Austins battle through Spanish flu, World War Two and now pandemic but boss David says: 'Now is our Time'
- Credit: Submitted
The shopping giants who have dominated our town centres for generations are slowly but surely disappearing one by one.
New research has shown the rapid and staggering decline of department stores in the UK.
According to latest data compiled by commercial property information specialist CoStar Group for the BBC, 83 per cent of department store space has shut down for good since BHS collapsed in 2016.
The statistics suggest that household names chains such as BHS, Debenhams, House of Fraser and John Lewis had 467 branches five years ago – but with the collapse of BHS, closure of Debenhams and some restructures undertaken by John Lewis and House of Fraser, only 79 remain.
Torbay and South Devon have not escaped the decline with Torquay especially hit as the closure of BHS and more recently Debenhams have left gaping retail holes in the town centre and on the harbourside.
But just six miles away lies hope and a success story achieved against all the odds.
Austins, the name associated with Newton Abbot for shopping and, just as importantly, as a bastion of the local community, is very much alive and kicking.
Shopping trends and another rather well-documented challenge called the pandemic have done its best try to knock Austins off its pedestal.
But as far as managing director David Austin is concerned those challenges have also offered up opportunities and as he sits in the spacious café at Austins, he optimistically believes ‘Now is our Time’.
Not that the last 18 months haven’t been difficult. There were fears the Covid lockdowns would claim another high-profile victim as the pandemic cost the business over sixty percent of its annual sales. Mr Austin was also faced with a ‘grim first’ – having to make a significant number of his loyal staff redundant.
But investing in the business, his people and maintaining that key position at the heart of the community – who at the same time have been keen to support the business through some of its toughest ever times – has been absolutely vital to survival.
He says: “I think that in a way our time has come. The pandemic has brought change the potential of which can lead to a bright future. It is going to be an interesting decade for us.
“I think there is an opportunity for private independent stores to offer customers something they are looking for. There is a great sense of localism that has come back.
“What has come out of this pandemic is that people are more appreciative of the individual approach that we can give. People are kinder, nicer and more patient. They appreciate people more.
“I have had customers say to me that they are very keen to make sure we survive and will shop with us. It is amazing and really touching.”
The business dates back to 1903 when it was founded by David’s grandfather, Robert Austin, in Romford, Essex. In 1924 Austins opened in Newton Abbot, having closed in Romford.
In 1950 Robert Austin died and between 1950 and 1980 David’s father, Charles, expanded the business and developed an original small drapery shop into a department store. His wife, Elaine opened the Coffee Shop in 1970.
David and his sister, Mary (now Mary White), first became involved in the business in the 1980s.
David took over from Charles as managing director in 1990. Mum Elaine died in 1993 but dad Charles went on to live to 100, passing away in 1998.
Between 1990 and 2015 saw acquisition and expansion into neighbouring properties to create the destination stores business and empire that is Austins today, developing a quartet of buildings in the heart of Newton Abbot around the clock tower, to create a significant department store offer with a Fashion Store (the original shop), Home Store, Men's, Toys and Sports Store, and Furniture, Beds and carpets store.
David said of his dad: “He was a great character. He was very strong and determined and he was responsible for taking the business forward.”
Sister Mary still plays her part in the business as a non-executive director.
The business has had to endure three lockdowns – in March last year when the pandemic was officially declared, through November up until the start of December and again from early in the New Year through to April this year. All together 31 weeks business were lost.
Nobody really knew what was coming and how devastating in so many ways the pandemic was going to be.
“At the back end of February last year, we had no idea what was going to hit us,” said Mr Austin.
But then news filtered through of the first coronavirus case in the UK – at Churston, near Brixham, and just a few miles away.
Mr Austin said: “That had an impact on people coming from Torquay. Trade started to dip.”
He had an inkling of what might be around the corner and he reveals that it was in the early hours of one morning that he decided drastic action was inevitable.”
Mr Austin says: “I did not want to tell people what was going to happen. It still came as a shock when it did happen. I was deciding what to do and talking to my family.”
“There were two major things to consider – you had the risk to health of the staff and public which was the most important and you had the survival of the business.
“The question was could we carry on working? After a lot of debating, I concluded early on a Sunday morning – it was 2am – that we should close. I sent an email to all our staff on that Sunday afternoon to say we would be closing.”
The decision was made ahead of the government announcement which came 12 hours later. It went down well in the circumstances with customers who could see it wasn’t all about the business.
“The reaction was very good. Several customers commented on that,” said Mr Austin.
The business started putting the brakes on supplies three weeks before lockdown which would prove to be a crucial tactic going forward.
The country re-opened in June. Mr Austin said: “We were busy in the first few days but then it went very quiet. People did not have the confidence.”
Not that there wasn’t a huge focus on safety at the Austins stores with safety screens and sanitiser stations just part of the Covid safety operation.
The November lockdown was a blow. “November was a key month,” said Mr Austin.
They changed the way they ordered stock and orders were taken down to avoid being over-stocked.
Stock for the autumn and subsequently spring were reduced and closely monitored to keep the firm on a sound financial footing when it came to cash. “In some cases, we took the budgets down to zero,” said Mr Austin.
“We had no cash flow. It didn’t look as if we would be around.,” he admitted.
He likened the pandemic to the famous Dust Bowl phenomenon which brought parts of the USA to its knees in the 1930s
The Dust Bowl was a period of severe dust storms that greatly damaged the ecology and agriculture of the American and Canadian prairies during the 1930s. Severe drought came in three waves: 1934, 1936, and 1939–1940
There was a plus side as Mr Austin revealed: “I am proud to say that during that period every single bill was paid at the right time and we didn’t let anybody down.”
But the biggest downer was having to let staff go. Austins employ 100 people and 49, which equated to 23 full time equivalents, had to be laid off.
“The tough thing was that we had to reduce staff levels. We had never done that before,” said Mr Austin.
“We are a family business. We have a feeling for our people and a relationship that is enduring.
“It was horrible. It was grim for us. I personally talked to everybody. I had to tell them what we had to do. The vast majority were incredibly understanding.
“The rest of the staff were furloughed. What saved the day was the government’s furlough scheme and the rates relief.
“We thought we were going to be in trouble and the entire British economy was going to be in trouble but the government didn’t let it happen.”
He is optimistic about the future. He says: “We are a sound business. We have a long-term plan.
“We are a significant part of the town. Over the years the town has gone from having a number of independent stores to us being the remaining department store.”
“I think it Is about long termism. We have a long-term business and we have always invested back in the business significantly.”
He added: “The big corporates have gone down because they don’t work. An independent department store is very valuable to a town.
“We want to make sure that we are big enough to be a destination retail business for people to come from Exeter, Plymouth, Teignmouth, Shaldon and Torbay.
“We are a draw. We have had people from Plymouth who have been thrilled to find the store and say they will come back again.
“Torbay is also very important for us. With the new bypass it is just down the road. Its customer profile is of a more mature audience who still like to shop in departmental stores.”
Austins offer everything apart from electrical goods – including fashion, furniture, home, toys, carpets, beds and puzzles which have doing a booming business. “You need to have an authoritative offer in all departments,” said Mr Austin.
Newton Abbot is destined for more homes and a regenerated town centre thanks to government funding.
He says: “Regeneration is welcome if it increases footfall. If it makes the town centre more attractive it will bring more business which will be good to see. I also think Newton Abbot is going to be a bigger place with more housing.”
But it is the people that are the most important asset for the future just as they have been in the past.
He says: “The real key is the people in the business. We really try to value our teams who give a very good service and have individual relationships with customers.
“The people in the business are really key to making sure we have the right products and constantly changing that so we keep the interest of customers.
“It is about investing Invest in the people, the business and the products we offer.
“We have to drive technology though the business. There is a lot of work going on behind the scenes.”
A revamped website offer is part of the future but he says: “We still get people coming in here who say they do not want to shop on line. They want to see and talk to people and see what they are buying.”
He adds: “We had a customer from the South Coast, possibly Bournemouth. He had not been here before. They asked if Austins was still a family run store and they loved the store and said they are going to shop here in the future.”
Another testimonial came in a letter from another happy and satisfied customer who wrote: “All the staff I came across were helpful, polite and went out of their way to assist me in what I was looking for.
“Never having shopped online or anything like that and with absolutely no intention of going down that route, I do realise how hard it is for you to keep your store running, let alone Covid and all that it has brought.
“All credit to you. I will be back to Newton Abbot before too long.”
Mr Austin says: “We get a of people saying what would the town be like without us?
“We have a strong link to the community of the town. The community is really important to us.”
There appears to be a theme developing with the Austin generations.
Mr Austin says: “My grandfather got the business through the Spanish flu in 1919. My father got the business through World War Two, rationing and all that went with it and now there is me with the pandemic.
"During the lockdowns, we continued to reinvest by refurbishing our coffee shop and fashion floor. We lost Wallis with the demise of the Arcadia group, but have brought in new fashion brands which have been well received by our customers. We used the lockdown time to ensure we are fit for the future."
He adds: “You have to have a sense of optimism and never lose that. It is absolutely crucial. We want to make sure we keep the business going. Our strength has been in the high street. I think what we need to do is do what we are doing now but do it better.
“There are encouraging signs. It is still early days but we are on the way.”
He and wife Cristine, a retired music teacher at Maynard School in Exeter, have three daughters and a son all in their 20s.
He is a classical pianist and runs a small piano playing group.
“Never a day goes by without me practicing. It is totally absorbing,” said Mr Austin, a former Blundells schoolboy who went on to the Royal Academy of Music where he left with various glowing qualifications and lots of letters after his name.
“Having something like playing piano is unbelievably important to me, and I am fortunate to have a great musical interest as another part of my life.”
Fingers crossed he and his Austins team will be pulling the musical strings for many more years yet.