Each Friday, Furniture News puts five questions to a selected industry professional to explore their background and approach to business. Today, it's the turn of Bernard Eaton, MD, Greenwood Retail

How did you get into the trade?

I was born into retail. It’s in the blood. My father was a furniture retailer, and even as a schoolboy I would spend weekends on the sales floor. By the age of 14, although I was still at school of course, I was earning a decent salary on commission. Wisely though, my father would not allow me to join the family business full time, straight from school – I had to go out and make my own way first. 

Believe it or not, my first proper job was with Ratners Jewellers – which always makes people laugh, until I point out that Ratners was actually number one at the time, a real high street success story. No-one could touch us. I was taken on as their youngest-ever trainee manager at the time, and I got a seriously good grounding in high street retail. Fortunately, I had moved on long before Gerald’s unfortunate situation occurred!

What was the turning point in your career?

I’ve been in retail long enough to have experienced quite a few turning point events. Some great, like founding and growing Greenwood Retail in the face of astonishingly aggressive competition. And some not so great, like putting the family furniture business into liquidation after a long and hard struggle against the relentless tide of a falling market.

We specialised in reproduction furniture – and as most retailers will remember, that market simply dried up in the late Nineties. And looking back, to be honest, I just didn’t move fast enough. But our challenges and struggles – and even our failures – teach us so much. The lessons learned from all those difficult experiences have given me the real-life qualifications required for success in today’s retail world.

How will the industry evolve?

Evolution is constant. Fashions, attitudes and technology change. Surely the internet is here to stay, and it is still finding its full potential, but I don’t believe that it could ever replace shops and stores. Virtual shopping is no substitute for the real thing, and I think that is especially true for tactile, large-ticket purchases such as furniture. I don’t care how clever web technology becomes – you’ll never be able to try out a sofa online. 

Increasingly, brand manufacturers will be forced to find new ways to protect their retailer clients from the price competition made so easy by smart technology. More manufacturers might try cutting out the retailer by opening direct stores – but they’ll soon tire of that when they find out how tough retail is! Whatever happens, there will always be retail stores.

How can retailers increase sales and profitability?

The ultimate question for everyone in business, it’s down to the P’s – People, Product, Price. Give people what they want and get the numbers right. Increase your sales through effective marketing campaigns and good range planning. Increase your profits with keen buying, and efficient administration. I know, I know – far easier said than done.

What brings a smile to your face in this industry?

Seeing the ear-to-ear grin of a retailer who has a queue at the door! That is true happiness.

This is an extract from an article published previously in Furniture News magazine. For more stories like this, you can subscribe to receive a regular physical copy of the magazine, or sign up to have a free digital issue delivered to your inbox each month.