Collins Furniture: 'Our store has adapted to beat the big chains'
Collins Furniture in west Belfast has seen huge changes on the high street since it was set up 70 years ago.
The business has adapted to survive a range of challenges, including the rise of supermarkets and online shopping, but owner Michael Collins is confident that his business can give things you can't buy online.
"The furniture industry is constantly changing, 20 years ago it was mahogany furniture - or mahogany furniture," he said.
"Now the world is a very small place for business, we still mainly import from the Republic of Ireland but cabinets are increasingly brought in from the east.
"Today, there's a lot more choice and a lot more colour, but even with that, we still will work with local joiners to get exactly what customers want."
With staff trained to listen to what customers want, rather than give the hard sell, Mr Collins says shops like his have the edge for shoppers with specific needs.
And he said that can help when bidding for commercial projects.
He said a request for a type of bed not available in the UK led his team to design beds for a major Dublin hotel. The hotelier had requested a type of bed he had seen in the US which, due to regulations in the UK and EU furniture industry, was not available here.
"He contacted lots of different manufacturers who just told him that they couldn't supply it, but I went on to explain the reason why," Mr Collins said.
"It was because America has different fire and safety regulations for furniture. We worked with the hotel to design something reflecting the feel and style of the bed they liked in America.
"They ordered a couple and got very good feedback from customers, so went ahead and placed a much bigger order. I don't think many other companies would have the same time to do that."
Mr Collins said 70% of sales were to retail customers and 30% to commercial customers. The firm also supplies bedside chairs to hospitals and nursing homes.
The business began as a hardware shop, founded by Michael Collin's uncle Eddie in 1948. Eddie was joined by his brother and father and began to sell furniture because of Eddie's father's interest in the furniture industry.
As furniture sales began to pick up and hardware sales trailed off, Eddie made the decision to change the store's speciality to furniture. Mr Collins said the arrival of supermarket multiples like Tesco and Sainsbury's severely impacted on the hardware business.
"It didn't matter what price they sold it at," he said. "People would just put it in their trolleys as they walked around the supermarket. There was the extra hassle of parking on the high street to go to a specialist shop, whereas in the supermarket they could park their car and buy everything in one place. Shopping that was done in specialist shops started to be done in supermarkets."
Large retail chains were now the biggest threat to small specialist stores like his own.
"Now, the biggest challenge is large chains like DFS and Dreams," said Mr Collins. "It's very easy for us to compete with the multiples on price. A family business doesn't have big overheads or a lot of wages to pay and we've owned our premises for a long time now, but with large budgets for advertising, it's easier for them to make people think they are cheaper.
"We get a lot of savvy customers who will email 20 to 30 different manufacturers and retailers looking for a comparison of prices on a particular make of bed or furniture and we will tend to be cheaper than the multiples."