Since 1917 Webbs has been serving the people of Tenterden, Kent and nearby districts. Today Webbs’ third generation is happy to compete with the sheds and the internet, but greedy landlords are a local nuisance.
WEBBS RUNS FOUR shops, two in Tenterden, plus a smaller one in Battle (18 miles away) and in another in West Malling (28 miles distant).The founder of this family concern was William Webb, who set up an ironmongery business in 1917 and opened on the site of the Tenterden hardware “flagship” in 1921.
He was succeeded by his sons Ron and Eric, who in turn brought their boys, Graham and Nigel, into the business. The former joined in 1981, the latter in 1984, and they gradually took over the running of the family firm.
By an appropriate coincidence, all four shops are located on the respective High Street of their location. Tenterden is the centre of operations, with both units having the Tardislike quality of being far, far bigger on the inside than they appear from the outside. At No 45 is the imposing branch that houses cookware, giftware, baby goods and linens across two floors. No 51 is the narrow unit for hardware, DIY, gardens, pets, key cutting and so on that goes back a very long way, ending in The Mower Shop at the far end.
The Battle unit, at 24 High Street, is styled Webb’s Home & Garden Store, while in West Malling the cookshop at 56 High Street has Smith & Webb over the door. The cookshop is the only part of the mini-group to run a transactional website.
The last time bira magazine visited Tenterden was to see the re-opening of the homes store in September 2015, almost two years after a catastrophic fire had gutted the historic building. An electrical fault had started the blaze, with cruel irony, on Bonfire Night 2013, a date Graham recalls instantly.
“Obviously, the f ire was absolutely horrendous at the time. We lost 30% of our sales income overnight. We continued to sell cookware, gifts and linens in the hardware shop, but it was hardly the same,” he reports. “Looking back, however, the disaster was a good thing for the business as it allowed us to remodel what was a large but very jumbled shop, which had been built piecemeal over the years. We were able to build up and outwards at the back, so now we have more space that is used much more effectively.”
Webbs combines excellent old-school service from its 30 uniformed staff with a comprehensive selection of products in every department. Graham and Nigel share the buying responsibilities on the hardware side, while Graham’s mother Carol is in charge of the linens store. The SKU count across the shops is huge, but it is all managed without an EPOS system. “It’s on our to-do list, but it’s not a priority,” says Graham.
With the nearest big DIY sheds in Ashford, about 12 miles away, Webbs, with its longstanding presence in Tenterden, has very little local competition. Understandably, Graham
sees the internet as his biggest competitor, but he seems to be more worried about the decline of the town as a stronghold for independent retailers.
“Tenterden is prosperous, with a population that is growing beyond 7,000 as new houses are being built. Our hardcore of customers are all locals. A reasonable selection of independents still survives, but when shops do close, they are not being re-let because two or three local landlords who own most of the properties ask for too much money,” he argues. “The properties are merely investments for them and they don’t care if they are occupied or not. Even the HSBC branch in the high street closed in January and that building is already looking shabby. I am not depressed about the vacant units, but it would benefit us all if we could buck that trend.”
Company sales figures are not disclosed, but Graham reveals that gifts and cookware account for about 30% of the total, with hardware, DIY, lawnmowers and the rest contributing 70%. Some purchases are made through bira direct. The brothers, Carol Webb and their buying colleagues are regulars at a raft of trade shows from Spring and Autumn Fair to Exclusively Housewares. “We are fully aware of the importance of our traditional service levels, but we have got to be forward looking in terms of product,” says Graham.
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