Who said bricks and mortar retail is dead? A frank two part interview with PMT’s Simon Gilson

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Following the successful opening of its new Birmingham flagship store, PMT’s Simon Gilson tells Gary Cooper there’s plenty of life left in MI retail, If you’re prepared to get it right…

Part One

Outspoken, controversial, inclined to be a bit brash – you can say what you like about PMT but there is one word you mustn’t leave out – successful. MI retail chains have come and gone in this country – and in several cases gone spectacularly – but PMT, guided by its founding partners Simon Gilson and Terry Hope, shows no signs of flagging. In fact, if the June opening of the company’s new flagship store in Birmingham is anything to go by, the Essex-based chain is going from strength to strength, dispelling rumours that it had run out of steam by overcoming what could have been a planning catastrophe and opening its new shop with a record breaking sales figure and queues outside.

What had brought about the move? Why replace PMT’s top shop at all? Just what had happened to precipitate what must have been a logistical nightmare? Simon Gilson was typically frank about the process.

‘We opened in Birmingham almost 20 years ago – in a rented property – and then six or seven years ago got a phone call from an agent acting on behalf of the landlord, asking if there was a deal to be done. As always with Terry and me of course there’s a deal to be done, it’s just a question of the numbers, and after a fairly short period of time we felt we had a very good deal on a site we were more than happy to own.

Unbeknown to us, however, our friend the seller had what he thought was inside information that in five or six years that property would become worthless, because it was going to be completely isolated by the HS2 project.’

When the implications finally reached them it came as a shock, Simon recalls: ‘It was a bit of a shot to the heart. Birmingham is our absolute flagship and a powerhouse for the company and we were looking at compulsory purchase, which can be a nightmare. But then, as this developed, and we were getting increasingly worried by the letters we were receiving, the surveyors went in and reported that we were a metre outside the area in which they had to compulsorily purchase the building. It meant that for up to six years we faced being completely cut off, without any sort of ability for customers to get to the store and yet they weren’t going to compulsorily purchase us. So where did that leave us?’

A well known creek comes to mind but fate had yet another card up its sleeve.

‘It was all a bit grim for quite some time until I got a very strange letter from the development company one day, possibly six months after all the s**t had hit the fan. We took another look and unbeknown to us they had actually rotated the main entrance to the train station for HS2 so that it faced us, making the plot one of the most valuable pieces of property in the town! Obviously we took the opportunity to sell!’

So how do you go about looking for a new store in Britain’s second biggest city, bearing in mind that the store has to take over from your most important shop, at at time when everyone is telling you that bricks and mortar retailing is all but done for?

‘Obviously you have to think about it pretty hard. The world’s changed a lot in 20 years, so though you’ve got some voices saying you need a bigger store, in fact you don’t. What we needed was to find somewhere that still gave us a fantastic flagship store but reflecting the kind of customers we’re now dealing with. We wanted to have the best store we could have but with the constraints we now operate under, which meant a slightly smaller footprint. We were very fortunate to find a reasonable landlord – as they are all going to have to become or they’re not go to be landlords any more – who was willing to take a view on the quality of what we were offering in terms of premium retail. We’re a 29 year old company with a great track record and how many landlords can find that these days? So we’ve done a very good deal on a much nicer place, in a much nicer location and with a much bigger and better car park, literally just three minutes drive from the old store.’   

Some, especially after 30 years before the mast, might have been tempted to take the money from the sale of their old store and if not run, at least sidle off the stage smiling and waving goodbye, but Messrs Hope and Gilson decided to plough money into their new store, which now assumes the role of PMT’s premier venue. It opened on Saturday 15th of June and, according not just to PMT but also to independent trade visitors too, the opening was a roaring success. Just as with the opening of their original shop, there were queues outside and the event even broke the original store’s record for a day’s takings.

‘As cynical about the state of the country as I get whenever I watch the news and read what is going on,’ Simon says, ‘when you stand, as we did 20 years previously, looking at what went on that Saturday which was a lifetime day for both Terry and me and one that we’ll ever forget – well, we did even better than that. Back then we had put everything into that original store launch and if it hadn’t gone well we’d have been looking at financial ruin, but as it turned out it was a phenomenal success, and one that we didn’t expect to beat this year – but we did, beating our previous company record and taking a lot of money.

‘What does it prove? Well it proves that despite what people say, despite all the doom and gloom in the High St. – which I agree is real – that if you do it right, our industry can still generate a lot of positive emotion. One guy and his wife had come down from Aberdeen just for the opening. We still appeal right across the board. Loads of teenagers, loads and loads of 40-60 year olds, of course, but the youngsters are still buying guitars and drum bits as well as high-tech. I accosted three youngsters and asked them a few questions. It was all the good stuff you’d want to hear; that they were regular customers, a drummer and two guitarists, and when I asked them why they’d come today to the opening the answer was “because it’s cool” which is all you need to hear really, isn’t it?

‘You can be as cynical as you want be, and I can be pretty cynical these days, but it does show that if you do it and you do it right it still works’.

All of which sounds very positive but there’s an underlying sense of frustration which will come as no surprise to fellow retailers – the bottom line is that the bottom line is shrinking. Ask Simon what is going on in the trade generally, and he doesn’t except PMT from the general gloom; ‘The answer is that no one is making any money – including us, though fortunately we have huge reserves to fall back on’.

And if you want to read his suggestion as to what might solve this industry-wide blight – and it’s a controversial one – we will be revealing that in part two of this exclusive interview – coming next Thursday, 25th July.

 

L/R Terry Hope (owner) and Simon Gilson (owner) Credit Birmingham Live