Merlin Archery has expanded, and opened a new branch in County Durham. Bow International went to see what the new shop was like
Merlin Archery has been a long-time resident of the Midlands, but last year it opened its first separate branch in County Durham. Alan Kirkup, manager of the new Durham store, told us what it was like to be involved in the new shop in-between building a set of arrows.
“I’m 20 years an archer,” he explains, “and noticed Merlin dropping hints on Facebook about coming to the North. I thought they meant much further north – I was thinking up in Newcastle. As it turned out, when they released the location, I lived closest!
“I’ve shot GMB and shot for England in the past, which seemed to impress Ben at the interview, and he fell for whatever I told him!” Alan jokes, and goes on to explain he’d never worked in retail before, having a background in factory work and electrics. However, this didn’t prove much of a hindrance.
The store opened on 16 August last year, with the initial members of the Durham store staff assisted by some of the crew that had come up from Leicestershire to help out. “It’s been steady away ever since,” Alan says, “and we’re still getting people come in that didn’t know we were here – we’re widening the customer base all the time. We get people coming in from Cumbria, Yorkshire – all the surrounding counties. People are prepared to travel a distance; we’ve even had folks down from Aberdeen!”
The shop itself is a large, industrial-looking unit tucked away in Bishop Auckland. “It’s not in the most scenic of locations, but then archery shops rarely are!” Alan says, though the shop’s location does have an advantage in that it has plenty of outside space around it. There are plans afoot to use some of that space to create a 30-35 metre outdoor range, and to put up some picnic tables round the back. The shop already has an area in the front of the store with sofas and tables, complete with magazines and tea-making facilities, and Alan explains that creating an outside area in which people can sit and relax in addition to that is a further part of making the shop a welcoming and pleasant place to be. He says a lot of people come with family or friends, and sometimes have to wait while arrows are being made up or equipment is tested, so having somewhere to sit and read or drink a cup of tea has been welcomed.
A 10-metre range in the back of the shop is already set up and fully operational, in which customers can try out bows and shop staff can run through setting up and tuning new gear. The range is fully enclosed, with a workbench and tool station backing onto the front partition. Long rows of racks and shelving stretch from the front desk, which houses tills and arrow-making space, to the workbenches at the back. Alan explains that the layout of the shop was made deliberately different to the Loughborough Merlin store; “We’ve got a bit more free license with the space up here, which means we can test the water with different things.” While Merlin’s Loughborough store was limited on space due to the warehouse storage and manufacturing facilities it shared the site with, the Durham team have gone for an open-plan showroom approach. “We’ve gone for having everything on display, rather than just a few items on show with the rest in the back,” Alan says, “People up here seem to enjoy coming in and seeing everything, trying out the different longrods and things, which is an advantage a showroom has over a speculative internet purchase.” Speaking of internet shopping, all online orders to Merlin are handled from the Midlands base, and while the Durham store is big enough to hold more stock than some other shops, Alan says if there’s ever an instance where they don’t have anything, they can order it in and send it out from there. He recalls, “I remember one time we had a guy come and buy a bow, but he’d come in on a motorcycle, so he had no way of getting it home with him! So we just shipped it out.”
In terms of sales, Alan reveals that recurve bows are the store’s current
bestseller. “We get a lot of people off beginners’ courses, so we do really well on beginner and intermediate recurve setups,” Alan says, “though I was also surprised by how much traditional archery equipment we were selling. As a target recurve archer myself I’d almost had the blinkers on as to how big the traditional side was up here. The Mybo range has been doing really well – people like the fact it’s made in the UK and like to support that. The backpacks in particular; we can’t stock them fast enough.”
The aforementioned flexibility the new shop has is being applied to sales too, as Alan says they plan to trial offering complete recurve packages. “It does make it easier for people who are getting their first bow to have a kind of benchmark example of what they can get for what price,” Alan explains, and has the added advantage of including all those little extras like stringers, stands, rests, arm guards and tabs that new archers often forget about when planning their budget. The eventual plan is to have three or four packages aimed at different price points, and if they’re successful they could become integrated into the Merlin web shop.
Sales of compounds are gradually starting to increase, as Alan reveals people will often come for one after they’ve had a recurve for a while, explaining that the price of a decent compound is enough to put a lot of people off buying one until they’re certain about what they want. The shop staff are all archers themselves, and keen to emphasise that they want everyone to be comfortable with the bow they’ve chosen. It’s a testament to the friendly nature of the store that they’ve had people feel able to come in with an internet purchase that hasn’t worked out for them. Alan says, “Sometimes we have to say it’s not right, or try and make it right.”
Open days are also something Alan hopes they’ll be able to look into doing in the future. With the development of an outdoor shooting space and the ability to put on have-a-go events, he hopes that not only will it be a bit of publicity for the store, it will be a bit of fun for people in the area. There’s plenty more to look forward too as well, with the launch of a new Mybo compound and perhaps an addition to the recurve line hinted at. “We’ll see what the future brings,” Alan says, “We’ll adapt to the market, listen to the customers and work from there.”