Family ties on the Firth of Clyde.
For nearly 30 years the Walker family has been running a destination DIY and garden store in Dunoon on Scotland’s picturesque Firth of Clyde. Staying relevant – and having an excellent coffee shop – are essential parts of the successful formula.
By Eric Musgrave
There cannot be many Bira members that owe their present success to Mikhail Gorbachev, but Walkers Mica of Dunoon might raise the odd glass of vodka – or more likely, Scotch whisky – to the former Communist leader.
Gorby’s policies of glasnost ("openness") and perestroika ("restructuring") in the late 1980s were instrumental in bringing about the end of the Soviet Union, the Eastern Bloc and the Cold War. As the threat of armed conflict evaporated, the United States began to scale back its military presence across Europe.
One of the bases to close was its nuclear submarine establishment, which had been based at Holy Loch, just outside the town of Dunoon on the Firth of Clyde, since 1961. As the United States Navy prepared to depart, in 1990 Andy and Madge Walker seized the opportunity to take over a 1 acre site that had been occupied by a commissary or general store for the USN.
The married couple had been running a builders’ merchants and contracting business in the Scottish seaside town since 1980. By 1990 they had expanded into DIY and gardening and with plans for a coffee shop in mind, the need for bigger premises was becoming apparent.
The site, just on the periphery of Dunoon had operated as a car dealership and petrol station from the 1940’s before being leased to the USN. With the owners keen to sell, a deal was swiftly agreed and Walkers of Dunoon had a rather impressive new home.
Paul Walker, who with his brother Ian joined the family firm straight from school in the 1980s, takes up the story: “The site seemed almost too big at first but we divided the rear section in half and leased out one side to another local business. We continued with the heavy-side building materials for a few years along with the fitted kitchens and bathrooms but the move in location created a shift in focus from trade to retail.
Today Walkers Mica is a home and garden retail store with a coffee shop attached, with a self-storage business also on the site. But the most important thing to us is that Walkers is still run by the family, as a family business.”
Dad Andy retired in 1995, leaving Paul in charge of the office and admin and Ian in charge of the retail operations and buying. Mum Madge helped establish the reputation for quality home baking that the coffee shop still enjoys today. She is still a regular at the shop, dropping in about three times a week to help with the gifts and outdoor plants.
As Paul trained as a joiner and Ian as a plumber and heating engineer – “our parents wanted a spread of skills in the business,” Ian jokes – DIY, plumbing and hardware remains a part of the Walkers Mica mix, but a comprehensive gardening department (including plants) is the biggest contributor to shop turnover. The large selection of products also embraces paint, electrical, housewares, gifts, alcohol and when Bira magazine visited in November, an impressive Christmas lights grotto.
And then there are the 45 sea-going containers stacked up outside that form the self-storage side of this eclectic business. Ian explains: “As the builder’s merchants side reduced, we were left with some space at the corner of the site. We were going to construct a self-storage building until we visited another site who had used the containers. We did a trial with four in 2009 and it took off immediately. Demand is still strong, so much so that we’re running out of corners to fill.”
The 20 x 8 x 8ft containers are insulated and some have been compartmentalised into two or four sections. Adding the self-storage containers was not the only bit of canny foresight displayed by the Walker family. Within a couple of years of trading at the former USN site, the business had a petrol station and florists as part of its attractions and Andy and Madge could finally add the coffee shop which would bring customers into the store and give them a reason to stay.
Just over two years ago, as the central part of a £200,000 investment programme that utilised the entire site, the old coffee shop was replaced with a smart new-build extension that includes an extensive modern kitchen and large feature windows overlooking an outside landscaped terrace. Seating capacity has increased to 120 and the menu has expanded to include full meals and alcohol. Paul and his wife Claire designed the new space and Ian oversaw the building works using local tradesmen.
At the same time, new windows were installed at the front of the store and the roof was improved to cure a network of leaks. Replacing the old suspended ceiling will be the next job early in 2020.
As part of the programme, things got a little greener at Walkers as the old Powermatic gas-fired blower that warmed the shed-like building was replaced with an electric air-to-air heater. The gas bill dropped from £10,000 a year to £2,000 as a result. The electricity bill has increased but savings have been made on that by installing LED lighting.
In a final touch of reorganisation, the petrol station was sold to Gleaner oils, a Scottish fuel distributor which specialises in running service stations in out-of-the-way locations. By most people’s standards, Dunoon is an out-of-the-way location, and not a very prosperous one either, which makes Walkers’ continuing cycle of success and investment even more impressive.
The main town on the Cowal peninsula in the south of Argyll and Bute, Dunoon is on the western shore of the upper Firth of Clyde. From the early 19th century until the mid-1960s Dunoon was a popular holiday resort for workers from the west of Scotland who would take a ferry down the River Clyde – a trip described as going “doon the watter”.
Once people began to enjoy cheap foreign holidays, however, Dunoon’s decline was steep, although the local economy was underpinned to a degree by the American naval base. When the last craft departed Holy Loch in March 1992 it led to a major and continuing downturn in the local economy.
The town, which has a population of about 13,000, now relies on tourists, especially those that like walking and enjoying the stunning shoreline and inland hills. Yet Walkers’ success has been achieved with very little trade from visitors – it is, literally, a local success.
“We are very fortunate to have such a loyal, local customer base. Although we don’t have any big chain stores competing with us there are two or three other good independent DIY shops in the town and a large builders’ merchant. We are only half a mile from the town centre and we offer parking and good access”. Paul explains. “We have been trading seven days a week since our earliest days so we really are open when you need us. People visit us for lunch or a coffee and then enjoy browsing the rest of the store, something unique in the area, a proper destination store.”
The brothers give lots of credit for their prosperity to the membership of Mica, the independents’ co-operative trading group that became part of Bira in autumn 2019. The business had been a member of the British Hardware Federation (BHF), one of the precursors of Bira for many years, but there was a specific reason for joining Mica in 2001 – its marketing expertise based around the promotional brochures it sends out 11 times a year.
Paul admits: “Before we joined Mica, we did our own marketing, putting together our leaflets and flyers. It was about DIY – and it looked DIY! We badly needed the marketing experience of Mica. Another attraction was its buying power. On our own we might order half a pallet of goods, which was unlikely to threaten B&Q’s prices, but Mica negotiates hard and fair on behalf of 55 members across the country, not only for promotional items, but for everyday stock lines”
The business has used an RBA software system for 20 years but a further benefit of the Mica membership was the use of the buying group’s own website template. The Walkers’ website is not a full representation of what the store has to offer but more a digital representation of the latest Mica promotion, offering ‘click & collect or local delivery. Although not a significant part of the business, online sales also benefit from drop-ship supplier offers.
The brothers are active Mica members. Ian has been on the promotional and marketing committee of the group since 2014 and is also involved with the buying of Mica’s deals. He welcomes the merger with Bira: “Both associations share the same vision, to ensure independent retailers continue to thrive in the long term and ultimately the potential to seek out new members”.
Paul has been on the Mica board since 2015 and stresses that over the 18 years of membership the Walkers have got to know many other members as personal friends. “The co-operative principles are important to us, and for an independent located as remotely as we are, the chance to meet and talk to other independents at the six to eight regional exchanges, national meetings, store visits and supplier visits during the year have been invaluable”.
Dunoon’s population and therefore Walkers’ core clientele is older than that an average UK town and mail shots are still an effective marketing medium. The business sends out around 8,000 Mica’s leaflets each promotion via Royal Maul to potential customers on the Cowal Peninsula. On social media it has around 1,800 followers on Facebook and an impressive 4,500 members of its loyalty card scheme.
The business employs 28 staff. To underline that this is a “family” business, Ian’s wife Mairi ran the original coffee shop for about 20 years and now helps look after retail operations and the gift department. Paul’s wife Claire has been in the business for eight years and manages the new coffee shop as well as paying the wages (which presumably makes her a particularly popular member of the team). She also helps Paul with the marketing duties including an active role on social media.
This year sees the Walker family embark on their fifth decade in business They are a fine example of how relevant a service-oriented independent can be to its community. It also underlines the importance of being “a destination”, with more to offer than just products. The sales uplift after the improvements in 2017 shows the value of investing in bricks and mortar – sales in the shop went up 15% and the percentage of sales from the coffee shop doubled after the work.
Today Walkers Mica comprises 5,000sq ft of retail space, a 3,000sq ft coffee shop and 2,000sq ft of stock rooms, offices and toilets. Across the business, 60% of turnover is generated in the shop, 30% in the coffee shop and 10% from self-storage.
Despite all the well-known pressures on the independent sector, Walkers’ turnover increased by 8% in 2019 against 2018. It is still fighting the good fight in the cold war of independent retailing.