Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, Henley-on-Thames-based high-quality furniture retailer Browns of Henley has seen many changes in its lifetime. Victoria Noakes speaks to owner Tim Barber to find out how the store has evolved, and what the brand stands for today ...
Established in 1989 by Peter Brown – a furniture industry insider with a history within the Stag Meredew Group – along with his wife Catherine, Browns of Henley is recognised for its strength in upholstery, cabinets, beds and bedroom furniture together with occasional furniture and its dedication to exceptional customer service.
In its 25 years of trading, the same three loyal members of staff have remained within the business – their experience and knowledge of the area and the customers crucial to the success and evolution of the company.
“I knew Peter because I began calling on him as an agent representing several furniture manufacturers in his relatively early years at Browns of Henley, and I got to know the shop,” says current owner Tim Barber, who took over the store from Peter just over two years ago.
“When Peter opened the shop, he set it up as a middle- to upper-end store offering a very strong emphasis on a personal service. Back then, most of his customer base was within a 10 mile radius of the store, and he would always visit them himself. Then, when Peter began more national advertising, he quickly realised that he would need to be set up to continue that service not only countrywide, but also abroad – and that is exactly what he did. There is no limit to the service we provide.”
Tim has strived to uphold this core feature of the business, and maintains that this is what sets Browns of Henley apart from its competition. In addition, in order to meet the increasing demand for a bespoke service, Tim works to build relationships with smaller manufacturers that are flexible enough to cater to this requirement. A made-to-measure bookcase service is just one example of the extra services that Browns offers its customers.
The store has progressed and developed significantly through the years, with the fundamental aspects of the business continually evolving to keep up with the necessities of modern retailing. Tim reflects on how the layout and general display of the shop has changed dramatically over time, and the need for this change. “There was a time I called in here around 15 years ago when you’d come in and actually struggle to get to the back of the store because it was so crowded,” remarks Tim.
“But those were the days when it didn’t matter so much how you presented your stock – Peter could have just sold oceans of furniture, because people were spending like there was no tomorrow. In the last three to five years, the display of the store has become much more important. Now, there is less in the shop furniture-wise, but it is dressed better, which makes everything more appealing. It creates the traffic flow which a store like this desperately needs.”
Tim works to keep the business’ product offering as fresh and varied as possible, seeking out new product with unique appeal and flair in design. This has been a gradual process, helped along by the introduction of a more varied blend of style, incorporating colour and painted finishes. In addition, there has been growth in the area of accessories – such as lighting, gifts and artwork – to provide an all-round interior design solution, as well as to complement the business’ furniture offering.
“In the good old days when business was a lot more consistent, Browns of Henley was known as quite classical and traditional. What I have sought to do over the last couple of years by introducing less expensive lines which are slightly more modern, is to also try to appeal to a slightly younger age group. There’s a better mix of product in the store now than even five years ago, which allows us to freely present the whole package in the form of roomsets,” Tim explains.
However, so as not to alienate Browns of Henley’s core, traditional market, he maintains the right balance of recognised brands, including Duresta for quality upholstery, Iain James for cabinet furniture and Vi-Spring, Hypnos and most recently Burgess Beds for mattresses. Though, since taking over the business, Tim has made sure to continue Peter’s efforts to also source other, less-identifiable unbranded product.
Looking to the future, Tim has plans to pursue new routes of advertising in order to further grow the business – with confidence in his newly-appointed marketing company to help him achieve these goals. All types of advertising are being discussed, ranging from small national campaigns in Sunday supplements to simply marketing the company better on social media sites such as Twitter – bringing Browns of Henley more up to speed with modern methods of purchasing.
“Another really crucial thing is revamping our current website to fully reflect Browns’ offering in an up-to-date and comprehensive way. Meanwhile, in terms of the future of the store, with space restrictions we have – like every other retail business – we can only evolve at a slow and steady pace,” Tim states.
“What’s more, price has become more critical for us – even in this area of Henley which people tend to think of as hugely monied. Everyone has tightened up on what they’re prepared to spend, so we’ve got to be cleverer in terms of what we buy. That said, it is something I am not too worried about, because people know that when they buy a Browns of Henley product, they are already receiving great value for money, and, most importantly, that it’s going to last.”