In 2014, Julian Chamberlain and Janet Westwood sold their consultancy Retail Active, after 14 years of successful trading.
Building the business
Julian and Janet originally trained in the luxury hotel and catering industry, before working together at pub group giant Mitchells & Butlers.
In 2000 they set up their own consumer research agency, called Retail Active, and within a few short years gained contracts with some of the world’s best-known brands.
Retail Active began offering store-by-store training programmes and ‘brand audits’ to maintain service standards.
“We thought that quality was more important than profit at the time,” says Julian, “But we also noticed that a lot of other companies were taking short cuts but were growing quicker than us. We had a delayed growth while we established our reputation, then it exploded because we were able to offer real quality.”
Mindful of these peaks and troughs, along with increasing competition, Julian and Janet planned the next growth stage, then printed a “success card” – five bullet points detailing what a more successful Retail Active would look like.
One of the steps to growth was to offer new services, so the next logical progression was a move into mystery shopping.
“We kept getting asked by our clients, so we looked to see what best practice looked like in the USA and then developed a comparable service,” says Julian.
The firm’s first account was a small clothing chain with 17 stores. From that, the service expanded until Retail Active was visiting over 1500 shops a week.
From there, they moved into luxury car manufacturers and their dealerships, as Janet recounts.
“There was only one other company serving the automotive market, who audited their clients once a year. We quoted the same price, but offered four visits a year instead, whilst still generating strong profit.”
The Success Card was working, and Retail Active’s sales pipeline was strong. But the client base was internationalising, putting increasing demands on Janet and Julian to grow faster and further afield.