James Thompson Ltd is a lighting retailer based on Larne's Main Street that has been a family business since it was started in 1946 — but, confusingly, it is now run not by the Thompsons, but by the McIlroys.
Although it was James Thompson who founded the firm, it was John McIlroy who bought it 16 years ago — when it became the McIlroy family business.
John himself had moved on from his own parents' family business. His wife Anne is also engaged in today's firm, as is their son James. In addition, they have several non-family employees: total staff numbers range from eight to 11, according to the level of activity at any time.
“My father took the business over in 1994 — he bought it from the daughter of the original proprietor,” says James McIlroy. “Since then the business has been completely modernised. We expanded and modernised it and expanded the product range.” Today the firm retails not only lighting equipment, but also a range of electrical equipment, switchgear and furniture.
“Lighting is very seasonal,” says James to explain the product diversification. “Now we are busy all year round.”
Despite the impression of tradition that comes with the term ‘family business', this is an enterprise that seeks to make itself thoroughly up-to-date. “The next stage we have started on is an e-commerce light store online,” explains James. The firm launched its website — www.uklightstore.com — at the beginning of last year. Since then sales activity online has gradually expanded to the point where it now covers its costs and is seen as central to the firm's future.
As an online store, location ceases to be such an issue, and one of the big attractions of the website is its ability to attract customers from farther away. “You are going from a catchment area of 20,000 people, to a catchment of the whole of the UK and Ireland,” says James.
That point is illustrated by the marketing claims made on the website, describing the firm as “one of the United Kingdom’s leading light specialists” as well as “probably the most affordable supplier of decorative lighting, interior lighting, exterior lighting and specialist lighting on the net”.
The firm is determined to allow its website to evolve. “It takes a couple of years to develop,” explains James, “So this is work in progress.” The family is acutely aware of the danger of rushing ahead to spend more on marketing than the business can afford.
Yet it is already true that the business thinks mostly about the internet when it comes to promotion. “Our marketing is mostly online, but now we are beginning to be more aggressive,” says James.
One of their initiatives is to promote themselves via social networking sites: the store has 200 followers on Facebook, with the ambition of raising this to 2,000 followers. It also uses Twitter and pays for Google’s AdWords service.
Building-up the effectiveness of its online marketing remains a priority for the firm. “We have a placement student at the moment from the University of Ulster, whose time is completely spent on social networking,” says James.
The family believe its online focus is the way to grow, but is not looking for an immediate change in gear for the business. “It's going to grow slowly,” explains James.