Associated Independent Stores (AIS) has launched a new Furniture and Home division to help further develop its offering, increase efficiency and promote synergy across its homeware teams. We asked the division’s director, Julian Cox, to explain what the change means for the buying group’s members and suppliers.

What’s your professional background, and what do you bring to the role?

I started out in the furniture industry in 1984, working for Maples Furnishings as a warehouse/display assistant. I spent a total of 11 years at Maples, eventually working my way up the ranks to bed and bedroom buyer, which enabled me to expand my understanding of retail, buying and operations. 

Following this, I moved on to Harrods, spent a short spell overseas with Courts International, before returning to the UK to work for Courts UK as upholstery buyer. I was then appointed as beds and bedroom controller at Furniture Village in 2007, which broadened my knowledge of retail markets further and also gave me a greater understanding of the wider furniture industry.

Keen to develop my knowledge of manufacturing, I took on a product development role with Willis & Gambier, before moving to Baker Furniture, where I ended my term as commercial director. 

I’ve been fortunate to have enjoyed a varied career in both retail and manufacturing, which has provided me with well-rounded experience of the industry as a whole. I’ve also worked with some truly fantastic people, who have all added to my knowledge and experience of the industry. I joined AIS in 2015 as furniture controller, and am thrilled to have been appointed as director of furniture and home. I look forward to leading the team as the business takes its next exciting step.

Do the new developments represent a step change in the buying group’s approach?

This will be the first time in the long and established history of AIS that all of the home and furniture brands have been part of the same division. Each department boasts a wealth of specialised expertise, and we spotted a real opportunity to offer members a more holistic and cohesive approach to buying that reflects the way their customers shop. 

The teams are already working collaboratively, sharing insight and ideas, and we’re working on creating product strategies with our suppliers. There are obvious ways to incorporate a combined offering to members – such as our own-brand propositions – which will improve our working efficiencies while ultimately benefiting both suppliers and members.

At the moment, our new division is in its early stages, and we’re working incredibly hard to ensure the collaborative way of working is implemented in the very foundations of the department. Simply sharing ideas and working practices will improve our approach and communication with members and suppliers alike.

As a group, offering the latest in trend insight to members will be a key feature of the new division in the future. Each element of a room or home is intertwined, and offering members a combined approach to products and stock will ultimately increase profitability by adapting to consumer purchasing habits.

What’s the outlook for independent furniture retail right now?

Independent retailers experienced a number of challenges during 2020, with the effects of the pandemic set to last into 2021. This has had a real impact on the furniture industry – from price increases and material shortages from a manufacturing perspective, to a decrease in footfall and trade due to two national lockdowns.  

Looking forward, the industry is recovering from the pandemic, while also preparing for the impact of Brexit. As a group, we really understand the needs of independent retailers, which is why we’re ensuring they have facilities and services in place to support them through the recovery phase. 

There has been a huge amount of encouragement for consumers to shop locally, and we hope the public continue to support the high street. Independent retailers are able to offer fantastic products made by British manufacturers, as well as an uncompromised, friendly and local service, which is where they can differentiate from larger brands.

Read the rest of Julian's interview in January's issue of Furniture News, here.