Easy Bathrooms on why it plans to open more physical stores

With store closures a fixture of retail life long before the Covid-19 crisis began, few companies could be expected to pick this time to expand their networks of physical stores. But that hasn’t stopped Easy Bathrooms – the company opened its most recent store, in Dereham in Norfolk, on the day that non-essential stores were allowed to reopen this week, and has a further nine store openings planned before the end of the year.

The Leeds-based brand is bullish about its prospects, despite rivals Bathstore, Better Bathrooms and Soak all entering administration during 2019 and 2020.

Easy Bathrooms is the retail arm of bathroom brand Cubico, which supplies bathroom fixtures and fittings, and a wide range of tiles, as a wholesaler. Company founder Craig Waddington decided five years ago that the company needed a new business model to protect it from an increasingly tough market. Independent retailers in the sector had faced a challenging time, and were pressing for deep discounts from suppliers to keep their heads above water. In addition, many were short of funds to invest in their showrooms, meaning that products were often displayed in a less than flattering environment, he says.

Waddington’s solution was for the company to have its own stores. “I took the decision that we needed to start doing it ourselves. When we open a store it’s all our own product, there’s nothing missing, there’s nothing discontinued,” he says. “That has paid dividends.”

Easy Bathrooms was set up as a standalone retail brand, with Cubico still servicing the wholesale market. Being in control of how the retail brand is represented is key. “When you’re a wholesaler… you’re just not in control. You can bring out the most wonderful products to the market, and you can be very poorly represented,” adds Waddington. The company can now also ensure that its products – all branded as Easy Bathrooms – are not available cheaper elsewhere online, protecting its margins.

Waddington has developed the store format and designs the stores – and some of the product ranges – himself. The stores, which measure up to 7,000 sq ft, can feature more than 80 bathroom room sets to show off bath and tile ranges to their best advantage. Where possible, the company installs a mezzanine floor to maximise interior space.

For locations, Easy Bathrooms favours trade parks rather than conventional retail parks. Trade customers – typically independent plumbers – and members of the public who are refurbishing their homes, find it convenient to visit a site near branches of companies such as Screwfix or Toolstation, says Waddington. But conventional retail parks are too expensive, and often too quiet, for bathroom stores, he says. The brand also works at a local level to develop relationships with independent plumbers, who form a key market because of their role in installing customer bathrooms.

Waddington is a keen proponent of physical stores, saying that while online bathroom offers have improved dramatically in recent years, some customers have had bad experiences in buying bathroom suites online in the past. “You want a fair price but you want to go back to a shop. You want your hand holding through the whole process, and of course you’re doing the full bathroom and tiles. You go to a shop,” he says.

The most recent store opening represents the 50th Easy Bathrooms store since it set out its retail strategy. Until the Covid-19 crisis forced it to close its stores temporarily – though as hardware stores most were able to reopen before other non-essential retailers – Easy Bathrooms was forecast to turnover more than £50 million in 2020. It has opened an average of one new store per month for the last three years.

The brand offer consists of ‘affordable luxury’ ranges that have proved popular with customers, and Waddington maintains that offering a broad range of tiles is key to the success of the stores. This saves customers from visiting a tile specialist as well as a bathroom specialist when they are choosing to renovate their smallest room.

So far, 2020 has been a difficult year for retail in general. Waddington says that, sadly, many independent bathroom retailers will find that a period of enforced closure, coupled with reduced footfall as shoppers avoid stores, will represent a final straw for their businesses. But he is confident that Easy Bathrooms is in a good position to weather the rest of the storm.

Even a dented housing market is not bad for companies in the bathroom sector. The old DIY adage says that if homeowners can’t move, they renovate – either outcome is good for a retailer that sells bathrooms.

“I am humbled and extremely proud of the team we have built; who believe in what we are doing with the Easy Bathrooms brand. I believe that the combination of our products, our service and our pricing are what stands us apart in the bathroom market, and I’m delighted that our growth continues to create jobs across the UK,” he says.