SimplyFixIT.
So how did you grow to have five stores in the Edinburgh area?
We started the other branches under the SimplyFixIT brand. The word ‘fix’ is a key word, it’s good branding and that draws people to us.
Our stores are fairly localised in Edinburgh and because of that SimplyFixIT is still associated with the parent brand, Ideal Computing. We get uplift because we’ve been trading for a long time so people know who we are, they know the store and they trust the brand. If you open a new branch and people already know who you are, then they’re more likely to buy a computer from you.
Do you think that’s a strength of the company, this local reputation?
No, Edinburgh is a large city, so what we do is open branches in areas that we can manage. We’ve got plenty of branches in Edinburgh now and we have systems and processes in place that we can open branches anywhere.
When you’re opening new stores, it’s far easier to do one in a place that’s nearby and close to staff but you can’t open 100 branches in a city. So obviously, in order to grow, we can’t stop at five shops in Edinburgh. We’re going to open a lot more stores and they’re going to be where ever they’re needed.
So yours is not a model that’s based purely on repairs?
No, repairs make up a large part of our business. Last month we did over 1,000 repairs, which is quite a lot, but around 50 per cent of our revenue still comes from retail.
Is that pre-built systems, or components?
It’s a bit of everything. We’re a normal computer retailer still like everyone else but we have a very, very thriving computer repair business that operates within it.
If you go into any of our stores, the retail side and the repair side are both there. All repairs are done in front of the customer; the computers don’t just disappear down the hall or into the back. So people can see the repairs being done. The whole thing about repairing someone’s computer or laptop is about trust. They can see how we handle their stuff, for example, they see that when we change memory, or something like that, we wear an antistatic band.
So what difficulties are presented in operating multiple outlets? Are they franchises or branches?
They’re all branches. I would say that the difficulty would be consistency. You want to keep all the branches as close as you can, so that when someone goes into one branch they get the same consistent service as in any other.
But again, with regards to growth, that’s something that can be scaled up. As long as you have the model right and you have the manuals and training in place, which is something that we’ve been doing for the last few years, then it should all carry on through.
Do you do all your own training?
Yes, every branch has its operations manual. The technicians get the same technical training; we don’t want them to just be technicians, we want them to talk to people on a human level and that’s an important factor.
Something I always say to my technicians is: ‘when dealing with a customer, imagine it’s your sister or your mum. Ask a few questions, spend a bit of time with them, if you do that then the customer will feel that they’re in good hands.’
You should never just act like a stockbroker and take it from them and say ‘I’ll see what I can do’ because that’s something that happens far too often in this trade.
Has there been any change in customers over the years?
Obviously, like anything else, things are evolving. If we go back to when we started the business, there was no e- commerce, so people would come in and they asked for information and you gave it to them.
These days they’ve done all their research; they’ve got the prices and they know what they want. Also, people aren’t throwing stuff away any more. They’ve realised that times are hard and they are getting things repaired. £100 on repair is nothing compared to £500 replacement. We’ve got a good brand name and we do what we say on the tin, so we’re doing well.
You’ve got quite a pedigree in repairs. What advice would you give to someone just starting out?
Know your stuff. It’s not rocket science. If you want to tempt customers away from the multiples then you need to be seen as an expert. That means that you need to know what you’re talking about.
You hinted at plans for expansion. What does the future hold for SimplyFixIt?
Well we’re really excited by what the future holds. We’ve been very careful about biting off more than we can chew, we’ve tried to organically grow the company step-by-step and we’ve been in talks with partners about opening stores outside Edinburgh.
I don’t want to give too much away but we are in talks about opening stores with partners across Scotland. 2016 is our 20th anniversary, and I’d really like to have 20 stores by then, which is quite achievable. 20 for 20!