Newly re-established as the MIA’s Best Multiple Retailer, PMT is still driven passionately by its owners Simon Gilson and Terry Hope and has even managed some growth this year. But, as Gilson tells Gary Cooper, it has never been tougher out there to make a living from MI…
It was one of the many endearing things about the late Jim Marshall that, as recently as the 1980s, he would often answer the phone personally if you called the company during a busy period.
It was a sign of a steady hand on the tiller, a man still very much in control of his business. This was pretty much the impression we got when we called PMT to arrange this interview and found the phone answered personally by co-owner Simon Gilson – and it was reinforced when he broke off a couple of times to bid farewell to customers as they left the shop. This was no put-up job, it's the way Gilson does business: personal, hands-on and, on the day we spoke, just back from a tour of PMT’s 10 UK stores (soon to be 11).
So how, as we edge gingerly into 2013, is business for the company that has, once again, won the MIA's Best Multiple Retailer Award?
“We’re going to show growth his year,” Gilson says. “Obviously, we’re a retailer so everything is about what happens in this next four to six weeks” (we were speaking in the immediate pre-Christmas period) “but if that doesn't let us down we’ll show around eight to ten per cent growth, which, allowing for inflation, puts us around five to six.”
Gilson admits, however, that it has been hard to achieve. “I’ve been doing this for 34 years next year and its never, ever, been anything like as hard as this. Forget all the rubbish being forced down people’s throats by the media - it genuinely is harder than it has ever been. We’ve got 150 mouths to feed now, so it does weigh on you.”
The areas of most activity, he says, haven’t changed a much in recent years. “Guitars are still the new high tech. The acoustic guitar market has matured somewhat and slowed, but the electric guitar market, for those who still have money, is still very strong, though mostly at the top end – the bottom end has pretty much fallen apart and I think that has happened because its gone mass market. The entry-level guitar market has become an Amazon, eBay kind of sale. We’re still selling some, but nothing like the quantities we once used to. You have to go upper-mid market before it starts to get interesting – and as anyone who was being truthful would tell you, backline has fallen completely apart.”
This reflects the views of many other retailers we have spoken with in the past year and there are conflicting explanations as to why. Some say that guitarists looking to improve their sounds can simply buy a new effects pedal and achieve £1,000s worth of change for £150, or less, while others look to the declining availability of local gigs. If there is nowhere to play, why do you need a bigger and better amplifier?
“The fact is that we can still sell small amps – small, sexy ones - but we can't sell real ones that are going to do anything in anger,” Gilson says.
Despite that, PMT continues to prosper and Gilson attributes that to some very traditional virtues. “We're definitely feeling the benefit of people’s faith in the brand. We’ve been here for 22 years. I think we’ve got a reasonable reputation for doing things right and that’s a major benefit.”
The PMT World Tour, undertaken the week before we spoke, had clearly impressed him, too.
“We went up to Liverpool, to Dolphin, back via all the stores that were on the way and hit Birmingham on the Wednesday. I must admit I hadn’t been there for a while, though Terry (Hope) has and, regardless of the MIA Award, if that wasn’t the best store in the country that afternoon then I’ll eat my hat. It was fantastic! The presentation, the way the staff were - even the smell: they were burning Christmas candles and it was a fantastic atmosphere. But the thing that blew me away more than anything was that they’d chosen suitably cheesy Christmas music but in each area it was chosen to suit the area it was being played in. That was all down to Gaz – he’s the best retailer manager you could ask for.
“Beyond that, the reason why we’re successful is because we’re so widespread. At the moment you don't know what’s going to happen from one minute to the next. I always used to be able to plan six to eight months ahead but now I don't plan six or seven days ahead – and that applies in all industries, not just MI retail.”
So what about Dolphin, PMT’s move into the thick of online retailing?
“That’s the success of this year – it won’t cost us anything! he laughs. “Bear in mind it was only purchased 19 months ago and it was losing money at an incredible rate, but within a financial year we’ve returned it to profitability. Though we did chop it to blazes, of course. That said, we have just reinstalled one of the seniors, a guy called Andy Ball, and already in the month that he’s been back with the company he has done more than we could have asked.”
Parallel to Dolphin, of course, has been the growth of PMT Online, which Gilson says has been another success.
“We took the guts out of Hard To Find when that went down, got some incredible skills onboard and within three months we now have a truly classy website with some very good business coming through that channel. The website has always been our bane – we’ve never been happy with it even when we’ve thrown a lot of money at it in the past, but now we’ve got something that is really driving traffic to the stores and doing some really good business with it.”
Less happy has been the planned new store in Cambridge, where Messrs Gilson and Hope ran into lease problems which have resulted in a delayed opening. “Cambridge is done but it’s been a nightmare,” he admits. “We were supposed to be in and trading by December and it’s with huge regret that we’re not, but we got the keys the week before last, we’ll be fitting January or February and opening late winter or early spring.”
And what about these perpetual rumours of a Central London opening?
“Yes, well moving swiftly on....” Gilson refuses to be drawn on the subject though he does comment, “Next year is going to be a very, very important year for the company. And that’s all I'm going to say!”