Retailer Spotlight: Three Counties Mobility
Turning lemons into lemonade
Throughout the pandemic, some people have had their lives turned upside down. For many, it has meant having to re-enter the jobs market due to redundancies. Scott Brooker was one of those individuals.
Having entered the mobility industry a year ago, he found himself in need of a new role following a restructure. Keen to remain in the sector and take his fate into his own hands, Scott decided now was the time to start his own mobility shop. THIIS caught up with the new kid on the block to discover his plans and motivations.
Seizing an opportunity
For many, launching a new business is a daunting prospect at the best of times, let alone during the height of an unprecedented pandemic. For former business development manager (BDM) Scott Brooker, however, the time felt right.
After a year working in the mobility sector, Scott found himself facing a gloomy employment market in August. As he saw it, he had two options: Fire out CVs and keep his fingers crossed or take matters into his own hands.
“It’s a tricky time to start for anyone but I thought, what do I have to lose?” said Scott.
“One thing I was sure about was that I wanted to stay in mobility. During my time in the industry, I loved it. Seeing how the retailers I worked with helped their customers really made me consider that it is something that I would like to do. Plus, I always liked the idea of being my own boss. When I was made redundant, I decided now was a good time to just give it a go.”
In the village of Castle Camps in South Cambridgeshire, Scott and his partner decided to set up their first mobility shop, Three Counties Mobility. The strategically placed store is nestled between Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Essex – hence the name.
Setting up shop
From his time as a BDM, Scott was aware just how much the right or wrong location can impact the success of a shop. Opening the store not far from his own home, Scott explained why he believed Castle Camps would give their fledgeling business the best chance to survive and thrive.
“It is a great location,” he said.
“There is not a massive amount of competition around and our nearest competitor is about 11 miles away. That gives us a good amount of breathing room to develop our own local customer base.”
Choosing to avoid the busy centre of the village, the couple decided on a converted barn on the outskirts.
“Having seen a variety of shops on my travels as a BDM, I learned that you do not need to be in the centre of town or village to make it work,” contended Scott.
“By being a bit further out, it means we have plenty of parking for our customers right outside our front door, as well as loads of retail space that would have cost a lot more on a high street.”
The site also boasts two interesting neighbours: A traditional toyshop selling wooden children’s toys and a saddlery business selling riding gear and horse feed.
“Even though the location is a bit more rural, we still see passing trade as people come to visit the other businesses. These are the kind of customers that may be interested in what we do as well,” continued Scott.
“I’ve been to shops to do demonstrations so I know what it is like trying to get to different stores with powered mobility products and how difficult it can be, particularly if it means parking in a multi-story or a few streets away. It was stressful for me so I imagine its not a great experience for customers either.”
Launching on the 14th September, the new retail outfit is still finding its feet but reported that trade has been promising so far. In its first month and beyond, sales exceeded expectations as local customers became more aware of its existence.
“The reception has been great. We’ve had people popping in to welcome us and comment about how nice it is to have a business in the space as it helps the community,” noted Scott.
“Even the local businesses are excited. It is the benefit of being situated in a close-knit community.”
A privileged position
Despite lacking experience on the retail side of the market, Scott has had the benefit of visiting almost 100 different shops during his time as a BDM. As a result, he has been exposed to a wide range of different retail approaches others have taken, enabling him to apply elements of what he has seen and liked to his own business.
From the design of the showroom to the products on the shelves, Scott has relied on the experience of his former life to help him navigate the early and uncertain days of starting a new business.
“Knowing how to layout the shop or what products to stock comes with time. Having had the opportunity to see stores that I think work well and a good variety of products has definitely helped, though,” he acknowledged.
“It’s given me a starting point to have some idea about what I want to sell and how I want to sell it.”
Choosing what to sell
The key to surviving the early years for any new business is effectively managing cash flow and being careful where the money is spent. For Scott, deciding which products to invest in was, and remains, a key challenge and one that shapes the business’ entire strategy.
“The big challenge is trying to figure out where we sit in the market and where do we want to get to,” he explained.
“I’ve really spent time trying to work out if we position ourselves as a general day-to-day mobility shop or do we put ourselves in the specialist bracket. It is essential as it determines what we cover in our product range, how we market ourselves and who we want to reach.
“Everyone’s needs are different but trying to cover all bases is almost impossible for a small mobility retailer starting out like ours.”
It is a challenge with no easy answer. Fortunately, a clear vision of how he wants to sell his products has helped Scott land on a product portfolio strategy that he is comfortable with.
“I can see how easy it would be to fill our showroom to the brim with products to try to meet everyone’s needs. That would make it look cluttered and it would also mean sitting on a lot of stock – that is the last thing I want. Instead, I want people to come into the shop and it feel comfortable,” he emphasised.
“Cramped stores aren’t what customers want and they end up overwhelmed. I think light, airy environments with plenty of space are important, especially given the current pandemic.”
How Three Counties Mobility merchandises and displays its products has been a key consideration for Scott, ensuring to give ranges room to breathe and catch customers’ attention. He has also decided to stick with what he knows, selling mobility scooters, travel powerchairs and other lifestyle-orientated ranges.
“For the time being, we are not going to dive too much into the technical and specialist-side of the market as we don’t have the level of knowledge needed yet,” said Scott.
“But before deciding what products we wanted to focus on, we decided that, first and foremost, we want to be known for offering a service, rather than just products.
“I know we need to do something that helps us stand out from what others are offering online and builds up that loyalty with customers.”
To take advantage of his physical shop presence, the company is offering a ‘try before you buy’ initiative on items like powerchairs and scooters.
“It is difficult for companies that sell just online to match the level of service and convenience can offer,” stated Scott.
“Trying to return items, particularly big items such as scooters or chairs, to an internet company can be extremely difficult. So, we want to highlight the service aspect of what we do.”
Additionally, Three Counties Mobility is providing aftersales services, including repairs and servicing. with help from a friend who is an engineer.
The company is also offering a wheelchair rental option after seeing a demand for wheelchairs available to hire on a short-term basis.
“Since opening, I’ve already had quite a few calls from end-users and family members who have said that the wheelchair they’ve been provided by the NHS was too heavy. Instead, they wanted something lighter for a short period,” he explained.
“Although most of our trade has been to purchase so far, we know people want the option to rent so it will definitely be a part of the business we’ll look to grow.”
Getting hold of products
Beyond the difficulty of deciding which products to sell, Scott also highlighted the challenge of actually getting hold of the products to sell. Candidly, he told THIIS that opening accounts with suppliers had been one of his biggest hurdles.
“What I have struggled with at the beginning was getting some suppliers to work with us,” he highlighted.
“Every single supplier I’ve got in the shop now has been fantastic but I was surprised at the response of some.”
Scott explained that there were suppliers that declined to open an account with him because of commitments to other nearby areas.
“I completely get that, having been a BDM. When that has been the case, some have been great and got back to me to let me know,” he continued.
“There have been some instances where the response from the suppliers has been nothing short of poor, though. Promises to return phone calls that never come, really slow email responses or just a refusal to come out and see us. Often, the reason given is COVID-19 but it doesn’t reflect well on them and it makes me wary of working with companies like that in the future.
“We are all guns blazing and determined to make our business work; I really want to work with suppliers that share that drive and motivation.”
Stressing the frustration that delayed or no responses cause, Scott raised the point that the mobility sector is small and built on relationships – something he learned in his previous role.
“I understand if they have customers in an area who they want to support but it would still be nice for a rep to visit us and find out what we are about it. What I found from my days as a BDM was that there was no harm in building that relationship because you never know what it could develop into,” he added.
“Things like support are important and I take that into consideration when deciding what to sell –it’s not just about the margins.”
Pointing to Wilcare and Motion Healthcare in particular, Scott underlined what he was looking for from suppliers.
“Both Wilcare and Motion have been great. I like that their ranges are not in every single mobility shop and they give great support as well,” said Scott.
“For example, Tim Mills from Motion took the time to come and visit us. He explained that they are selective with who they work with but they really support those they do work with – that is what I want.
“The relationship with a supplier is as important as the margins because you want to know that they’ll be there when you need them.”
Born in the world of COVID-19
COVID-19 has, undoubtedly, turned the world of business on its head for suppliers and retailers alike. Furloughs, closures, shielding and delays sourcing products, just to name a few.
For many retailers, it has meant rapidly adapting to the ‘new normal’ – from introducing COVID-Secure measures to changing retail models.
As a company launched seven months into the pandemic, however, the ‘new normal’ is just Three Counties Mobility’s normal’. Scott has had the advantage of establishing his business around the virus, rather than having to adapt existing operations to it.
“We’ve gone overboard on our COVID-Secure measures because customers want that peace of mind,” he affirmed.
“My mum is quite senior for the council and she has done COVID assessments for all sorts, so she really helped us make sure we were doing everything as comprehensively as we could do.
“For us, a big worry would be we open and then someone gets a confirmed case from our shop which would force us to shut, so we are taking every precaution possible.”
A labour of love
Refusing to let the challenges of starting a new business and the coronavirus uncertainty dampen his enthusiasm, Scott insisted that the journey of starting and running his own business has been thoroughly enjoyable so far.
Breaking away from his sales background, the new venture has opened him up to new areas of business, new skills and a newfound sense of independence.
“It has been great. Sure, there is the pressure that the success or failure rests on my shoulders but I love having the freedom to make decisions,” he maintained.
“I had never really been exposed to things like branding or websites before and I’ve found them really interesting. I worked with a friend of a friend to put to create our brand and I created the website myself which I’ve found myself really getting into.”
Perhaps most important for Scott, however, has been the level of satisfaction and purpose. For the self-confused coffee geek, even the little things such as making himself a cup in the morning after he has opened up the shop, bring a level of gratification.
Drawing a comparison to the time he spent in the car sales trade, Scott continued: “What I’ve noticed is that nothing ever feels like a chore because it’s a passion – it’s refreshing.
“Working in an area like car sales, you are just a number and it’s all about money. It means people you don’t always feel valued. We spend so much of our time and life at work that it should be something that we find enjoyable and care about.
“I’d love to get to the point where I can recruit people as I’d like this business to become a place that is all about looking after its staff and looking after customers.”
Looking to the future
Despite the company still being in the starting leg of its journey, it hasn’t stopped Scott from envisaging where he wants to get the company to, though.
“The ambition would be to have three stores within the three counties and I have already got a rough plan in my head of where I would like them,” said the motivated retailer.
“Of course, the dream would be to have a big company that somehow manages to keep that personal, service-led approach but we are a long way off that yet.
“In the more immediate term, making it through COVID-19 is the focus for now. I am also trying to figure out how we grow as a business. I have had calls from customers for products that we can source but these are requests to see and try them, rather than necessarily buy them. As we have to be careful with our funds, it makes those kinds of requests difficult to service.
“We’ll learn quickly what sells and what doesn’t which will help inform us about the products we need but that process can become expensive so how we manage that going forwards is important.”
Speaking with Scott, the determination to make his new business a success is striking. This fearless drive will be essential as he looks to overcome the challenges ahead and establish himself in the market.
“Trying to find a new role in the mobility sector at the moment is extremely difficult,” he pointed out.
“I have friends who have also found themselves redundant from different industries so it just shows that no one is secure at the moment. Rather than relying on others to decide, I felt it was better to do something myself. Lots of people have said I am crazy to do it but I think it’s better to forge my own way. It is my attitude to most of life and while there is a lot of uncertainty at the moment, I can be certain in myself.”
If Three Counties Mobility is able to weather the uncertainty of a pandemic through those first two difficult years, Scott will be well placed to handle anything the future may throw at him.https://thiis.co.uk/retailer-spotlight-three-counties-mobility/https://i0.wp.com/thiis.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Three-Counties-Mobility-founders.jpg?fit=900%2C590&ssl=1https://i0.wp.com/thiis.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Three-Counties-Mobility-founders.jpg?resize=150%2C150&ssl=1NewsroomRetailer NewsRetailer SpotlightTrade FocusTrade NewsCambridgeshire,Castle Camps,COVID-19,Essex,Hayley Swadling,mobility retailers,Mobility scooters,Motion Healthcare,pandemic,Scott Brooker,showroom,start up,Suffolk,Three Counties Mobility,wheelchair rental,WilcareTurning lemons into lemonadeThroughout the pandemic, some people have had their lives turned upside down. For many, it has meant having to re-enter the jobs market due to redundancies. Scott Brooker was one of those individuals.Having entered the mobility industry a year ago, he found himself in need of...Calvin BarnettCalvin Barnettcalvin@thiis.co.ukAdministratorTHIIS Magazine