DEALER CHATS | MARTYN FOWLER, TRADING AS PUCKHABER
It's a family affair for DC dealer Martyn Fowler, who is in partnership with his mother Jackie Harris for business PUCKHABER. The pair has not one but two showrooms - on Lillie Road in London and in Rye respectively - as well as a website and a presence on Decorative Collective.
Describe your style in no more than 25 words!
Mother and son partnership sourcing 18th - 20th century antique furniture and art. With an emphasis on form, patina, originality and anything unusual. Resulting in an eclectic collection!
How long have you been in the antiques trade and what other jobs have you had?
I’ve been in the trade for 10+ years but I grew up around antiques, mum (Jackie Harris) the other half of PUCKHABER, has been in the trade for 35+ years. I wouldn’t be working in this industry if it wasn’t for her.
Before that I worked in photographic retail for Park Cameras. When I joined it was a small shop in Burgess Hill, just at the start of the digital revolution. They were very quick to see the potential of the new digital technology and utilise ecommerce. As a result they quickly grew into one of the UK's largest independent retailers. I was lucky to be there during this growth and was omnipresent in the business across departments, so I learnt a great deal.
However, I never saw myself working in photographic retail forever. I needed some furniture for an unfurnished flat that I was renting, so Mum and my late Stepfather, Brad Newman, took me on a buying trip to France. Even though I have been going to markets since childhood it was this particular trip that gave me the inspiration to become an antiques dealer.
I started buying and selling pieces part time through Mum and Brad while still working for Park Cameras. Then circumstances allowed me to take a sabbatical to go travelling. While travelling, I knew I wasn't going back to photographic retail and started making a plan to do this for a living.
I returned from travelling and started shadowing Mum and Brad, buying and selling through their business. Sadly only a year into this new vocation, Brad passed away. Mum and I decided the best option for the family and the business was for us to become partners.
Now 10 years on, we have grown our online business and we have two showrooms, one on Lillie Rd, Fulham and the other in Rye, East Sussex.
What plans do you have for your business in 2021 post Covid?
We only opened our Rye showroom in 2019 and despite COVID we have been pleased with how it has been received. When we were open it was very busy and sales were strong. Therefore in the immediate future we will be focusing on establishing the Rye showroom. Going forward Rye is a very picturesque and popular tourist town so Mum and I have discussed other potential opportunities there. Watch this space!
On a personal level I would like to move out of London and in an ideal World move somewhere equidistant between Rye and Fulham, with hopefully a bit of storage so I can run our online business from there and feed both showrooms.
What have you learned / what new skills have you picked up? Has it made you look more at how you sell online and have you improved in certain areas?
I don’t think this current situation has changed how we approach our online business in terms of sales. Our business for a long time has been a hybrid of retail and online, so with the shops being closed we have only been able to operate online.
However, we normally buy the majority of our stock abroad and from markets. This current situation has forced us to change our buying habits and focus on buying more online from our trusted sources.
Marketplaces are a vital part of the trade but never more so than 2020 - how does DC support your business model?
We have tried a few different online portals without much success. The DC is the only marketplace where we have seen tangible results, whether that is sales or direct traffic to our site.
Virtual fairs are now taking place across all levels of the industry and dealer showroom 360 videos will soon be/are now offered to dealers on DC – have you been surprised to see how quickly the trade and the buyers have adapted to this new tech?
Not really, I think dealers have to adapt especially in the current environment. Recently I have been sent a few videos of individual pieces and thought they were really useful. Showroom video tours give the clients a flavour of our aesthetic. The few times I have posted a video on Instagram they have always been well received. We tend to focus on images rather than videos, but they are definitely becoming more popular.
We have all missed our favourite fairs this year. Are fairs part of your business and do you exhibit at a variety with different stock, or prefer to stay with one style of fair to develop brand awareness?
We have missed exhibiting at The Decorative Fair. It’s the only fair we show at, if we didn’t have two showrooms we might consider exhibiting at others, but The Decorative Fair has always been successful for us. We enjoy putting the stand together and it is always consistent with our showroom aesthetic, which I think is important.
How relevant do you think bricks and mortar premises will be in 2021?
Very! I don't think our industry is suited to be solely online. Obviously everyone has their own model and there are some fantastic online only antiques businesses. But ultimately there will always be a market for clients, including myself, who prefer to view pieces in the flesh. You can’t beat the excitement of walking into a shop and finding something wonderful. Or traipsing round a market and being in the right spot at the right time as someone plonks a gem at your feet. Buying online is necessary and can be enjoyable but it’s just not the same. I cannot wait to go to markets again and handle pieces before I buy them.
That said, I am very grateful that our online business has kept us going in these times. Obviously it’s not ideal having both shops closed in lockdown, but it seems the decorative trade in particular has seen a high demand and the only way to serve that demand at the moment is online.
I think that our online business compliments our bricks and mortar business, and vice versa. We photograph our pieces in our showrooms, I feel this gives our clients a sense of our shop aesthetic and helps them to imagine our pieces in situ.
Pre COVID the media often reported how high street retail is suffering. This is true in general terms but independent retail/boutiques who are offering an individual curated experience were thriving. Especially in popular destinations such as Rye. COVID has been a nightmare for retail, but in the spaces that the major high street brands leave behind we might see more independent retailers filling the gaps.
Most successful businesses have multiple revenue streams, so it’s important to have a few bases covered.
Tell us what your fantasy freedom buying trip would look like in 2021.
I’d settle for a damp Ardingly at the moment, but it would be lovely to be able to go to big Fairs in the South of France at some point this year. If we could also reverse Brexit while we are at it that would be great!
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