Winning service helps Adelaide business notch up 40 years

Store name: Barrow & Bench Mitre 10
Store owners: Amanda and Paul Stewart
Buying group: IHG (Independent Hardware Group)

There has been ample reason to celebrate in 2018 for Barrow & Bench Mitre 10, having been named ‘National Garden Centre of the Year’ in the same year the business marked forty years of trading.

The inner metro business, positioned on 1850 square metres on Adelaide’s famous Unley Road shopping strip, is predominantly a retail store but its wide customer base sees it trade well above its weight. One of Barrow & Bench’s stand out features is its industry-accredited garden centre, now considered one of the best boutique nurseries in all of Australia.

Representing 40 per cent of the store’s total turn over, the garden centre is renowned for its specialist service and quality range, including many locally sourced garden décor and giftware products.

Store owners, Paul and Amanda Stewart, have been involved in the business for over 20 years but only purchased the hardware store from Paul’s father, Ian, in 2013. Paul attributes the success to their passion for home and garden renovation, as well as some sage words of advice Ian gave to Paul many years ago.

“Over the years Dad has always advised me to ‘do what you do and do it well. Don’t try to be everything to everybody’. This is why we have always tried to cater specifically to the people in our area,” Paul said.

“The store is located in a high socio-economic area, with home owners taking great pride in their homes and in their gardens. We are honoured to help people with their DIY projects; their gardens and in their homes. We love to hear the stories of our customers, and pride ourselves in helping them find the right solution for their circumstance.”

“Over the last five years in particular, the garden centre has grown and grown, and remains a very important part of our business. While there is another small boutique garden centre on Unley Road, the comprehensive offer at Barrow & Bench puts it in a good position to attract customers week in, week out,” he said.

Multi-award winning

Paul and Amanda accept the ‘National Garden Centre of the Year Award’ at the 2018 IHG Expo.

Although most areas within the store have continued to grow and develop over the years, it has been Paul and Amanda’s efforts, to ensure the garden centre remains an important showpiece for the business, that have been rewarded.

In recent years, the garden centre has won an abundance of awards, including IHG’s ‘National Garden Centre of the Year’ award and local recognition as ‘Best Small Business on Unley Road’.

“Customer service is very important, something the store has been built on from the beginning. Across the business we really push this. It is also important to have the right staff, particularly when it comes to ensuring our green life is always well presented,” Paul said.

“We have two full time garden staff, both with horticultural qualifications. In fact, all staff employed to work in the garden centre, including casual staff, must have formal horticultural training. It is important we hire people who are well educated in this area. Garden and drygoods are important to our business; ensuring our staff know their product and know it well ensures our customers are happy. It is not unusual for customers to drive across the city to purchase goods from the garden centre,” he said.

Famous for service

(L-R) – Dominique Hippolyte, Amanda, Paul, Brett Draper and Mark Galpin (Manager).

Store presentation remains an important focus for the Barrow & Bench team, including daily stock monitoring across every department, to meet customer demand.

“The nursery sets the benchmark. Maintaining high standards of cleanliness, presentation and stock control is so important. Green-life that does not look its best are reduced and quickly moved to the ‘plant hospital’, with the inside of the store ensuring similar presentation methods are met in terms of out of stocks and presentation,” he said.

However, it is the passion from staff that Paul says contributes to the positive customer experience.

“Supporting us is Garden Centre Manager Brett Draper, who has managed the garden centre for over four years. Brett is an experienced operator who has a great understanding of our customer requirements and knows what they want. Part of Brett’s role is to ensure special requests and customer orders are met, and he does a great job of this,” Paul said.

“Amanda not only boasts garden design and horticultural qualifications, she also has a passion for green living and the outdoors. Amanda sits on the South Australian Nursery and Garden Industry Board (NGISA) and assists with Mitre 10’s involvement in lifestyle program, ‘Outdoors Indoors’, as well as two previous seasons of ‘The Block’,” he said.

While the garden centre is on the smaller size, at 380 square metres, Paul said it boasts a wide variety of plants, and is complemented by plenty of dry goods, some found in store, others conveniently located in the drive through trade area.

“We have a variety of dry goods, including fertilisers, potting mixes and mulches stocked in the drive through trade area, which means customers can load up large purchases and bags directly from the pallets in the drive through.”

“Recent trading has been very busy, as you would expect during Spring, and we predict it will remain steady through to Christmas. And while the drive through is primarily for trade customers, at this time of the year the convenience of collecting ‘ferts and dirts’ quickly and easily is appealing to many customers,” he said.

The store also hosts regular garden nights, with topics of interest selected specifically for gardeners and homeowners in their local demographic. In addition, garden staff have recently worked on the NGISA ‘Plant Life Balance’ stand at the Royal Adelaide Show, where they presented general garden advice to homeowners and show attendees.

Amanda also continues to maintain a highly active and engaging social media presence on both Instagram and Facebook where the store promotes gardening and renovation tips, an educational garden blog, as well as profiling new and innovative products. The social media campaigns, particularly Instagram, have become an important part of the store’s garden marketing.

40 years of progression
First established by Paul’s father, Ian, alongside the Coote family in April 1978, Barrow & Bench Mitre 10 initially traded from a former Ampol Service Station on Unley Road. The decision was made to join the Mitre 10 group in 1982 and the Stewart family became the sole owners of the business two years later.

Paul joined in 1995, leaving behind his career as a carpenter and in 1999 assisted with the relocation of the store to its current site at 321 Unley Road, formally a Fairway Ford dealership.

“We moved three blocks from the former site because we needed more retail space. Almost half of the former Ford dealership was demolished and rebuilt to ensure the building presented well as a hardware store” he said.

Ian retired in 2006. He was well known as a stalwart of Mitre 10 in South Australia where he served time as Chair of the SA Mitre 10 group and on the Board of Mitre 10. Ian was actively involved in ensuring the Mitre 10 brand was at the forefront of home renovation in South Australia. Under Ian’s ownership, Barrow & Bench Mitre 10 was also the recipient of many state and national awards.

Paul, who is grateful for the fine example his father set for the family business, said he believes the business has remained with Mitre 10 all of these years because it is a strong group, as well as a better buying group for the business.

“There are many reasons why we chose to stay with Mitre 10, one of them being there is no other brand that has really suited us. We are comfortable with the direction of Mitre 10 and the way they have supported independents over the years. Because Dad was on the board we have always had a strong affiliation with the group,” Paul said.

Such experience and roots in the industry has passed on to Paul, who followed in his father’s footsteps in supporting the industry by serving six years as President of the SA Hardware Association, and he now currently sits on the amalgamated national Hardware Australia committee.

“Sharing ideas and experience for the betterment of the independent hardware sector remain at the forefront of what the committee do. I’m proud to represent small business,” says Paul.

Quality shopping experience
The award-winning store prides itself on focusing on what works for its customers, but has chosen not to sacrifice thriving departments in an attempt to grow new initiatives.

“I would be very hesitant to get heavily into the trade market. It is just not our fit. The mixed retail offer we have works very well, and I would not want to jeopardise that for a market that we’re not able to service well with our small land footage,” Paul said.

In saying this, the store does boast an impressive undercover trade area, which services local tradies and builders, and offers complimentary trade breakfasts on a regular basis.

“We do have a good sized trade yard but for us to conduct trade really well would mean buying quite a bit more stock. Our trade customers are predominantly builders passing through who need 20 bags of concrete or some sticks of timber.”

“Another important part of the business is to ensure we have lots of stock. I believe it is very important we do not have holes in our stock. Other store owners will often walk in and say ‘you have a lot of stock’. I am comfortable with this as it means we have what our customers need when they need it,” he said.

The right staff at the right ratio are a crucial element in the store’s success, according to Paul, who said the quality of his staff ensures the store’s high standards and exceptional customer service are met.

“I am not interested in employing casuals simply because they are ‘cheap’ to employ. I want to have a mix of people in the store. Not only do those working in the garden centre need to have horticultural training, but the core staff in hardware, homewares, paint and trade through the week also need to have an excellent knowledge of their departments. It is important to me to have staff who are experienced and offer the right inspiration and advice for customers seeking to renovate or style their home,” he said.

With over 40 staff employed, the store is open seven days a week with extended weekday trading to 7pm to capture workers travelling home from the city centre.

Paul and Amanda believe the supportive role they play in their local community is also central to the store’s success and longevity. Barrow & Bench is well known for its ongoing community engagement, with the store regularly offering support to the local Community Shed and the Unley Salvation Army, to name just two groups, while also playing host to regular weekend sausage sizzles for groups and clubs fundraising.

Future prospects…
Maintaining the longevity of the business is of high importance to the Stewarts.

“We want to have a good business for the long term, which is why every five to ten years we intend to make major reinvestments back into the store. This also means investing back into our staff who make the business what it is today, including two staff who happen to be our sons who now work within the business between university classes.”

Following the recent closure of the next nearest Mitre 10 store, just five minutes away in Westbourne Park, the store has seen an uplift in customer numbers.

Paul said the challenge he faces presently is to ensure he adapts with staffing, and has the right stock his customers need, when they need it.

Plans for the future may include putting the store through Mitre 10’s signature ‘Sapphire’ transformation program.

“We are interested in going down the Sapphire journey, and are at the early stages of discussion with the Mitre 10 team about this. Twelve months ago we updated our external signage, and we see Sapphire as giving the store its next lift.”

“For us, it is about considering what will be the best strategy for us and what will be the best for our customers. We want to be here for the long term which means reinvesting into the store is vital,” Paul said.