From humble beginnings in the back of a house, Black Bear has gone on to provide everything from gaming systems and components to printers and peripherals. Jonathan Easton speaks to boss Richard Alford about the company’s roots and its growth as a retailer and MSP.
How did Black Bear get started?
Black Bear started as Black Box in the back room of terrace house in 1996, it was called “Black Box” because at the time most PCs were built in cream cases and we wanted to be different. At that time as well as selling to locals in Lancaster we advertised in magazines and offered mail order.
Who is the main Black Bear customer?
We have two very different customer types. The “original” customers are general home users, those who understand that customer service and support are more important than price. We also have a large number of sole traders who use our shop rather than our MSP company (Black Bear IT Solutions). Then we have PC Gamers. This is a growing area and we have a much larger catchment area as people are willing to travel.
What products and services do you offer?
We offer repairs and upgrades for both home computers and gaming computers. We always have a range of 6-8 laptops from the budget end, but higher end laptops are to order only. We have all the components, processors, motherboards, RAM, SSDs etc. as well as EVGA, Asus and MSI graphics cards & Corsair, Be Quiet and Fractal cases. Our peripherals range includes budget brands and Microsoft for general users, and eBlue, Cougar and Razer for gamers. We also stock small amounts of niche products like capture cards and high end microphones which we annoyingly have to buy from Amazon. We also offer the HTC Vive. We’d love to become an authorised reseller, but HTC isn’t talking to us yet.
“The consensus seems to be that it’s harder to be a retailer than a reseller. There are many days I would agree with that!”
Richard Alford, Black Bear
PC gaming has made huge strides over the past few years. What has driven this, and what are you doing to capitalise on its upward momentum?
Consumers are like sheep. Once one friend has a gaming PC everyone wants to copy.
We’ve seen this in our gaming PC range; over 1/2 our sales are on referral from existing customers, who come in knowing exactly the model they want to be the same as their friend’s. More of the shop is given to the gaming range and this is copied in our marketing. We have a Racing Rig and HTC Vive setup which we take to our local shopping centre, charity events and schools. Obviously this is done to grow and promote the business, but also in the case of VR to educate people who don’t yet understand what it’s really about.
Talk us through some of the changes that Black Bear has made over the past few months
We’ve totally rearranged our shop layout. We were promoting our gaming peripherals at the front of the shop but customers were thinking we only did gaming. We’ve now moved laptops to the front and moved gaming back. We’ve also tried to empower our staff, and have passed the Facebook and our monthly emails to staff. This has given them more ownership of the shop and the offers they want to share.
You also run managed services provider Black Bear IT Solutions. What are the main differences between operating as a retailer and a reseller?
The expectations of customers/clients are very different. While we might be happy to wait a few days for our home computer to be fixed, a few hours without our business computers is the end of the world. The MSP model is more proactive. Clients expect zero downtime, whereas in retail we are always reactive, although I am looking to bring the MSP model to retail.
Retail is more price driven whereas IT Solutions has to focus on brand consistency as client want matching screens, keyboards, PCs etc. When I talk to other companies at the Network Group – which we are members of – the consensus seems to be that it’s harder to be a retailer than a reseller. There are many days I would agree with that!
Year established: 1996
Number of outlets: 1
Number of staff: 12
Contact name and address: 2 Norfolk Street, Lancaster, Lancashire, LA1 2BW
Telephone: 01524 389300