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Featured Article: "From a Humble shed to a Superstore"
In this modern world of cyberspace shopping, traditional chandlers still offer a special kind of service. To find out more, Peter Poland ventured into the famous Aladdin's Cave to see how a business that grew from humble beginnings is adapting to the demands of the 21st century.
Anyone who enjoys a hobby needs somewhere to browse- a haven where he can choose what he needs, or simply dream. A keen angler loves to stare enviously at the serried rows of gleaming new fishing reels and the latest carbon fibre rods in his local angling shop. And if he wants new hooks, flies or lines, there's nothing he likes more than to disscuss the latest trends and the merits of a Greenwell's Glory compared to a March Brown with the expert purveyor behind the counter. It's all part of the fun....
We're the same. A visit to the local chandler to see, touch and feel the latest equipment is an essential part of the game. If we want a new winch or echo-sounder, we like to look at the options and discuss the respective merits of different brands with a friendly expert. If we need a new set of oilies, there's no substitute for feeling the fabric and trying them on for size. And, on a more basic level, a local chandler is invariably the best place to stock up on mundane essentials like antifouling, to select a few spare shackles, to buy a few sheets of glasspaper, or to source the right size of stainless steel fastening - even if it's only to reattach that wonky clothes hook at the back of the heads compartment. A trip to the internet is no substitute and is unlikely to yield such useful and friendly advice.
Even in this modern age of cyberspace shopping and the consumers eternal pursuit of the "best deal", friendly and well-stocked chandlers offer an essential service. I would go as far to say they deserve their continuing trade. After all, if we merely 'cherry pick' more expensive items on the internet and 'proper' chandlers are driven out of business, where will we go for mundane fastenings and shackles etc - or heavy items like cans of paint - neither of which back room internet dealers particularly want to be bothered with?
But of course changing times affect everyone. To find out how, i paid a visit to one of Britain's longest running and most comprehensively stocked family-run yacht chandleries, which started life in a tiny wooden shed deposited on the side of Blundells Lane running beside the upper reaches of Hamble river.
Alwyn Foulkes bought the Riverside Boat Yard in 1935 and used the little shed as a storeroom. As well as running the yard, he worked as a paid hand on a succession of top Solent-based 6m racers. he lived (with his growing family) in a houseboat moored on the foreshore at the boatyard.
As his sons grew up, they entered the business. John Foulkes helped run the boatyard and looked after the moorings while young Bill spent his early years doing a variety of jobs in the yard chiefly as a rigger and a painter - but also continued the family tradition of spending summers as a paid hand on various 6m and cruising yachts. Then, when Alwyn died in the sixties, he joined brother John as a partner in the business and set up the chandlery, while John concentrated more on the yard and involved himself with repairs, storage, salvage, diving and towing.
As the Foulkes brothers began to specialize in buying second-hand gear and van loads of stock from boat building businesses that had gone to the wall, the little shed began to burst at the seams. Initial expansion took the form of a caravan parked behind, but that too was soon crammed to the roof. As one client fought his way through the piles of stuff on offers, he was heard to say, "This place is like an Aladdins Cave." And so the name was born.
Then the Foulkes family came up against a proverbial brick wall that seemed to put paid to any further expansion. Their numerous requests to replace the little shed with a larger chandlery building were flatly refused by local planners. But out of the disappointment came the brain wave that was to provide the ever growing 'Aladdins Cave' with a spacious and characterful two-storey chandlery shop at considerably less cost than a brand new building. "Let's buy a concrete barge, put a roof on it, install two floors, and park it in the mud beside the boatyard," said John.
In typical Foulkes fashion, it was no sooner said than done. They got hold of a barge, towed it round to the boatyard and parked it on the mud, whereupon a third brother joined the team to help the conversion. Glyn had previously been working in Pirelli's publicity department, but having trained as a sculptor at the prestigious St Martin's Art College in London, his great love was carving wooden figureheads. If you've ever walked into, or lurched out of, the famous jolly sailor pub on the Hamble you'll have passed under a Foulkes carved figurehead. Once Glyn and his helpers had put a roof on the barge, installed the two floors and put up some shelving, the new Aladdin's Cave quickly filled up. In fact things got so busy so quickly that he never returned to Pirelli.
As the seventies recession bit, so Bill became the reciever's best friend. Whenever another big name hit the dust (Fairways, Westerly, Port Hamble Boat Builders, for example) the recievers soon learnt that Bill Foulkes would save them a lot of time, hassle and money, by offering a fair price for "the whole lot". He was always as good as his word and cleared out the redundant stock in one hit. As a result, the recievers got a good deal and Aladdin's Cave got an extensive, varried and keenly priced selection of new stock. And the word spread. Yacthsmen soon got to know that, whatever they wanted, the Aladdin's Cave would probably have it.
Such bold dealing was not, of course without risk. When you buy a 'job lot' from a reciever, you never know how much of it will sell and how much will 'stick'. But that was the secret of their success. They were never afraid to take a gamble; they piled it high and sold it cheap. As a result, if you wanted to fit out a boat on a budget you were likely to find everything at bargain prices from a stainless steel fuel tank, to a set of lifelines; a marine toilet to a brand new, two-speed Lewmar winch.
Stories about the Foulkes sense of bravado abound. There was the time the Joint Services Sailing Club decided to re-mast and re-rig their fleet of Nicholson 55s. There was nothing wrong with the existing rigs - they were simply due for routine replacement. Perhaps it's standard procedure when tax payer's money is involved. But what to do with four enormous and now redundant Nick 55 masts? They were too big to chop up. You guessed it - they phoned Bill Foulkes. He didn't actually need a Nick 55 mast at the time (let alone four), but couldn't resist a deal. So he bought the lot. And in the fullness of time, sold them all to various yachtsman fitting out larger cruisers. There was Cyprae, an elegant 60ft half-size replica of Bluenose, which was being built by four eccentric Frenchmen. As they shopped around for gear for their newly completed hull, someone suggested they visit some equally eccentric Englishmen operating from a barge on a mud berth on the Hamble. Not surprisingly perhaps, virtually every item of deck gear they fitted came from Aladdin's Cave.
But unlike many chandlers, the Aladdin's Cave team does more than just sell chandlery. The chandler had always sold large quantities of wire and rope, and many customers needed a rigger to turn it into rigging and warps.
Since Bill Foulkes had himself been a rigger, it seemed obvious to set up an 'in house' rigging shop. Now, three full time riggers work flat out. Glyn maintains that the 50mm diameter rope they hand-spliced on the warps they supplied to Kingdom, then the second biggest superyacht in the Med, were among the biggest, fattest splices ever. The rigging shop also supplies wire for architectual jobs, and has a regular order to supply Kevlar ropes used a s safety lines for service technicians working (in Germany) on aeroplane wings. "How do you find these clients in the non-marine world?" i asked. "We don't," replied Bill, "they find us."
Their next major expansion came in 1985. While retaining the shop on the barge, they leased a large building at Deacon's Boatyard - also on the Hamble - on the other side of the A27. At the same time , they increased turnover by buying in 'new' stock from manufacturers and wholesalers - but always in bulk and always at good prices. This recipe of a mix of new and second-hand gear worked so well that further expansion quickly followed so you'll now find Aladdin's Cave shops on the road to Chichester Yacht Basin and on the Hamble at Moody's, Mercury Marina, Hamble Point Marina, and Port Hamble.
Naturally i wanted to know how Glynn saw the future of yacht chandlery businesses in general and Aladdin's Cave in particular - and how genuine shops would fare against the growing number of mail order and web-based sellers. "In addition to run of the mill chandlery, we like to source special items that bypass the add-on costs of wholesalers. For example, our Australian-made parachute anchor and unique eco-friendly wood oil will only be found at Aladdin's Cave. And then, we like to hold large stocks of bread-and-butter items such as paint, ropes, fenders, nuts, bolts, etc. That way our customers know they will find what they need, and at competitive prices. And we do offer a mail order service as well."
"And what about high-value, high-margin items like electronics and clothing?" I asked. "When it comes to clothing," Glyn replied, "at the Deacons store, we sell a lot of 'no brand' makes - items that are good quality and great value, because there's no huge brand advertising cost built into the prices. But in the main marina shops, we also sell well known 'branded' ranges because that's what a lot of people ask for. But the electronic instrument market is trickier. If you stock a lot, there's a risk they get outdated. And of course many 'Internet-only' operators are in on the act because they deal in low-margin items they can sell before they buy. And they don't have all the overheads involved in running a shop, such as rent, rates, retail, shelving etc. But we'll get whatever clients ask for."
So are your shops at risk in this Internet age?" I asked. Glynn's reply was characteristically emphatic, "Certainly not. Our shops let customers touch and feel the goods. They can see exactly what they're getting. They can ask for advice. And of course we offer a service that the clients will never get over the internet. For example we run 'special orde books'. Whenever a client asks for something obscure that we don't stock, we look it up, source it, give the client a quote, then get it in if he wants it. To give you just one example, our Chichester shop entered 200 requests in it's 'special order book' in just one month. Of course this is a time-consuming and pretty unprofitable part of our business - but it's an essential part of the service offered by any proper chandler. And we do of course also have a website as part of our mail order service, which can call on our extensive stock and pool of experience."
As he explained, if you need a spare for your car, you just go to your local dealer or surf the web. But if you need a replacement anode to go on the prop shaft of a 15-year-old boat whose builder went bust, it's not so easy. But an experienced chandler will know the answer and where to get it.
When i asked how many items were in stock, the reply astonished me. "We have over 26,000 different items on our database. Our accountants keep moaning that this is too much. But in many ways a good chandler should be like a B&Q for boats. If a client wants to do a job on his boat that might involve paint, bolts, sandpaper, rope or just a couple of shackles and a block, he wants to do it today - not next week. And to provide this service in all our shops, we need to employ around 60 people and stay open seven days a week. It's not easy."
As a parting shot, i asked if any of the Foulkes clan ever have enough time to go sailing. Given that the family has lived on the riverbanks for decades, the answer was predictable. "Bill used to sail an old X Boat. I share an old-fashioned Memory 19 daysailer with our local doctor. And we all help to put on the annual Bursledon Regatta (which started a year earlier than the British Open Golf). Speaking of which, Bill also plays a lot of golf these days. But then he's older than me."
So, as the worldwide web spreads ever further, do these traditional 'over the counter, service with a smile' chandlers have a future? For the sake of yachtsmen like us i hope so. There's no substitute for personal contact backed up by experienced and impartial advice. If we want to pop into a local chandler to buy a tin of antifouling each spring (which would hardly be economical to buy 'mail order' even if it were legal to put in the post), then it's in our interest to give that particular chandler other custom as well. Otherwise there could come a day when we might find the doors closed for good.
And where would we go then?
This article was kindly given to us by Sailing Today,