When it’s gone it’s gone! | David Lewin, GMBA-UK

When it’s gone it’s gone!

Around the turn of the century, I was running a mail-order chandlery company in the UK which was headquartered in Germany. It was the first time a dedicated mail-order/internet only business dedicated to boating accessories had been tried in the UK rather than as an extension to the regular ‘bricks and mortar’ chandlery store.

Naturally when a professionally produced and styled catalogue hit the doormats it created quite a stir, not only because it was new but the company also undertook to manufacture or find many of its own products. We often stocked limited quantities of the major brands just to demonstrate what good value the ‘own brand’ products were. As a result we became quite successful very quickly and soon had a customer base all over the country.

Looking back on it all now everyone would recognise the business model. Stick to the centre ground – nothing too esoteric that might have low demand – and manufacture a finite amount that will not leave you with unsold stock at the end of the year. You don’t have to look farther than the current German discount supermarkets to see the trend.

However in those days, life was very different. Boating is a hobby, a pastime, a way of life, where we often try and leave the rules of business behind. We regard the boatyard manager as someone we can discuss our boats with and the chandlery staff as colleagues who will work with us to find the ‘bit’ we need. Your friendly chandler was like your doctor or solicitor and was there to look after your every whim. When we exhibited at the London and Southampton Boat Shows, customers would come with great shopping lists of items they would need for the season from small electronic widgets to suits of foulweather gear and safety equipment.

Based upon the aforementioned German business model, we simply did not stock all these items – it’s not what we did. Instead of ringing round manufacturers and ordering in single quantities of various items, we bought a suitable range of products in bulk and as a result could offer some stunning prices but if we didn’t have it, you couldn’t either. We’ve all heard the comment that if a product has ‘marine’ written after it, it is going to be expensive – well, we were actually trying to do something about that but it’s not how the customer base wanted to purchase it’s boating equipment at that time.

We can see it all now, Aldi and Lidl had been doing business in Germany for some time by then and people there got used to the fact that if you wanted something at a good price, you would have to buy it when you saw it and when it was gone it was gone – and no, we didn’t stock the other brand….!

We tried for some time to overcome this in the UK (the Germans never really understood why we needed this service) by having an account with various UK suppliers so we could buy in some specialist equipment but as we all know this is very time consuming and therefore expensive to operate.

As it happened and for whatever reason the pound sterling started to drop against the euro and all the good work we’d done in sourcing in bulk started to be eroded. This in turn put pressure on our ‘special parts department’ so we had to close it and customers went back slowly to their old ways of discussing their needs with a local supplier and probably paying more for several items.

Roll on 20 years and it just seems natural. Most of us shop – or have shopped – at Aldi or Lidl and rushed to the centre aisle to see what there is before it’s gone. We buy our mainstay groceries there before going on to a ‘full-service’ supermarket to buy the stranger things on our shopping list – and so it might have been for this pioneer of the online chandlery but it’s time had not yet come in the UK. It has to be said however, the internet then was nothing to what it is today and searching for parts was not easy if you didn’t know where to look so it was often easier to leave it to an expert – your friendly local chandler and in some cases that is still true today.

However it is yet another case of living in one culture and naturally thinking that another country would be exactly on the same wavelength. In this case we really hadn’t taken into consideration the conservatism of the UK market but who knows how it might have fared ten or twenty years later.



David Lewin, GMBA-UK
+44 7767 687 987

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