The Approved PC Retail Network (PCRN) has launched its website for customers to find independent retailers in their area rather than using large chain retailers, in a bid to "increase the voice" of smaller retailers.
PCRN started as a Facebook group created by independent retailer Bude Computing's director Dan Dollin. Dollin formed the group to act as a support network for Bude and other independent retailers.
"If we all speak as one then hopefully we will actually be heard."
Dollin (pictured below) explained: "There are tonnes of technical support groups on Facebook, but there is nothing from an actual retailer's perspective. So there is no one to ask, 'where do I get point of sale material from for AMD graphics cards' etc.
"I was sending messages to other computer shops that were very similar to mine, with one or two stores, and I had an overwhelming response from that. The group has 153 members now; in total around 110 individual businesses. The reason I started the group was for us all to have a rant and a moan sometimes. When we see supplier deals we will share it out among the group so we all see it and all benefit from it."
Dollin and other members came up with the idea to create the website at the beginning of the year. They started work on the site four weeks ago, and it is now live.
The idea behind expanding the group to a website was to give the retailers more of a voice against chain retailers, explained Dollin. He added that the group has already managed to get "custom deals" with some suppliers to give them an edge in the market.
"You've got the likes of PC World, but every small town has one or two independent computer shops. There are actually a lot more of us than there are PC Worlds, and we also give a hell of a lot better customer service and computer knowledge than the likes of PC World and Currys," he said.
"We are really trying to get some of the power back from PC World and give it back to the independents. If you are an independent, you can't just phone up Microsoft – you don't even have a number for Microsoft – but you can bet PC World has a direct line to their advertising department. It is really just about trying to increase our voice. If we all speak as one then hopefully we will actually be heard."
PCRN's website is free for customers to use, but retailers who want to be featured must become paying members. The membership fees, which Dollin said are currently £7 per month or £75 for a year, go towards joint advertising campaigns.
"They are getting a lot from the collective group, so it is not a lot to give back," he added.
Independent retailer Remedy IT's founder Terry Fairbrother said that the group could be a good idea for smaller retailers, but only if they are prepared to move online.
"It is almost like they have come to the party somewhat late. I think that the high street chain has pretty much been done now; everyone buys online," he explained.
"I can't even remember the last time I walked into PC World. If [independent retailers] have a good online presence and are going to compete on price with the likes of Ebuyer, they have a fighting chance. I think it is a market that has been done and dusted and is almost shrinking."
Paul Cubbage, managing director of distributor Target Components, said that the idea is "noble", but thinks that there needs to be more regulation for retailers to be able to say they are 'approved'.
"I think they have a big challenge ahead of them for it to be in anyway successful," he said. "Without the funding and centralised control they have a big problem: how does anyone know about you? You can produce certificates to say they are members but the real problem with anything like this is, for it to give customers any kind of trust, there needs to be standards. For that there needs to be someone monitoring and enforcing the standards, which from what I understand, isn't the intention.
"If a member of the public goes into a member of the PCRN stores, and has a terrible experience, that then reflects on everyone in the PCRN group. I think the sentiment behind it is noble. But there is a danger they can undermine the benefits by saying they are approved, when they don't have to meet any standards."
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