Launched way back in 1907, the French furniture specialist has 30 years of UK experience via a nationwide network of concessions. Business has been ticking over nicely. So why the change of plan?
“There’s a limit to the concession-based offer,” business development manager Kyle Whittle explains. “The commitment from the company and future franchisees are higher. The market’s changed as well. There are less people on the high street and more in the retail parks.”
Whittle is responsible for the national development of all Mobalpa’s new outlets, including initial on-site training. He was also chosen to launch its first ‘concept store’ in the UK – based on an out-of-town retail park in Warrington, Lancashire. As you’d expect, it’s a great looking showroom – modern, open and spacious – but it seems an odd location for a pilot dealership.
“We do eight to 10 sales a month from here,” Whittle counters. “People ask why we’re not opening our pilot store in London. That’s an easy one to explain – if you do that it’s more difficult to convert people in the North. It will be the base for future franchises. It exhibits what we do and acts as a support for training.”
The 300sq m store was launched in June 2012 with a targeted turnover of £1 million this year and £1.5m by 2015. Based on the first 12 months’ trade, the store is now achieving 50% conversion on footfall to contact, contact to quote and quotation to sale.
The plan from here is to slowly and carefully build up a network of franchise partners. The company also expects some of its existing retailers to turn to the franchise model, and to then network with other shops to improve business.
“Development-wise, we’ve only just started,” Whittle admits, “but we’re already in contact with several potential new franchisees. We’re looking for three a year. Our main focus is the North-West and Greater London – the outskirts.”
On the day of my visit, I’m also introduced to Mobalpa’s general manger Cyril Raberin who explains the difference between the new franchise model and a concession agreement. “With a franchise you don’t just bring a product, you bring a concept,” he says. “We will ensure all franchisees succeed. There will be training here and a local coach to train people on site. We ask for more of an investment; we expect more from them.”
So how much cash is a potential franchisee likely to need? “That’s a difficult question to answer,” Raberin admits, “but the average is about £50,000, along with Mobalpa fi nancing and bank fi nancing. It depends if a shop is in Greater London or outside. We ask them to come here and show them the life of a kitchen retailer. They spend three days here. Then we visit France.”
Mobalpa welcomes the idea of taking on franchise partners with no previous experience in KBB retailing – people that Mobalpa can mould into successful partners. “No disrespect to our current partners, but franchise people are a bit more business-oriented and more open to new ways of selling and talking to customers,” he explains. “With a franchise, from day one, you can impose the DNA of the brand. The commercial side will be analysed – every end consumer who is sold a kitchen will be audited by an independent company to get a qualitative return on the shop, the sales team, everything.
“We also do a ‘mystery shop’ from an independent company to improve our ways of doing things. These are things you can start in a franchise that are difficult to impose on people that have been with you for 30 years.”
But Raberin stresses that Mobalpa are not simply “dreamers” who imagine they can turn people from outside the industry into success stories in the space of a year. The ideal mix looks like being one newcomer to the kitchen business and then maybe two existing retailers.
“The key is finding the right people to join us,” Raberin says. “You need to take care of your customer in a different way than in the past. English people are very pragmatic. They love service, they love transparency, detailed quotes and value for money. They know what something costs.”
The new strategy was planned out in the early part of 2009 – dark days for the wider industry. But the idea is that in troubled times retailers are more likely to welcome the support that partnering with Mobalpa can offer them.
“It’s during a recession that you need to invest and be ready,” Raberin says. “Back in 2009, there were 6,000 so-called kitchen retailers in England. Now the market is rationalised. The bad ones have gone, but the good ones are still improving their turnover.”
Whittle agrees: “There’s more people out there now who are looking for a brand, a concept. They’re looking for more support, not just a product. I’m talking here about both end consumers and retailers. Bringing people in from outside is risky, but if we do our side and they do theirs, we’re quite optimistic.”
The natural comparison to draw here is with long-established UK kitchen franchise In-toto. So how similar are the two strategies?
“We’ve met prospects from In-toto,” Raberin reveals. “They’re happy with them, but the only limit to their concept is they’re not retailers. What we want to provide is retail expertise. It’s not about showing them how to open shops in the right location. It’s about discussing business; it’s about sitting down and discussing how to improve.
“From my knowledge of In-toto, their help is in the opening of the store. We have a training department and a recruitment department. It took time to adapt all this to the UK environment, but the package is now ready.”
Raberin is also keen to underline the importance of the monitoring procedures Mobalpa has put in place. The pilot store even has a camera above the door to track how well weekly footfall is converting into sales. It’s all a bit Big Brother, but appears key to the success of the business.
“We link footfall to contact to see where we can improve. We concentrate on the selling. We can compare the different franchisees. We can look at how many enter the store. It’s about having a business model that allows our partner to exploit the maximum potential of the catchment area. In a few years, wherever you go in the UK, we will have the same quality of shops, same service, same welcome, same customer service in order to build a retail brand.”
All showrooms are designed by a dedicated bureau in France to give them a consistent feel. However, new franchisees are welcome to put their own stamp on the layout and displays. “The average kitchen is estimated to be around £10,000 but there’s no upper limit,” Whittle says. “Any door should be in four or five different price points depending on quality.”
Some might feel a mid to upmarket brand like Mobalpa doesn’t have the design flair of some of its Italian and German contemporaries, but the company seems to be genuinely upping its game.
There’s no doubt its kitchens will appeal strongly to the bog-standard, mid-market consumer, but you can’t help feeling the company is in direct competition with more affordable and ever-improving offerings in the sheds. In terms of popularity, the company’s Delia range is a strong favourite.
“Neutral colours still work best,” Whittle says, “and more people are mixing and matching materials and using different work surfaces in the same displays.
People in the UK are still quite safe. We offer something a bit more quirky.” With a total of 140 showrooms outside France, the next targets for the franchise concept are Sweden and Belgium.
“They’re the other main areas we’re looking at,” Raberin confirms. “After that, it will be Russia, but that will be a different model for a different market. We’d rather look at just a few countries and ensure good development for the next 10 years. We’re there for the long term."
KBB Review, October 2013 (reproduced with permission)