Combining leisure and shopping like no other retail destination, Trago Mills is a one-off.
The UK’s largest model railway, an annual day when pensioners are given money for turning up to a store, and weekly ads that promote the UK Independence Party as well as its products. As quirky goes in retail, businesses don’t get much more unusual than southwest of England institution Trago Mills.
Unique is an overused term in retail. But there’s no other word to describe the experience of visiting Trago Mills, a true retail one-off operating from three stores in Devon and Cornwall that combines retail and leisure to an extent no other retailer in the UK manages.
At a time when both retailers and their landlords are trying to fathom how exactly to compete with leisure activities for shoppers’ time, maybe the way in which the unashamedly populist and value-based Trago turns a shopping trip into a family day out may be one pointer towards a different way of doing things.
Not that it’s a new concept. Trago was established in 1961 by founder Mike Robertson, whose son Bruce still owns and runs the business to this day. The story goes that he opened his first store after being refused planning permission to build an upmarket fishing resort on the land. So in protest at the local planners he started selling wellington boots on it. The rest is history.
Trago now has three stores. One of them is a small department store in the Cornish port of Falmouth, while the original Liskeard site, along with a newer one in Newton Abbot in Devon, have mushroomed into giant leisure destinations, but with a huge retail component at its core. Retail Week paid a visit to the Devon site to get a feel for what the business is all about.
“The children use the leisure park, while the adults shop”
Trago marketing director Andrew Nunn.
The size of the sites is fundamental to their success. What other store could boast a 110-acre site including a go kart track, ice rink, full size steam railway and the UK’s largest model railway, let alone a garden centre where visitors are encouraged to sit themselves down and enjoy picnics and barbecues. The site is so big that other retail businesses, including Co-operative Group and Kwik Fit, are tenants on it, and it attracts 3 million visitors a year - in total the three stores attract 7 million.
But retail is the heart of it - the leisure attractions exist to support the retail on the site and actually make a loss. “The children use the leisure park, while the adults shop,” says marketing director Andrew Nunn. “It creates a wonderful atmosphere here. It’s the most inclusive retail experience anywhere in Britain.”
And a lot of retail there is, with 210,000 sq ft in the enormous Devon store. The breadth of range is staggering - pretty much every non-food category is stocked, and in the case of many of its biggest categories, such as DIY, in considerable depth too. The number of SKUs in the one store is 88,000, sourced by a team of just 11 buyers.
It’s not sophisticated by any measure. The storefit and merchandising in the main store is basic - the emphasis throughout is squarely on value.
Trago was a pioneer in more ways than one, being one of the first retailers to specialise in branded clearance retail. It may be all the rage these days but when Mike Robertson started out at the Liskeard centre in 1961 it was an unheard of concept.
There is a core of continuity ranges in the main store, although a former garden building has been converted to a clearance store where bulk loads of products are cleared. It bought the entire stock of collapsed bathroom retailer Shires, and at the time of visiting was working its way through selling 42,000 Quinn domestic radiators, being sold at the bargain basement price of £8.49.
“We have over 3,000 suppliers,” says Nunn, “and when our buyers go to see them the first question they ask is: ‘What clearance have you got for me?’” They are helped by the ability to make quick decisions - backed by Robertson, Trago is cash-rich and debt-free, enabling the company to move quickly in the sourcing market, and the recession has actually made it easier to source product as more suppliers have hit problems.
But you can’t offer a comprehensive range and fill a 200,000 sq ft store with clearance items. Here the Trago philosophy is simple - to accept a standard margin and apply it across the business to ensure its prices are lower than its competitors. The exception is in low margin categories like electricals, where the margin is lower to stay competitive.
The benefits of this approach are particularly powerful in categories such as garden, a major focus of the Newton Abbot store, where this May a new Garden Park area was opened - combining 33,000 sq ft of indoor retail, with a more modern design, under glass with a landscaped outdoor area.
Here Trago is offering lower prices than its rivals by applying its standard margin to a product area where margins, particularly in the independent sector, are traditionally high. Combining this with an enormous outdoor area, landscaped with real canal locks and Tuscan terraces give the centre a real authority in this part of the market.
So far £10m has been invested in the Garden Park, with more to come.
When the recession hit Trago had 100 tradesmen working full-time on the project - “good local lads” as Nunn calls them. The company decided to press ahead, helped by the fact it is a cash-rich business.
Trago is undeniably eccentric. It has no EPoS so still uses 28 million sticky price labels a year, and every November holds a pensioners day where every pensioner who comes to the store is given £3 just for turning up.
The business is built in the shadow of its owner and chairman Bruce Robertson. Robertson is no stranger to the headlines for his trenchant anti-European views, and in Trago’s famous weekly newspaper ads - which appear in 520,000 copies of 38 titles - a large chunk of the page is given over to a weekly column by the UK Independence Party, where the outspoken views on everything from immigration to homosexuals have often courted controversy.
Arriving on the site you can’t miss the anti-European hoardings that greet you on arrival, but while his views might not be the sort you see from liberal audiences on Question Time, Nunn says Robertson’s views are “broadly appreciated” in the Southwest. Local radio stations are also blitzed with ads.
Trago hasn’t been immune to the downturn and Nunn says the company did feel the recession when it came, but he says he feels the worse is now over. Profits fell last year and it put work on its third giant centre, in Merthyr Tydfil in south Wales, on hold, but the plan is to start again soon. Coach parties are a big revenue stream for Trago and that a lot of them come from south Wales and Bristol give the company confidence that Merthyr will work.
In fact the plan is that through the Merthyr centre and a launch online the business can double the turnover achieved by the three existing stores. The plan for online is to introduce a limited range of 3,000 SKUs that Trago can use to spread its reach nationally.
While the Garden Park has taken Newton Abbot to a new level, Trago remains a cheap and cheerful operation. But the crowds there on a grey autumnal Friday show it works. It may not be Bluewater, but it shows there is such a thing as a family day out at the shops.