Katy Brown, Managing Director of Scotgate Mobility, in her recently refurbished showroom

A retail spring clean

It has been the trend for many retailers to start with bricks and mortar and then develop an online presence, however, for Katy Brown, her entrance into the industry has been the opposite. After running a successful online business that introduced her into the world of mobility, she decided the time was right to move into her own physical retail outlet and opened Scotgate Mobility in early 2017. Katy talked with THIIS about her new venture, an extensive refurbishment project and the importance of merchandising.

A new store is born

After 10 years of running Stamford Mobility, Peter Seamer decided to retire from the industry and sold his store to Katy Brown just over a year ago, who decided to form her own mobility retail store.

Nestled in the heart of the picturesque town of Stamford, she runs Scotgate Mobility with her parents, John and Joy Pye, as well as three part-time members of staff.

Unlike many who enter the industry however, Katy was first made aware of the mobility market whilst running a business selling large-sized clothing online.

“I have had my existing online business since 2009 and in that time, I got to know a lot about my customers,” said Katy.

“Some of my customers have mobility problems and were asking me to look for products such as legraisersand long handled shoe horns to help with dressing. I saw the need to make these products more widely available and sourced a range of mobility products such as dressing aids,reachersand walking sticks. That was really my introduction to the industry.”

After doing more research, Katy began to supply her online customers with smaller mobility products online for over three years before the opportunity arose to open her own shop with her family.

“A friend informed me that the owner of the shop was retiring, so it was the perfect chance to actually get some retail space in a location that was already known for selling mobility products,” she added.

Leaping at the opportunity, the company now sells an extensive range of mobility products, from stairlifts and scooters to wheelchairs, daily living aids, rollators and more.

A fresh, new start

With just over a year of retail experience under her belt, the industry newcomer decided it was time for a refresh and has recently finished undertaking a large-scale refurbishment project, stamping her own style and identity on the shop and changing key aspects of the customer experience.

Working with Peterborough-based JD Interior Solutions, the shop has undergone a complete refit, with changes including removing pine match boarding that covered the walls; replacing old, fluorescent tube lighting with brighter spotlights; changing an awkward, metal twin slot shelving system described as ‘hospital beige’ with modern, flexible repositionable wooden shelving and slatwall fittings; and swapping a worn, dark grey cord carpet with oak laminate and honey coloured sisal entrance matting.

Discussing the changes, Katy highlighted how each change made was to enhance the shopping experience and the needs of her customers, with the refit providing an additional 15 percent more floor space, as well as creating a far more open, spacious feel to the store.

“I am glad we took our time before doing the refit. Had we done it at the beginning of opening the store, we may have made some poor decisions,” she said.

“Instead, learning more about the local market conditions and the way we want to take the business forward was a better way to approach the refit.”

“For example, previously there was a black entrance mat, however, I learned that people with dementia can find black carpets quite disorientating, as though they are stepping into a black hole, so we consciously decided to change it.

“Additionally, there was a massive counter which the shop keeper would be able to stand behind and look suitably professional. It did help me on a few occasions when I needed a confidence boost but it’s definitely not the message I want to give. Peter used to say ‘You can’t have too big a counter’ but in my view, it is an outdated concept and more often than not, I would stand to the side of it to give information, removing the barrier between me and the customer.”

Katy decided to install a new, smaller shop counter, featuring a lower shelf for wheelchair and scooter users.

“We also have flat, level access for visitors with wheelchairs, scooters or walking frames and we are right next to the Scotgate car park with its free disabled parking spaces, making the store completely accessible for our customers.”

In with the new

Turning a negative into a positive

Undertaking such a major refit, however, meant Scotgate Mobility’s Managing Director had to make a difficult choice about closing the doors to the store for two weeks.

“It was very scary having to close for two weeks; I didn’t want anybody to think we had closed for good!” stressed Katy.

“There was quite a bit to be done, including rewiring, taking out walls, taking out plumbing and more. It couldn’t be done in a day so closing the store over an extended period was one of the most difficult decisions but ultimately, something we had to do.”

Determined to make the best out of the situation, she decided to use the store’s closure as a means to raise awareness and build interest amongst local residents by using some clever marketing.

“I had some posters made up saying ‘Keep calm, we are only closed for refurbishment – reopening Monday 26th February’, which I think people appreciated. It is worth making friends with your local printer as it really doesn’t cost much to produce a few posters for your windows,” she suggested.

“We covered the rest of the windows with white paper, just leaving a few gaps for people to peep in. Retail can be like theatre, especially in a small town where people like to know what is going on, so we wanted to create a bit of drama. Then we had an advert booking in the local paper saying ‘Coming Soon – Exciting Refurbished Shop Reopening – New Layout – New Products – Same Great Service’. The week we reopened, we also secured some editorial and photos of the new layout in the paper as well.”

Maximising the amount of coverage possible from the refurbishment in the local press, Katy also kept customers in the loop online via a blog on the company’s website and regular photos of the work being carried out on Facebook, increasing engagement and enabling customers to feel involved.

Katy said: “I took quite a few photos during the fit-out but it was quite difficult to see what was going on due to all the dust sheets, ladders, tools, empty mugs, general detritus that gathers in the project. It was nice to chart our progress on Facebook but it wasn’t really coming across that well. So, when I came in on Sunday morning, wow, the difference was incredible. Suddenly we had this light, bright, airy space to show off.”

The grand reopening

Following two weeks of closure, Katy and her parents worked non-stop to ensure the store reopened on the 26thof February, as she recounted the final day before reopening.

“In any shop fit-out, you have to balance being closed against loss of turnover, so we couldn’t afford to stay closed any longer. We just had to roll our sleeves up and get it all done on the Sunday,” said Katy.

“The fitters were extremely professional and had cleared out all their rubbish and mess and tools, plus had a good go at the cleaning but there was still a lot of dust and quite a bit of plaster stuck on the window panes.

“It took three of us the whole day to clean, bring down products from the third floor and set up a series of displays. Now we have clearly defined space for each section of product to make it clearer and more browsable for customers.”

The work seems to have paid off, with residents praising the refurbishment and taking a renewed interest in their local mobility shop.

“Passersbys and well-wishers evidently liked the look of the shop as we got a lot of cheery waves and thumbs up on the Sunday prior to opening,” she said.

“A couple of early comments have been ‘it doesn’t look like the same shop’ and ‘there’s space for everything so it doesn’t look as cluttered.’

“There is more to do – adding graphics and plenty more slatwall fittings to maximise the display space, but for the moment, I just like the contrast between the old and the new so I’m pausing for now.”

Scotgate Mobility’s Christmas shop window

The importance of visual merchandising

Weighing up the costs and benefits of closing the store, Katy decided that sacrificing two weeks of sales was necessary to create an enhanced retail experience for her customers going forward.

A major element of the refurbishment was to create more space and capability to display products in a more attractive, retail-friendly way that would engage her customers. JD interior Solutions made some bespoke display items for the shop, including window display boxes, a dresser unit and a ‘book case’ unit in slate grey with an oak trim and white slatwall backs.

“The idea is to give complete flexibility with repositionable wooden shelving or slatwall fittings. The Dresser unit has a heavy-duty worktop so that heavier items such as wheelchairs can be set on the top at eye level and the window boxes are deep enough to take a rollator or scooter,” said Katy.

Making sure the shop has interesting, visually attractive displays that show the products in their best light was one area that Katy paid particular attention to.

“Having attractive displays is something that really is quite universal in retail, regardless of the industry,” emphasised Katy.

“Nicely designed shelving and lighting will give customers the opportunity to see products clearly laid out and browse the different sections, such as bathroom products, kitchen aids, low vision aids, walking sticks and rollators.

“The design and functionality of the products are essential of course but displaying the products to create a more rewarding experience for the customer than say, an online photo, is vital. We are at a new beginning for retail, one where customer experience is key. My customers have said they want to shop local and support local businesses so we have to give them a great experience which includes being able to hold, touch and feel the product, as well as to offer good advice and a personal service,” added Katy.

For smaller, independent retailers, an eye-catching retail window display is one of the most powerful tools for grabbing customers’ attention and standing out on the high street, a fact not lost on Katy.

“The window boxes were something I insisted upon as I found the previous window units too narrow to be useful. Although they eat into the floorspace, our shop windows are absolutely key to pulling people in,” she said.

“I looked at all sorts of window displays in London as part of my research and some shops were not afraid to have a really deep, three-dimensional window display and I think this art has been somewhat lost.”

Unique, compelling shop window displays can differentiate smaller companies from their competitors, highlighting a business’ unique personality and helping to draw in more foot traffic from interested passerbys.

“My windows are normally busy! I have used the window as a frame to be filled, for example using lots of graphics and a big pyramid shelving unit. Having completed the refit though, I made a conscious decision to place a limited number of hero products in the windows and keep everything clean and open for the first couple of weeks to encourage people to look in beyond the display to see what is happening inside,” continued Katy.

“We do have good feedback about our shop window and this is something that I am so keen on getting right. If you are not careful, it can be so uninspiring and dull. Making sure ours looks good and is inviting is something very important to me.”

New shelving and display units helps showcase products in their best light

The ups and downs of the industry

As a new retailer in the industry, Katy shared some of her thoughts about the joys and challenges faced in her first year as a mobility retailer.

“What I have enjoyed most would have to be the face-to-face aspect of retail. My background has been mail-order and online, so often dealings with customers would be via email or on the phone, without getting the chance to have that interaction that you do in a retail space.

“It has been fantastic getting to know my customers. It is really rewarding and there’s no better feeling than knowing you’ve helped somebody solve their problem.”

One of the key elements for Katy was the support of those around her, especially working with her parents.

“I have worked together with my parents in business before so we are used to working with each other and it was only natural when I wanted to expand that I would rely on their help. I know that I can rely on them and we all work well together, each bringing different things to the company,” she said.

“The beauty of a family business is that we all pitch in with our ideas without having to worry about job security!”

It was with this support that Katy was able to tackle some of the more difficult aspects of starting a new retail business in the mobility industry. One of the challenges she found was just how much there is to learn about the sector.

Katy explained: “It is a very broad industry, so there is a lot to learn. There are so many different aspects to it and such a varied amount of different needs out there, not just related to mobility but including low-vision, low-hearing and so much more. It means there is a vast amount to educate myself on.”

For the new retailer however, the most challenging aspect of running a new mobility shop has been discovering the right suppliers to work with.

“I would say it has been a challenge getting to know the suppliers over the last year and learning which ones can be relied upon,” observed Katy.

“Building those relationships and getting to know how different suppliers work takes time. We want to have successful, close relationships with the suppliers we work with because it is good for us and them. Learning who we work well with has been interesting and certainly something that takes up the most amount of time I’ve found.”

The future for Scotgate Mobility

With the refurbishment finished and over a year of successful trading complete, Katy is now looking towards the future for her fledgling retail business.

“The plan really is to grow,” she told THIIS.

“We need to offer more solutions and really try to get people to consider their mobility a little bit earlier in life. Reaching people who may be restricted in their life and informing them that they really do not need to be.

“Making people aware of the solutions that are available for them before it gets to the point where they actually need the solutions is important.”

An admirable goal and one Katy is all too aware will not be easy, with people often not keen to face the realisation that they may not be as mobile as they once were.

“We just want to let people know we are here and waving the flag. Awareness is always going to be key thing for us and I am sure it is no different for any other retailer, especially in the mobility industry,” she finished.

The website for the company is HERE

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