More Moorgate History
As our business in Sheffield grew; Rotherham fared less well. Part of this was the development of Meadowhall and part was due to the anti-car attitude the council had (and believe me Sheffield City Council soon followed suit). Our customers arrive by car and often leave with heavy boxes. The re-routing of traffic and the closure of car parks make it harder for people to visit and at the time many chose instead to come to Sheffield where they could park on the street outside.
It isn’t lost on me that in the drive towards globalisation; the companies we deal with often become huge corporate monsters that pay little tax, put their staff on demeaning and grossly unfair contracts and eventually cause our city centres to initially look the same and then to collapse into disrepair as they move to out of town hubs and pay less rates and taxes. All the more reason you would think that councils would support small business.
We’ve always been fair with our staff. When we’ve thrived our staff have thrived too. I’ve never cut anyone’s salary but my own and there have been times where that has been necessary. Recession is a word that retailers in South Yorkshire understand. In fact we’re arguably still suffering the effects of the last one and the government (whoever you vote for the government is what you get) seem to show no desire to stop transferring public money into the hands of a small few. I hate and fear globalisation and the big PLC’s who would rather share success with shareholders than the people who’ve put the work in. I’d like to see their board members survive for a year on zero hour contracts before they expect their workforce to. But excuse me if I digress
In Rotherham were forced to move our store by our landlord. He provided an incentive and then battled to make us pay this back when his new clients turned out to be fraudsters. This turned out to be a mistake for him and did us no favours either. It was with great regret that we eventually closed our store in Rotherham despite many good years of trading there and some fantastic friendships. We closed because our customer base was disappearing or finding it hard to get to use. When we were offered a chance to relinquish that lease to a brewery our store became a pub. Sad times.
Fortunately however Sheffield thrived. The closure of our Rotherham store also coincided with the retirement of Keith Hobson; my dad. Keith is and will remain to be a key component in the business. Though 84 he still listens to his stereo system every day and is as enthusiastic about the company as he was the day he founded it. It has been my good luck to learn my craft at his knee and to have him as a trusted advisor throughout the years. We still use his ears when choosing new equipment.
This week he came with me on a delivery to Leamington Spa and we talked about music and hi-fi.
Since opening in Sheffield we’d taken on brands like LINN and Naim Audio. A little later we added Rega and also had an abortive few years selling Meridian. We also had some dalliances with high end US equipment but we’d quickly determined that there weren’t enough customers for those products and whilst some of them were extremely good; they didn’t really sell so well and were often overpriced.
Our stock is chosen on performance, build quality, reliability and representation. If we have a good relationship with a supplier any other small glitches can be overcome and we can provide good customers service without hinderance.
Whilst the brands changed I’d go as far as to say that very little else has changed about the company ethos, set in stone by Keith. Fairness underscores everything we do and we’ve found that this fairness has meant that our customers are loyal and many have become friends. You can’t work in retail and not meet demanding and unreasonable people. But in our history we’ve found it is better to give people their money back and send them on their way than to fall out with them; life is too short. Satisfied customer build business.
When Moorgate started we were all hobbyists. The economic climate however had often been poor; especially in South Yorkshire. We’d seen the closure of the pits and the steelworks and the effects that such closures had on communities. We’d learned that business is not something that can be guaranteed. Once you could open a shop and simply wait for customers to flock in. But retail had changed and we realised that in order to survive and safeguard our company and our jobs; we had to change too.
Governments (of whatever political stripe) do nothing to help small business like ours. They help the big companies whose donations and lobbying power can impact on their policies. All our government have done for us is introduce incredible levels of red tape and income generating compliance schemes that could have been written for the Goon Show.
In order to survive we had to become more professional and more businesslike.
Regular customers will recall the days of Home Cinema. In the early days we felt it would be something we could lend our hand to because we thought it was all about sound quality. However as the market changed it became clear to us that we were like ducks sat on a mile of dried concrete. We got rid of all our tellies and surround sound gubbins and got straight back to our first love; music. And once that easy decision was made we went through every aspect of our business with a view to improving it.
Perhaps the most important factor in that was keeping an eye on the products we sold and making sure they were selling through with some frequency. Paying their rent is the term that we use. If they’re not “paying their rent” they get replaced with products that are.
Nigel Vawser came to us after reading an advert for a staff member in the Sheffield Star. He’d previously worked in a video rental store but had some characteristics about him that must have impressed me a great deal at his interview. He knew nothing at all about hi-fi but asking him about music was like lighting the blue touch-paper of a firework.
Nigel was a computer geek and to he came to us when we were first starting to use computers to help us run our business. I knew of his geekdom and would ask his advice. He was always extremely direct. I asked him about getting an electronic point of sale system for the store and he suggested I ring round and speak to some other hi-fi shops. I did and they all relayed horror stories. “There’s nothing wrong with receipt books and a notepad at the side of the phone” was Nigel’s advice and it’s advice we’ve followed ever since.
Another thing Nigel said was “you need to get your head around the internet”. This is possibly one of the most profound statements anyone has ever said to me.
It is thanks to Nigel that we did and that it added an extremely valuable dimension to our business. Not only is it hard to imagine the World without it but its also hard to imagine our business without it. It gave us the growth we needed and allowed us to expand without opening more shops. Great people never fail to offer something fresh or challenging. Nigel has moved on to pastures new but we still catch up from time to time.
Incidentally we’re often asked why we don’t open another shop. The answer is staff. Finding the right people is extremely difficult and then to break them up and send them to a new store often us untold damage to the existing one. If we found the staff we’d open in Nottingham in a heartbeat.
People are mostly fun
I once went to a customers houses to collect speakers they borrowed and never returned. The customer then left us horrendous feedback online. He felt we’d slighted him in some way by expecting him to pay for the speakers he’d borrowed. After three weeks (and he’d agreed to return them after the weekend) he called me “an impatient man” and shook his fist at me as I drove away with my speakers.
I’ve been to an Indian restaurant in Sheffield to fetch a system back that remained unpaid after three months. When I was threatened with violence I went back with a police officer who only offered to accompany me after I told them I’d been physically threatened and was going back to get the system regardless of threats.
But for every occasion like that I’ve met a hundred or so decent people who have been a joy to deal with. One memorable example was an elderly gentleman who had been a university lecturer and an extremely gifted and erudite speaker. I went to return an Audiolab amplifier that had been poorly. When I got to the customers house I could tell he was struggling with mobility so I offered to plug his amplifier back in and make sure everything was working. The lounge was dark and I asked the gentleman if his eyes were sensitive. He told me that the blinds wouldn’t work anymore and gestured towards a remote control. I nipped to the local shop and returned with batteries and fixed the problem to his delight. He then explained that the television and video recorder were also broken. It seems he was unaccustomed to changing batteries. But he was so grateful it made my day and I left him with a household full of working electrical appliances and received a wonderful letter in reply. There are so many examples of lovely people with whom we share a passion for music.
Another one of my old customers had me install a new stereo system in his lounge. I’d arrived just before he did and his wife let me in but told me she was getting changed. I set about installing the system. Part of this was to plug his DVD and video recorded in and just as I was checking that I’d got the sound routed correctly I heard thunderous footsteps on the stairs. Just as his wife reached the bottom of the stairs the picture on the TV revealed itself to be a porn movie. I’ve never seen anyone go so bright a shade of red in my life. Her husband caught hell when he got in.
Believe me it has been and still is a pleasure to set up a system in someone’s home that makes music beautifully and enriches their enjoyment of the music that they love.
An illusion that folk often have is that because we sell expensive equipment we must sell to wealthy customers. In fact we don’t and most of our customers are people who value their music and save for purchases so that they can have what they want. Sometimes they keep their car instead of replacing it. Or take one less holiday every few years. I’ve done the same on occasion.
When Doug, Paul and I go for a beer we almost always discuss music and new equipment. We’re always listening to it at the shop; using our demo room to select new equipment in the same way our customers do. We also try equipment at home a great deal; particularly new products that require some degree of network understanding. It’s important that we experience the things our customers do and before they do.
Leaving Fitzwilliam Street
Seven years before we moved we were told that the building we were in was to demolished for student accommodation. This was in the middle of the banking crisis and it was expected that nothing would happen for a few years. This turned out to be the truth and it was five years before we moved out. Two and a half years later and the building is still standing.
Little did we know it at the time but we’d been stagnating at that store. Because we knew it was being demolished we’d not wanted to redevelop or makeover the store and it was becoming in need of it.
We’d also had to face the day to day realities presented by the substance abuse clinic that had opened across the road from us. It was at best a three-ringed circus and at worse a horror show. We saw the very worst of people and a spike in crime in the area. Customers would pull up outside and sometimes not want to leave their cars. They were begged from and sometimes threatened and insulted. Nobody was interested in doing anything about it and I can tell you that all of the staff suffered on a day to day basis and were faced with some truly dreadful behaviour.
Even so the move was painful. Nobody likes change; even when it needs to happen and I outlined a lot of my feelings on the matter in the previous blog. There was a lot of sadness.
But since the move we’ve gone from strength to strength. We’ve solved the parking issue by having our own car park and we don’t have to stare at the unfortunate few knocking seven bells out of each other on a daily basis.
The last couple of years have been fantastic and like a shot in the arm after the pain of closing the old store. We’ve seen real growth and a return to the 2 channel values that we hold so dear. It gives us real enthusiasm moving forward.
Thanks for reading