Meet Shaun Barrett, ceo of Wincheap-based Barretts Digital World

PUBLISHED: 15:40 11 June 2013 | UPDATED: 10:16 17 June 2013

Shaun Barrett, ceo of Barretts of Canterbury

Shaun Barrett, ceo of Barretts of Canterbury

Manu Palomeque

Long-established family business Barretts of Canterbury has seen huge changes in its 111 years

One of the few family businesses that has been trading in Canterbury since the turn of the last century, Barretts of Canterbury is one of the best-known names in the cathedral city.

I am just on its outskirts, at the Wincheap industrial estate, to learn more about Barretts Digital World, the family’s newest branch, headed up by chief executive Shaun Barrett. He represents the fourth generation, along with his cousin Paul, who is managing director of Barretts Motor Group.

The 10,000sq ft superstore is impressive, its gleaming showroom graced by most of the leading electrical brands (think Sony, Panasonic, Bose, Bosch, Samsung, Pioneer, Miele, Hotpoint, Loewe and JVC), attractively displayed in a spacious, comfortable shopping environment. Next door is another hidden 10,000sq ft housing a warehouse and workshop.

There’s no hint of the history behind the name until I follow Shaun to his office down a corridor lined with old framed prints of how Barretts looked in the early days, and the many sites it occupied in Canterbury.

The business was founded in 1902 by George R Barrett, an enthusiastic cyclist with a keen interest in all things modern and mechanical, who started out selling cycle and motor fittings from premises in St Peter’s Street, where Barretts Motor Group is now based.

The business grew rapidly post-war to include virtually every make of motor cycle and bicycle, but it wasn’t all plain sailing. A devastating fire in 1937 led to the creation of a very grand department store on the site of the old building selling virtually every type of wheeled vehicle, from prams, toys and pedal cars to push-bikes, motorbikes and cars.

Sadly, a bomb just seven years later destroyed the store and there began a long period of make do and mend, both for the company and for the blitzed city that needed to rebuild its heart.

In 1954, George’s son, Reg, who had joined the business in 1933, oversaw the opening of a truly modern new store in St Georges Street that sold all types of electrical goods, records, toys, bikes and prams. It became a big draw for children and their parents and there are few people from Canterbury in the 1960s who won’t remember the electric train layout on display in the shop window every Christmas. At the time, Barretts had the largest toy department outside of London, second only to Hamleys.

A child himself of the sixties, the store is a happy memory for Shaun Barrett. “My childhood had lots of toys – Action Man, Hornby trains, bicycles – which was how my great-grandfather began the business of course,” he tells me.

“We started in bikes, as did Currys, it’s quite common within our industry. People who sold bikes also sold accumulators for the lamps, the lights, the batteries and so forth, so the move across was typical.”

But markets and businesses change and the toy department shut in the mid to early eighties with the arrival of electronic toys; PCs, TVs and electronics pushed train sets aside.

It was this growth that was to usher in the digital side of the business and eventually see Shaun at its head, following in the family tradition of Barrett sons succeeding their fathers.

Shaun studied business at Middlesex Polytechnic with his cousin Paul, but after a spell working in London as a swimming pool lifeguard, then in a warehouse, the call of the family firm got stronger.

“I’d always worked in the business as a schoolchild and college student in the holidays on the shop floor, on the vans, in the warehouse, so I’d got a feel and an interest in it and a real buzz on the whole TV/hi-fi side of things,” says Shaun.

“This was 1983 and the business was at a bit of a crossroads, my grandfather was still alive, my father was thinking about semi-retirement and a lot was happening in Canterbury. We also had some serious decisions to make in the company as to its future direction.

“I could have stayed up in London and let it happen, which I chose not to do,” he adds. “Don’t forget I’m fourth generation, I have a younger brother who isn’t involved in the buisness, and I saw a call of duty and potential that wasn’t being realised at the time.”

All the non-electrical retailing – toys, bikes, sports equipment, models – had now gone and as Shaun’s main interest was in electrical, or brown goods, the focus was put into Barretts Sound and Vision, specialising in TV and audio equipment. They were good days.

Colour TV was still relatively new, video had just been launched, VHS and Betamax had only been out for two years, CD had launched in 1982, so it was a hugely exciting time for electrical retailing.

1989 saw Barretts’ first business outside Canterbury when the family bought Ashford Audio in Ashford’s County Square and rebranded it as Barretts Sound and Vision. More expansion of the electrical business came in 1991 when the car accessory shop at St Peters Street became a Sony Centre and in 1994 when Barretts opened a Sony Centre in Maidstone’s Stoneborough (now Chequers) centre.

The late nineties saw an enormous expansion of the company. New premises were built and new franchises added and in 1998 the post-war premises and acquisitions in St George’s Street and Rose Lane were sold to finance the digital expansion plans.

The move to the new electrical superstore in Wincheap (formerly a bathroom wholesalers) signified not only a much wider range of goods on sale but also the arrival of the new digital era.

“We did a major refurbishment of the existing building and were able to introduce white goods for the first time since the 1970s,” says Shaun.

“The business has come full circle, whereas 10 to 15 years ago you could survive on your own selling brown goods, it’s not enough now.”

Shaun has probably seen more changes in the business than any other member of his family. “Post-war TV really took off and we rented sets, as we still do now. It was a huge market in the early days and really kickstarted the TV rental business for us,” he says.

“In those days you needed a lot of engineers to keep TV sets going and we had a large team and a separate service centre and warehouse.

“Today there’s far less servicing, people don’t get things repaired like they used to and it’s often not cost effective anyway; it’s cheaper to replace. We only ever repair flatscreen TVs and even after a certain age it’s just not worth it.”

The digital switchover had quite an effect on business, too. “The switchover has been happening since 2008, so it was a four to five-year process, but we were one of the last areas. We had publicised it a lot to our customers so they were all aware, so for the first six months of 2012 business was very buoyant, while for the second half it was very flat, because everyone had made the change,” says Shaun.

Other changes have followed thick and fast, and he is aware not only of the need to strive to be at the cutting edge in digital technology but also the need to look after your customers.

“I remember from a very early age working in the business that the service element is so important,” he says.

“We can’t compete on price with Currys et al, or the internet, but we can offer added-value with our service. If there are technical things I want to know I ask my staff, because they get the best training there is. I’m busy running the business.”

That investment in service and training has paid off because Barretts Digital World is the proud holder of the Domestic & General Retailer of the Year, Most Recommended Retailer, in 2011.

Customers were asked to rate how likely they were to recommend the shop or website to their friends and family.

The Wincheap store returned the highest-ever average score ever seen, amid stiff competition from more than 1,000 other UK electrical retailers.

“It’s the fact that it’s voted by the customers that means so much; other industry awards are done via a panel of judges,” says Shaun.

Fifty per cent of business stems from the Canterbury area, another 40 per cent is East Kent, the rest online sales, although Shaun is highly aware of the growing trend towards multi-channel shopping: the whole ‘click and collect’ revolution in retail.

The move 15 years ago into white goods – often seen as the poor relation in the industry – is now an increasingly important market for the company, with growing business at the quality end of the market such as top German brand Miele, and the Nicholas Harris kitchen studio put in two years ago.

Shaun is on the board of Retra, the UK’s trade association for independent electrical retailers and servicing organisations, which was formed in 1942 (Barretts was elected a member in 1943).

He also does a lot of networking within his industry, attending trade fairs as a customer, mainly in Europe, though increasingly within his native Kent, which he is very much enjoying.

So what lies ahead for Barretts, and potentially its fifth generation? “The fifth generation have all left school now, some have left university (I have three, aged 19 to 24) and to a lesser extent than I did, they’ve all worked in the business. I’m sure they’ll all do what they want to do.”

“As for the fourth generation, we will just carry on doing what we do best, strive to be the best and improve on what we do. Barretts is all one company – one board of directors, one set of accounts.

“If we keep our finger on the pulse, if we keep our focus and keep working hard, then we will be fine. We can react to change very quickly,” says Shaun.

My favourite Kent...

Place: I love Ickham, where I live with my wife – our three children are gown up now, my son is at university and my daughters are in London and Northampton. We all grew up here, went to school here, it’s a great village with three great local pubs. We’re surrounded by lovely countryside, the coast is close by and you can be in Europe in half an hour. I use the high-speed train up to London all the time.

Hobbies: I cycle a lot all over Kent and abroad, it’s a big hobby of mine. I like rugby and football and we are involved in supporting a lot of local clubs – for example, Barretts sponsor Canterbury Rugby Club, where both my son and I have played.

Digital: I love my Bose home cinema and we’re getting very excited about Sonos, a streaming network hi-fi system. It connects to your network and router and operates from your phone or tablet so you can play your music from streaming music sites all around the house.

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