Salesman who still has faith in the high street

Annabel Denham
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SOME entrepreneurs stumble upon their calling accidentally. Not this one. The founder of one Britain’s few contemporary retail success stories describes himself as the archetypal entrepreneur. Jason Bannister had always wanted to start his own company, but didn’t always know where. A brief stint working in a golf club pro shop when he was 15 made him realise he liked retail. What’s more, he was good at it.

Oak Furniture Land is a classic eBay success story. Bannister discovered the online marketplace in 2004, after he imported some Mexican pine furniture he had seen in a trade magazine, and he needed a platform to sell it on. It was a time when furniture wasn’t being sold on the website, primarily because transport was a difficult proposition and customers worried about investing in something they couldn’t see or touch. But Oak Furniture Land quickly became eBay UK’s highest retailer, at one point selling £6m worth of product over the course of 12 months. The competition didn’t have a hope. “We did our research and learnt all the tricks to get our listings at the top of the page. If you had typed ‘coffee table’ into the search box, the first 20 that came up would all have been ours”.

But in 2009, the business made its first steps towards the high street by opening a showroom. Why try and alter a winning formula? “When a good deal on some space came up, we just decided to give it a go.” When showroom rents increased, he decided the time was right to open a shop. He expected that any in-store success would just mean the transfer of business from online. But sales, both online and instore, grew and he now has 36 stores. “The internet isn’t going to dominate every sector, and I believe the future of furniture is still on the high street”.

Bannister knows how important it is to understand your industry. He spent three “tough years” on the retail floor at B&Q, before moving to Walmsley Furniture. The company, despite having 100 stores, didn’t spend any money on advertising, and products were low-end. It meant staff had to make the sale when customers did come through its doors.

But it was excellent training, teaching Bannister the value of customer satisfaction and a good sales pitch. After 10 years at Walmsley, he was offered a job by a retail financing firm that would give him the opportunity to visit other retail furniture businesses. On one such meeting, he spotted the famous Mexican trade magazine. With £10,000 in the bank (previously ring-fenced for an extension on his house), he bought as much furniture as he could. That £10,000 has got the company to where it is today – it has never had investors. His initial stock lay unsold for four months because he was unsure how best to sell it on.

Bannister has always spotted any challenges long before they could become a problem. When third-party carriers weren’t doing a good enough job, he built his own fleet of transport vehicles. He now has 120 on UK roads, delivering 400,000 pieces of furniture per year. When he wasn’t getting top service from the IT companies he had outsourced to, he brought IT in house. I ask if getting manufacturers was a daunting prospect. “I didn’t have a Scooby Doo about manufacturers. So I got on a plane to India and knocked on some doors. And in China I went to trade shows, like the Canton fair.”

He isn’t worried about the competition, because “we have no levels of profit being given to other people in any part of our supply chain”. He has his own designers, manufacturers and carriers. And any new companies would “have me to compete with, and I’m glad I didn’t have that,” he quips.

Bannister attributes his success to a number of factors. He had extensive experience in his industry, but that didn’t stop him thoroughly researching his business idea and covering every base. And once he had the idea, he didn’t allow himself to get distracted. “Something else may come along that could make you money. But just remember, you can make lots of money doing what you do best.”

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