How to start up a shopfitting business

Shopfitters work to tight deadlines, often at unsociable hours, fitting out new shop interiors or refreshing existing ones. Our guide gives you all the essentials for starting up and running your own business.

Research your target market

Clients

Think about the type of work that your business will be able to take on. This will help you to identify the businesses and organisations that will hopefully use your services.

Retail clients

Pay attention to the types of shop in the areas where you hope to get work. Are they mainly small, independent retailers, or are many owned by large chains? What are the shops themselves like - are they modern and upmarket, or could they benefit from a make-over? Are they the types of retailer who are likely to invest in refurbishment? A fashion retailer, for example, might be expected to update their premises on a regular basis, while a discount shop, on the other hand, might be less concerned about image. It's well worth finding out if your local council offers shop front improvement grants to qualifying applicants or any other incentives for businesses to occupy empty retail premises.

When it comes to the big national chains, many will want to use shopfitters who are prepared to travel all over the country to work on their outlets. Decide whether your business will be able to take on this type of contract, or whether (at least at first) it would be better to concentrate on local clients.

Other types of business

Many other types of business will require shopfitting services of some description from time to time. Pubs, restaurants, hotels and bars are good examples, as décor and image are very important to the licensed and hospitality trades and interiors get upgraded or replaced on a fairly regular basis. Other types of business that you might decide to target include:

  • Post Offices, banks and building societies
  • offices
  • wholesalers, warehouses and even factories

Working for other organisations

Think about other buildings in your area. Anywhere that is open to the public, or even just to its staff, is likely to require some form of interior design at some point. Government buildings, museums, leisure facilities, shopping malls, schools, cinemas and even airports are all potential clients if you are going to undertake this sort of work.

Try to match the range of services that you offer to the type of work that is likely to be available. Once you have identified who your potential customers are, you can direct your advertising efforts at them.

Sub-contract work

Try approaching businesses that might use the services of a shopfitter on a regular basis. You could, for example, leave your details with local building contractors, interior designers, architects or even other shopfitting businesses that might regularly require sub-contractors. Consider approaching your local authority - they may be prepared to include your business on a list of 'approved contractors' if they have one.

Large organisations who invite firms to tender for sub-contract work may be reluctant to use a newly established business. Also, a young business may have difficulty in funding a large contract, as many things may have to be paid for well before any payment is received. But it may still be worth finding out who is responsible for putting shopfitting work out to tender in large organisations such as local authorities and big construction firms. Try to find out how the tender process works and what you would have to do if you wanted to tender for a contract.

Establishing the level of competition

Once you have decided who your clients might be, you need to find out how well they are already served.

How many other shopfitting firms are there in your area? A look at yell.com (classifications 'shopfitters' and 'shop fitting suppliers') and other similar directories will help to establish this. How many offer the same services that you intend to provide? These are your direct competitors. Bear in mind that shopfitting businesses from all over the country may be competing for contracts in your area. Remember too that other types of business, for example carpenters and joiners, window fitters and general builders, might also offer shopfitting services.

You may be able to find out quite a lot about your local competitors by looking at their print advertisements and websites if they have them. Make a note of the range of services that they offer and any other important details like whether they belong to a respected trade body. You might even get some good ideas for extra services that your own business could offer.

Research current trends, plus legal and tax issues

Price your services

Shopfitting work can include many different aspects of design, construction work, bespoke fabrication, installation and decorative finishing. This means that costing a large contract properly can require considerable knowledge and experience.

Many shopfitting firms employ a trained estimator whose job it is to work out how much a job will cost so that an estimate or firm quote can be given. You may decide to employ an estimator, or you might do the estimating work yourself.

Many contracts will have both a supply element (the items and materials that your business supplies) and a labour element. You will need to decide on the hourly or daily rate at which you charge for labour - this might depend on the type of work that is being carried out and the grade of operative who is doing the work. You will also need to decide how you will charge for the items that you supply. For example, you might decide to add a mark-up to the cost of items such as timber, sheet materials and standard items such as shelving that you buy in. If you make up bespoke items, such as display cabinets or counters, then you will have to work out how you will charge for these - once again there will be a materials and a labour element to the cost.

On a large contract, you might sometimes require the services of specialist sub-contractors such as electricians and plumbers. Decide whether you will add a mark-up to the cost of these sub-contractors' services, or whether you will pass them on to the client at cost price.

Sometimes your business may itself work as a sub-contractor for firms such as builders. These businesses might expect you to offer them a special 'contract' rate. Large organisations, such as retail chains and local authorities, that invite firms like yours to tender for contract work will also expect your rates to be very competitive.

It is very important that you set your prices carefully. You must make sure when deciding on what to charge that, assuming you get enough work, you will earn enough to cover all of your operating costs, including your own drawings.

Also consider the following points when setting your charges:

  • what do your competitors charge for similar work
  • do you aim to win business away from your competitors with attractive pricing
  • will you vary your charges depending on the type and complexity of the work involved

Be aware that many of your clients will get quotes from several shopfitting businesses, so you need to be able to quote accurately and competitively. However, don't cut your own throat. Many clients value good, efficient service and are prepared to pay a realistic price for it. Above all, make sure that you don't end up working at a loss because your quote was too low!

Special cost guides are available from various sources (including RICS) to help you when pricing many aspects of construction work, including carpentry, electrical work and finishing. They give up to date advice on what rates to charge for particular types of jobs. Some materials suppliers may also help you to work out what quantities you will need for a particular job, and the cost.

Your work rate

Assuming that you get a fairly steady stream of work, the amount that you can earn depends partly on the number of days you work and the length of your working day.

You may try to stick to normal business hours, for example 8.30 am until 5.30 pm Monday to Friday and perhaps Saturdays too or you may decide to work longer hours. Some shopfitting contracts will require you and your staff to work unsociable hours, such as after the client's closing hours or overnight, so that the work can be completed with the minimum interruption to the client's business. In some cases, you may have to put in very long hours to get a job finished in time for a deadline that can't be moved, for example a heavily publicised 'grand opening' ceremony.

Remember that bad weather can disrupt your work schedule when you are working on outside jobs such as shop-fronts.

Work rate

As an experienced shopfitter, you are likely to have a very good idea of how long certain types of jobs will take you. It is very important when quoting for a job that you can make an accurate estimate of how long it will take. It's no good quoting for two weeks work if it ends up taking you four!

The speed at which you work depends on your own skills and experience and on the type and standard of the work that you do. Your charges should reflect all of these things.

Non-productive time

Unfortunately, not all of every working day will be spent earning money. You may sometimes find yourself working hard but earning nothing - for example when you are:

  • visiting sites to prepare quotes for new work
  • finishing off jobs that take you longer than you had thought (possibly due to unforeseen problems)
  • re-doing work that the client is not happy with
  • travelling to and from jobs, or to get tools or materials from a supplier
  • repairing tools or vehicles

Sometimes you may find that you are unable to work at all, because:

  • the weather is too bad to work outside
  • you are waiting for goods and materials to be delivered
  • a vital tool or piece of equipment is broken
  • the client has requested that you postpone part of the work so that their business can operate without interruption
  • another contractor has fallen behind with their part of the project
  • you - or family members - are ill

Take all of these factors into account when you are estimating the maximum number of productive hours that you can work each month. Remember that they can apply to any employees you have as well as to you. When you plan your working schedules, try to minimise the amount of time that will be wasted. For example, you may be able to get on with workshop tasks such as bespoke cabinet making at times when you are prevented from working on site. And don't forget to take into account any time off that you and your employees expect to take for holidays.

Decide which services to offer

The term 'shopfitting' can cover a wide range of activities in many different locations. You will need to decide on the services that your business will offer, and the types of premises that you will work on. This will probably depend on your skills and areas of expertise, the skills of any employees you have and the resources available to your shopfitting business as well as on the nature of businesses in your local area.

Shopfitting services can be divided into two broad categories - bespoke shopfitting and standard shopfitting. Bespoke shopfitting involves custom making many of the components, such as display cabinets and other fittings, specially for the client. Standard shopfitting involves supplying and installing ready made components. Of course, some contracts may involve elements of both. You may also be asked to supply smaller loose items such as mannequins, signs, hangers and so on.

Range of services

You may decide to work on both the interiors of buildings and exterior shop-fronts. The contracts that you take on might range in size from a cosmetic makeover to a complete refurbishment, and might also include work on new buildings. Some of the shopfitting services that your business could provide include:

  • interior design, technical drawing and setting out
  • design and manufacture of bespoke components, using a variety of different materials
  • on-site installation of components and other fixtures
  • partitioning, panelling and curtain walling
  • general building work, carpentry and so on
  • glazing
  • suspended ceilings
  • lighting and electrical installation
  • air conditioning and refrigeration installation
  • installation of security systems
  • plumbing and heating
  • painting, decorating and finishing
  • achieving decorative effects with sheet materials such as metals, veneers and so on
  • floor laying, including carpets, wood flooring and laminate

Of course, you may not have the skills or the manpower to take on all of the above. So you might decide to team up with other local tradespeople, perhaps engaging them on a sub-contract basis when you need their services. Organising sub-contractors effectively is part of the service that you provide to your clients when your business is the main contractor.

Types of premises

There are many different types of premises that you could work on. These vary in size from small local shops to large warehouses and public buildings. You may decide to specialise in certain types of premises, or you might take on all types of work. Below are some examples of the types of premises that you might work on:

  • pubs, restaurants and hotels
  • Post Offices
  • banks and building societies
  • chemists
  • newsagents, stationers and card shops
  • clothes shops
  • food shops
  • concessions, for example shops in airport and railway station concourses
  • other shops, such as florists, record shops and estate agents, including both independent retailers and national chains
  • warehouses and factories
  • offices and government buildings
  • leisure facilities and public buildings such as museums and art galleries

Added value services

The shopfitting industry is competitive and you may decide to offer your clients a range of 'added value' services. These might include, for example:

  • free surveys, estimates and quotations
  • a full design and planning service
  • computer aided design (CAD) and/or Building Information Modelling (BIM) - sophisticated three dimensional design software can help clients to visualise what their premises will look like when they have been refurbished
  • insurance-backed guarantees on all new work
  • membership of a recognised trade association
  • a freephone telephone line
  • a 'no job too small' or price-match promise

Advertising your business

It is important to advertise your business effectively to let your potential clients know who you are, where you are, the area in which you're prepared to work and what you can do for them.

Many of your clients will not require shopfitting services regularly and may not have the name of a shopfitter to hand. For many customers, an online search may be the first port of call when looking for a shopfitting business.

Advertise online

More and more people search for things like shopfitting services online, so a website and/or a listing in an online directory could be effective. As a cheaper alternative to having your own website, you could consider starting your own 'blog' or setting up a Facebook page - all three options will allow you to showcase pictures of the type of work that you can do.

Telephone directories

An entry in the Yellow Pages and other similar directories can be an effective way of advertising your business. However, many of your competitors will have done the same. Some firms spend a lot of money on large, eye-catching display advertisements. You will have to decide whether to compete head on with these firms, or look for a different way of attracting customers. If you have a 'unique selling point' (USP) then it's a good idea to focus on this in your advertising material. Your USP might be, for example, "Free quotations", "Family run firm", "Fast turnaround" or even simply "No job too small".

Trade journals

You might decide to advertise in a trade journal, such as Retail Week, which includes a section about interiors. An advert in a journal aimed at the general construction trade, or at the architects profession, might be helpful if you want to attract business from builders and architects. If you intend to specialise in a particular type of shopfitting, for example chemists, then it might pay to advertise in a journal aimed at that particular trade (for example Chemist and Druggist). Remember that many of these types of journal are national publications, so enquiries could come from all over the UK. Decide before you advertise whether you are willing and able to take on contracts that involve travelling considerable distances.

Other ways of advertising

Think about other ways that you could advertise your business. For example:

  • giving out a paper flyer, plastic card or sticker with your business name and telephone number on it as part of a mail-shot that you do
  • looking into becoming listed by an insurer or directory as an 'approved contractor' (most of these organisations operate a quality screening process and some will only list firms that have been trading for at least two years)
  • joining a trade association. Most trade associations operate a directory of members and some go to quite considerable lengths to promote their members' services
  • joining local business groups and networking societies. A local chamber of commerce, for example, is a good way of getting in touch with fellow business people in your area, many of whom may require shopfitting services at some time
  • making direct contact with people who regularly make decisions about specifying shopfitting. These might include builders, architects, surveyors and people working in local government who are responsible for procuring services
  • advertising in a local paper. Some local newspapers run a regular 'contact the experts' advertising feature

Try to tell people as many of the good things about your business as possible in your advertisements, particularly things that distinguish your business from its competitors.

Remember that your vehicle can be a very effective means of advertising if you have it sign-written and keep it clean and presentable. You might consider having a large sign made that you can display outside places where you are working - but make sure that your client has no objections before putting it up.

Word of mouth

Word of mouth recommendations are very valuable to your business. Everyone has heard horror stories about 'cowboys' who bodge jobs and swindle their customers - and they want to be sure that you're not going to do the same to them. You will have to earn your reputation through good, reliable workmanship - but even small things like politeness and considerateness can pay big dividends. Try to minimise the disruption caused to your clients' business. Make sure that any staff you employ are good ambassadors for your business too.

Buy an existing business

You might decide to buy an existing shopfitting business rather than start your own venture from scratch. Buying a going concern can mean that:

  • premises (if there are any), tools, vehicles and equipment are already in place
  • there are established customers
  • the business can generate income immediately
  • suppliers have been identified and relationships established with them
  • the business has a track record, which can help if you are looking for finance
  • staff (if any) are already in place
  • a business website has already been set up

However, look critically at any business that you are interested in to make sure that the price you negotiate with the seller is a fair one. Try to establish why the business is for sale - for example, is the owner keen to retire or is there another personal reason for selling up?

Your market research into the sector as a whole and the locality in particular will help you to establish whether or not the owner is selling because he or she can no longer generate enough income from the business. This may not necessarily deter you - many business people are confident that they can turn a failing business around. The important thing is to have established the current position so that the price you pay for the business is not too high.

Other matters to consider include:

  • the state of any premises, fittings, tools, equipment and so on. Will you have to spend money refurbishing or replacing assets
  • the condition and value of any stock of materials and fixings you are buying. Check this over carefully before agreeing a price
  • is the existing owner prepared to give you some training after you take over
  • existing staff rights
  • how to retain key personnel once you've taken over
  • does the business owe money that you will be responsible for
  • if you are paying for goodwill, to what extent does this depend on the skills and personality of the seller

Ask your accountant to look critically at the business accounts for the past three years and discuss with him or her the selling price in the light of what the accounts reveal. Make sure you budget for other professional fees such as legal fees and valuation and survey costs.

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