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Mary Portas attacks the sofa industry

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In the second episode of Mary Portas: Secret Shopper, screened last night, the feisty retail adviser went undercover in the world of sofa superstores, revealing an industry that puts sales commission – and not shoppers – first.

Mary Portas described the sofa industry as “one of the worst retail industries I’ve worked in”, saying it’s full of empty promises, misleading sales promises and well-rehearsed sales spiels, where shop assistants will “say anything to get their commission”.

On entering one of the stores (SCS), Mary Portas exclaimed: “I feel like I’m going to prison. This is just horrible looking!”

Ouch.

Mary Portas is right. The shops were cold, sterile and lifeless. Considering that a sofa is such a big purchase (both financially and as a statement of style/personality), it’s remarkable how little love is put into the look and feel of the shores that sell them. And the sales pitches can be unbearable. In Mary Portas’s show, customers complained of being “pounced on” by staff the minute they walked through the doors.

Nevertheless, here is an industry that makes millions. DFS, the furniture store founded by Lord Kirkham and sold last year for £500m by Advent International, has 74 stores and pulls in sales of £655.7m a year.

CSL, established in the mid-eighties and run by Jason Tyldesley, is a 16-strong chain with a turnover of topping £72m. [Funniest part of the show was when Mary Portas met Tyldesley and exclaimed, “You look like you should be running a hair salon!”]

Harvey’s, with 160 stores dotted around the country, is one of the UK’s biggest chains.

Upholstery chain ScS, meanwhile, pulls in sales of more than £166.9m.

These guys must be doing something right. Right?

“Customers are attracted to the idea of getting a bargain, so these retailers play up to this by offering constant sales, double discounts and a free-goldfish-in-a-bag with every order,” comments Pat Reeves, who set up Sofa.com in 2006 . “In a way, Mary Portas’s view is slightly patronising of the British public. Do people really need to be protected from the likes of DFS, when many people so obviously love shopping there?

“The hard sell is inevitable if a salesman is paid a basic salary of £16 per day, but can boost annual income to £57,000 through commission,” he adds. “A guy who featured on last night’s show bought a sofa for £1,300, which ended up costing £3,000 when interest was included. If true, this represents appalling value for money.”

Reeves and his Sofa.com co-founder Rohan Blacker have tried to do things differently. They figured that while many people may like shopping on the high street, others share Mary Portas’s view that sofa retailers are too focused on the hard sell. “We don’t sell by commission,” explains Reeves. “Most of our staff in our one showroom in Chelsea are students, models or actors. None of them have ever been taught to ‘sell’: they’re merely asked to be friendly and know our products back-to-front.

“The average age of our showroom staff is 24. We aim to hire bright, friendly people and ask them to do their best to find a product that will actually suit potential customers. Our clients can return any of our products within a fortnight of delivery for free, so it’s in our interests to make sure that our clients are happy. We also avoid the vicious circle of constant sales. Less than three per cent of our products are returned, so this approach seems to work.”

This year, sales at Sofa.com will be about £13m. That’s far less than the likes of DFS and CSL – but we’re betting that buying a sofa through this company is an altogether more pleasant experience.

Mary Portas should give it a whirl…

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