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  15 February 2012

PROFILE: Lime

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Feb 2012 Lime main

Is expanding your market opportunities really the key to success? Rebecca Nottingham went to meet Neil Harrold and Graeme Chalke, the duo behind Lime, a kitchen and bathroom studio in Surbiton, to find out about their latest venture...

There's no right or wrong way to name your business but generally speaking you expect the name to reflect the business you're in. However, the owners of Lime, a kitchen and bathroom showroom in Surbiton, opted for something rather different to help them stand out from the crowd.

"We wanted to build a brand and stand out on the high street, so we knew we had to have a memorable name and logo," joint director Graeme Chalke (pictured right with partner Neil Harrold) reveals.

"There's no connection between our name and what we do, but I don't think that's a bad thing. We chose the name Lime because you associate it with bright, fresh colours so the showroom signage stands out and the name lends itself perfectly to a logo that's simple but memorable."

Despite its unconventional name, Lime has grown into a successful showroom specialising in the design and installation of kitchens and bathrooms and most recently the introduction of interiors.

The business started out in 2005 as C G Bathrooms. It was run by Chalke from a room in the house of his father, who was an ex-kitchen and bathroom retailer and qualified plumber.

"I worked as an estate agent for years before getting into the retail side," Chalke explains. "I set the business up because I was shocked at how many people out there are doing a bad job and I wanted to do something about it."

Within a year, its humble home office had been upgraded to an office in the estate agency that Chalke partly owns. Between three fitting teams, managed by Chalke's father, they were doing around eight bathrooms a month, selling direct from brochures on a supply and fit basis. They offered kitchens as part of the overall service, but at that time were only doing one a month, simply because, as Chalke puts it, the 'selling from a brochure' technique lends itself more easily to bathrooms.

Recognising that kitchens were going to be a key growth area, in 2007 the Chalkes were joined by Neil Harrold and the company graduated to showroom status to its current premises on a busy high street in Surbiton, Surrey.

Property values in the area have remained strong, with the average price of a three-bed semi averaging at around £500,000, so its location has been a key element for the ongoing success of Lime, particularly considering that the showroom opened just a year before the recession took hold.

"We opened in 2007 and for a long while we ticked along nicely, even into the recession," Chalke says. "By this time people had already committed to projects and had secured the funding and a lot of them probably weren't even affected by the economy. The recession hit us a lot later to be honest. 2010 was our worst trading year as sales dropped by around 20%."

 

After the dip of 2010, they implemented a strategy to get through the difficult times. Determined to survive, they tell kbbreview that the plan was simple, but effective. Strip back any unnecessary overheads, contact suppliers to renegotiate better terms and pull together as a business.

Sound advice for any business. So it's encouraging to hear that their figures for 2011 show that they have regained the 20% of sales lost in 2010 and that, overall, things are looking healthy.

The showroom is in a good position on a busy high street and they've made good use of the available space. The displays are well balanced with eight kitchens and a combination of seven full bathroom displays alongside eye-catching arrangements of one or two hero products. Recognising the move towards open-plan living spaces, they've cleverly integrated kitchen furniture into living room displays, emphasising the versatility of the designs and the products they specialise in.

"We pride ourselves on being very design-led here and I think our customers really buy into the whole package we offer," Harrold tells kbbreview. "We see projects through from start to finish and I think that's what more and more people are looking for from showrooms now."

There are some key features in the showroom, notably the Scandinavian-inspired bathroom display in one of the windows, which really shows off their flair for design.

Feb 2012 Lime main2

They have a hardy attitude to suppliers, understandable when your whole business is based on offering a good service. They insist there are no real issues with suppliers they currently use, and that's why, despite having access to a large number of suppliers, they choose to focus on a select few.

Lime has a strong portfolio of well-known suppliers, specialising in Alno and Impulse on the kitchen side with Neff and Miele as their preferred appliances. They take a slightly different approach when choosing suppliers on the bathroom side of the business, as Chalke explains.

"We wanted to offer a product on the same level as Duravit and Villeroy and Boch but something a little different from everyone else," he says. "So in the end we decided to go for Catalana as it's not as widespread in the area. We're predominantly a Catalana dealer but we also deal with Bette, Majestic and Crosswater."

This month's issue of kbbreview is all about how kitchen and bathroom retailers can maximise sales and what you can do to make your business more successful. A year ago, Chalke and Harrold expanded Lime's market opportunities by introducing a comprehensive interior design package to the mix. In addition to employing a full-time interior designer to boost direct sales, they have extended their product offering to include bedroom furniture, beds and home accessories, such as light fittings.

"We've branched into this area to expand our market opportunities but mainly because it's where our interests lie really," says Chalke. "We deal with so many kitchen and bathroom projects that are off the back of architects' plans.

More and more are coming through as open-plan living spaces that naturally lend themselves to more than just kitchen or bathroom projects. Now it's all about seamlessly blending rooms together. We know as part of their renovation packages that people will buy all these things, so why shouldn't they buy them from us?"

Still relatively new, the Lime interiors division, including bedroom furniture, accounts for just 15% of Lime's overall business with the remaining 85% split equally between kitchens and bathrooms.  

Interiors
"The interiors side is very new for us, but this year we're hoping to double our turnover," says Chalke. "By offering this additional service, it means we stand a better chance of winning entire projects and building work and that's an area we're very keen to get involved in."

Chalke and Harrold seem understandably frustrated that, despite having been in the same premises for five years now, the showroom remains relatively unknown to people in the local area. "The worst thing for us is that people don't really know we're here despite being in a prominent position on this main high street," Harrold says.

"Even some people who live half-a-mile away don't know we're here. But that's how it is for new businesses. It takes time to build up a name."
That said, they proudly admit that the majority of their business is now generated through recommendations from happy customers. "We're noticing that more and more of our work comes off the back of customer recommendations, but not just from people who've used us," Chalke says.

"Those who do see our showroom recommend us because of the displays in the window, which has happened a couple of times. The windows are our biggest asset, so it's crucial that the displays we choose really show off what we can do."

Despite building a healthy reputation through recommendations, they recognise the need for a marketing strategy to raise the company's profile in the area. The company now advertises in local magazines and has a comprehensive website, which is regularly updated with news and product information and most importantly features search engine optimisation.

They've also taken their branding one step further with the introduction of four smart cars. The cars, which feature the company logo and website address, are used in and around the local area on a daily basis.  

Crippling overheads, government red tape and a lack of parking are driving more and more retailers to out-of-town trading estates. Considering their frustrations about how the showroom is still unknown to many in the local area, kbbreview asks whether they'd ever consider changing premises?

Chalke replies: "We're lucky because this high street still has a buzz about it and I like the idea of high-street retailing because it boosts local economies. We do a lot of business because of our shop front, which we'd lose straightaway if we moved to an industrial estate. I'd definitely consider it for a second showroom, though, because we'd still have this place to generate leads."

So what's on the agenda for the business over the next five years of trading?

"This year is going to be all about increasing the interiors side of the business," Chalke says. "I think we've gone as far as we're going to go on the bathroom and kitchen side in terms of the showroom but we would like to get more into the rennovation side.

"We're definitely keen to expand the business and opening a second showroom is an option. It's just a question of where at the moment and, of course, it's a huge initial investment."

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