Harrogate is known for many things – flower shows, tea rooms, spa water – but not many people know that it’s also home to a genuine retail phenomenon.
In 24,000 square feet of office space in a glass building on the western edge of town, there’s a company that takes innovative products and sells them for all they’re worth, via any medium you care to mention, 24 hours a day. And it is incredibly successful.
High Street TV operates in 87 countries, has five shopping channels and puts out over 200 hours of TV a day.
It is either the developer or sole distributor of all the products it sells, which means that if you want to buy one, you have to go via High Street TV.
“All our products need a level of innovation and you need to be able to demonstrate them,” says CEO Jim Coleman.
He co-founded the business in the depths of the 2008 global credit crisis with long-time business partner Andrew Malcher, the man who brought the infomercial to the UK in 1997.
Typical items include a garden hose that never kinks (XHose), a compartmentalised pan that needs no oil (QuadraPan), and a windproof umbrella (BetterBrella).
Mr Malcher adds: “Facts tell, stories sell. It’s all about a proven solution to an everyday problem. We have to use it ourselves, and it has to be a solution to a problem that we’ve experienced, and work, before we green-light it.”
The company’s best-seller, the NutriBullet liquidiser, provides a good example of the firm’s modus operandi. It has a number of unique features, and it straddles the kitchenware and health and fitness markets, so it’s a good one to demonstrate on TV.
Once a customer – typically female and 35 or over – decides to buy one, High Street TV makes it practically impossible not to do so. As the UK pioneer of multi-channel retailing, it makes its products available online, by phone, by click-and-collect, in catalogues, through reader offers, social media, newspapers and magazines, and at more than 9,000 UK conventional retail outlets thanks to deals with John Lewis, Selfridges, Tesco and a host of others.
It’s a business model that marries carefully-selected products with relentless sales clout, and when it works, which it invariably does, the results can be staggering.
Last Black Friday (in late November, considered the start of the Christmas shopping season), High Street TV sold a NutriBullet every 30 seconds, and the product has now officially overtaken the toaster on the nation’s wedding gift list.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that the company ranked 12th in The Sunday Times International Track HSBC 200, and 42nd in The Sunday Times Fast Track Virgin 100.
A crucial aspect of the company’s success is its timing. The British high street may have been in the doldrums in recent years, but that’s not to say that people are not buying things any more; they’re just going elsewhere.
“Consumer behaviour suits our model more now than it ever did 10, 15 years ago,” says Mr Malcher.
“The consumer has chang-ed in a few specific ways. The first thing is, consumers now have access to more information than they’ve ever had. The internet provides that, so they can research a lot of information before they buy.
“Products have changed and become so much more innovative. It’s not just a pair of trainers any more – they’ve now got chips in them that will communicate with iPhones and other devices.
“And consumers like to have peer groups or other customers that they can get testimonials from. So the interesting thing for us is that the TV infomercial, a 30-minute commercial format, ticks a lot of those boxes.”
Social media is also increasingly driving sales.
“It’s the most exciting time in our business,” says Mr Coleman. “What we’ve seen is a lot more opportunity because there’s more ability to the reach the consumer – there’s a lot more media.
“It’s in your hand. People can be on the bus and we can serve an advert to them via Facebook, or Instagram. So the more social media platforms, the more ability there is to promote our products. It’s a different scale of opportunity than ever before.
“It’s a lot more targeted as well – you can really pinpoint each audience. The same advert can be amplified 10 times with 10 different messages.”
He’s not joking. Visit High Street TV’s website just once and its adverts follow you around the internet ever afterwards – the online incarnation of ‘pester power’.
So accurate are its marketing crosshairs that if it’s raining in North Yorkshire, High Street TV can target potential customers there with adverts for their umbrellas. And when it stops raining, the ads stop too. It’s a whole new retailing world.
Given that it’s so successful, you might think its days in a modest-sized town like Harrogate might be numbered – that London might beckon.But the pair say there are no plans to relocate – which is good news for their 132 employees.
“Harrogate is a town we’re really proud of,” says Mr Malcher. “We have suppliers here extremely frequently, from Australia, New Zealand, the USA and South America. And many of them go back with this wonderful story of this phenomenal northern town that they would never have visited, that they’ve all fallen in love with.
“When people come, there’s always a welcome gift, such as Slingsby gin or something from Bettys. Similarly, when we travel – I’ve just come back from a 17-day trip to Hong Kong, Taiwan, New Zealand, Australia, Japan – all of them got a Bettys gift and a bottle of Slingsby gin. So we take them a taste of Harrogate; we’re proud Harrogatonians.”
The largesse flows both ways. As a patron of Saint Michael’s Hospice in Harrogate, High Street TV has set itself the goal of raising £50,000 this year, and cannily, they’ve made sure they’ve tapped up their suppliers for sponsorship when staff take part in fundraising challenges.
Yet this rootedness in the community does not mean the company has a parochial outlook. It already has a TV studio in Los Angeles and an office in Hong Kong, and more expansion, possibly into mainland China, is on the cards.
There are plans to increase the proportion of products developed in-house to 50 per cent, with the launch of three new brands, and this in turn is intended to boost exports, which currently account for just five per cent of sales.
“We really believe we’ve got so much more opportunity,” says Mr Malcher. “We now have a management team today that’s the strongest we’ve ever had. We have an opportunity and proposition and structure that’s by far the strongest we’ve ever had.
“We’re an ambitious, growing business and the best is yet to come.”