SMART – Garden Rooms, Offices and Studios
SMART, based in rural Suffolk, manufactures, sells and installs garden rooms throughout the UK. An award-winning brand with 19 years’ experience, priding itself on customer service and the ability to provide a modular build to allow the room to be tailored to exact requirements.
The last 18 months have been especially interesting for SMART.
In January 2019 Matt Moss joined the team. Due to unforeseen circumstances, within six months, Matt, alongside Paul Sheppard (Ops Director) and Sue Phillips (Marketing Director), completed a Management Buyout. A business plan was agreed to inject energy and grow the business.
The company was only eight months into the regeneration programme when Covid-19 forced it to temporarily close. “In March we had to close. We furloughed the whole team, leaving me to work from home to maintain supplier relationships and deal with any queries and existing customers. We had to close for two main reasons –our supply chain was affected, and our team needed to stay in hotels whilst installing and were unable to do so. It had been a tough year so the timing could not have been worse for us”.
The team had been busy since June 2019: a new range was launched, just before lock-down. An outdoor showroom created and work had already started on an augmented reality app. “It was disappointing to have the brakes put on just when we were in full flow and making a difference”, notes Matt, “but after a few weeks of the lockdown the situation really changed for us”.
Despite only spending about 10% of their normal marketing budget each month, enquiries kept coming in. Working from home for the majority of the country highlighted the need for a dedicated workspace. “It’s been really challenging for people to find a work-life balance despite working from home as there is no leaving the office. It’s also been hard to concentrate on work when all the family have been there. Not everyone has space in their house to set up an office and love the idea of having a garden office. I started to get more enquiries each day than we had during 2019 and realised that lockdown was actually presenting an unforeseen business opportunity”.
“We introduced an e-catalogue and a self-consultation form, so people could use the time to work out what they needed and go through the brochure to get design ideas. Everyone was still on furlough so I needed to capture the interest but be aware that actual service and installation could not recommence”.
The team started to be unfurloughed in mid-May. Bringing the team back has been a staged process bringing back 60% in May, moving up to 80% in mid-June and planning to be back at 100% staffing by 1 July. “It’s now a balance between what installation jobs can we do, and justifying the staffing costs. We started with looking at jobs within a two-hour drive to avoid needing an overnight stay for multi-day installations. Once hotels and accommodation are more readily available after 4 July we can start to work throughout the country again” said Matt.
SMART will be re-opening with eight weeks worth of work already booked in, and a pipeline that has doubled in size since lockdown began. The outdoor showroom which was invested in last year is perfect for Covid-Safe working, and people can visit on an appointment basis. “ Even though at the beginning it looked bleak, by keeping one member of the team working to deal with enquiries and update our website, we were able to still engage with people and capture the extra demand,” comments Matt.
A significant part of SMART’s business plan was to introduce augmented reality: a front end sales tool, allowing potential customers to design their garden room on the SMART website and then see it virtually in their garden. The technology will allow customers to place the garden room they have created in their garden and move it around. The increased demand and Covid-secure working practices have accelerated the development of the technology. “Our planned augmented reality technology, along with the outside showroom, are perfect for the new approach to interacting with potential customers. We still have 4 – 6 months to go before we can fully launch the tech, but work is well underway and it will totally change the customer experience. We are very excited it is now ahead of our planned schedule”.
SMART has taken advantage of the Government Furlough Scheme and also the Business Interruption Loan Scheme, both allowing costs to be covered and protect the business moving forward.
Matt states: “Looking forward there is no doubt we need to change the way we sell and interact with our customers, whilst maintaining our high level of customer care. The changes fit in with our existing business plan and we are confident we can continue to provide our excellent service, whilst keeping our team and customers safe. We are moving into the next half of 2020 feeling optimistic and excited about the future for SMART”.