Craig Hume, director of Utopia Computers in Kilmarnock tells Matt Grainger about his family business and the value of honest services...
How did you start out?
It was my dad that started the company. He started it way back in the early nineties. It was more about customer education back then, so it was talking to people who knew that they needed a computer but maybe didn’t know how to use it.
So he’d be going out to peoples’ houses and setting up systems for them and from there it grew to building computers. Often a customer would be looking for something but they didn’t know what to buy, so he’d say “I could build that for you.”
Eventually, the house filled up with stock and he needed somewhere to go. So he got a little stall and from there he got a shop. Around twelve years ago we went to the shop we’re in now and it’s grown from there.
So yeah, it was just a little home business for my dad that started it. I was actually reading Pudsey’s profile last month, and it’s funny because their story is very similar to us.
As in it was started by the parents and carried on in the family?
Yes. I mean family businesses are interesting, it definitely adds a bit of spice to your day-to-day activities but, yeah, it’s quite similar.
It sounds like your dad started out by offering both sales and services. Is that a model that you’ve stuck with?
Yeah, I think in the retail shop what we’ve always tried to do is just show our customers that we can give them more than what they’re going to get anywhere else, be that another independent or, more likely, the local Tesco or PC World.
We just try and make sure the customer knows that if they get something from us they’ve got lifetime technical support there, they can pop in, they can ask questions, they can phone us or email us. We’re here to teach them how to get the best out of their computers and maximise what it can do for them.
Is it a rural area that you operate in?
No, Kilmarnock’s got a population of about 50,000 so...
Sorry, I’m not too familiar with the area!
Ah, it’s okay. We’re about twenty minutes drive outside Glasgow so it’s not too bad. It’s not as busy as London but it’s busy enough to keep the shop going. This year we’ve put a focus on pushing the brand harder, so we’re really busy and we’ve become well known in the west coast of Scotland.
We’ve also teamed up with Gainward and XFX recently and they’ve started to use our name on the bottom of their advertising, so that’s been quite good for the online shop.
That’s graphics cards isn’t it? So do they basically have ‘Buy it at Utopia’ on their advertising?
Yeah, Gainward are pushing their premium graphics cards and they have a list of suppliers at the bottom of the page, and we’re sitting beside Scan, eBuyer and Micro Direct so it’s pretty big stuff for us and it’s good to get that kind of notice.
Would you say you’re facing any challenges?
Only the usual ones, you know, competing on price against the bigger retailers. The good thing is that being a small independent means that you can change with the tides very quickly. If prices fluctuate then we’re not carrying huge amounts of stock that we can’t move, so we can change with it.
Also on the service side of things we’re starting to get asked more questions by businesses. We don’t do that at the moment, but it’s something we’re looking to move in to next year.
Oh really? So would that be technical services?
Well, business support – setting them up with anything they need. They’re looking for someone they can rely on. It’s basically come from setting up computers at peoples homes and they’ve asked us to come and do the same for their business.
So that’s been from building up a reputation with your customers. Is that something that’s vital to an independent retailer?
Yeah, a lot of the business we get is just from word of mouth locally. So, you know, you give someone a good deal, you recover the honeymoon video from a broken hard drive – that type of word of mouth reputation is invaluable.
So yeah, if a family member or friend says “no, take it to these guys, they’re on the ball”, then that’s always going to beat any advertising that Tesco or someone like that can do.
We also launched a new laptop repair website just last month called laptoprepairutopia.com, so we’re doing laptop repairs across the UK now.
You’ve always had a service aspect to your business model. Do you see that as something that’s being picked up in the wider market?
Well I think the bigger shops – the multiples – are looking at service. I think they see that, especially in a recession, people want more for less and they’re definitely starting to offer things on the service side.
But we saw Best Buy come and go; they said they were going to be able to offer better services than anyone else, but it just didn’t work out for them in the UK.
I think it’s very hard for a larger retailer to offer the same kind of service as an independent, because we kind of live for the business and embracing new technology is part of life for us. It must be hard to keep 800 or however many employees up to speed.
If you have one piece of advice for other independents, what is it?
I suppose it would be: we’ve always been honest. If you don’t know the answer, don’t try and bluff it. Do the research, give the customer the correct details and they’ll be back.