Currys PC World benefited from radical reboot
The internet revolution took out many casualties. But one chain is fighting back, writes Simon Neville
Comet, Blockbuster, HMV and Jessops have all gone bust in the last year as the likes of Amazon tear apart the traditional high street, offering electricals and technology at knock-down prices.
So you could be forgiven for thinking Currys PC World, which has nine stores in Northern Ireland, would be slipping the same way and getting ready for mass redundancies, store closures and eventual collapse.
But you would be wrong. The company once known for its dreadful customer service and high prices compared with online, is going from strength to strength and starting to dominate the technology market once again.
The firm this week announced profits of £31.4m for the six months to October.
The collapse of rivals – especially Comet – along with supermarkets such as Tesco admitting they have struggled to break the electricals market have all helped with Currys PC World's turnaround.
But the company has also helped itself and is finally waking up to the possibility that it can offer something that the internet cannot.
Kate Calvert, a retail analyst at investment bank Investec, said: "Currys PC World very nearly collapsed in 2009 but management has managed to turn things around and become a genuine competitor against online players.
"They have recognised how important price and service is and have the potential to really dominate the sector, but there is still work to do behind the scenes.
"Historically they had a poor service record and perceptions will take time to change, but unlike Comet, they seem to have kept up with the technology revolution better than most."
Sebastian James, chief executive of Currys PC World's parent company, Dixons (pictured), is bullish about the chain's prospects, but admits it will take time to regain the trust of former customers who have previously shunned the stores after poor experiences.
A personal friend of Prime Minister David Cameron, and former member of the Oxford University's infamous Bullingdon Club alongside Mr Cameron and Boris Johnson, Mr James has also been instrumental in bringing the many changes needed. He said: "Previously people thought PC World, in particular, was overpriced and staff didn't know anything.
"When you look at our Which? report we still come bottom or near bottom and that's because we have a 30-year legacy of being a low service business and the customer rightly doesn't forgive you for a while."
Two years ago, customer service was still rated at a dismal 44%, but that has since grown to 83% today. But it is not just service that has helped the company win over customers.
Currys PC World has also undergone a major transformation in its stores, which Mr James admits were overcrowded and uninviting.
At a new store in Aylesbury, for example, all the shelves have been lowered by 12 inches, meaning most customers can now see over the entire store when walking around.
Mr James said it allows customers to spot items off in the distance that they may not have even considered previously.
In addition, digital price tickets – common in France – have been added to some of its items meaning the company can change the price centrally to keep up with online rivals, something which will save time and money.
Slightly more wacky ideas such as heat-seeking scanners to check where people are going are also being installed, although Mr James is keen to explain that he is not going for a full-on Minority Report-style experience.
Early signs suggest Currys PC World does have a future and a market-leading one, at that.
But while they might be out of the hospital ward, they still have some way to go to full recovery.
They recognise how important that price and service is, and now have the potential to dominate the sector