Safestyle: pale, stale and failed

Danny Williams
Danny Williams

By Danny Williams, managing director, Pioneer Trading.

As my regular reader might expect, I cannot leave the Safestyle stone unturned. There has been an outpouring of opinion about the why’s and wherefores of how the industry’s number one retail player hit the skids, with a popular view that flogging white plastic squares is a recipe for disaster, a view that is compounded by the failure of UK Windows and Doors Group, earlier in the same month.

Without having access to the detailed accounts of both companies and then perhaps, secret recordings of many board meetings, we will never know their full stories. But I am inclined to agree with my friend Ryan Johnson of Emplas, that the answer does not lie in the simplistic view that their demise was due to the white plastic window.

I do believe however, that whatever their product mix might be, both organisations were too entrenched in the pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap philosophy and an inability to move on from that. Beyond that similarity, the reasons for their demise are quite different, as are their market focus of course.

It might be argued that the destiny of UKWDG was inevitable from the moment that Masco decided that the British window and door industry wasn’t for them, and private equity got involved.

In this industry we have a growing stack of high-profile examples of once grand windowmakers failing after private equity got involved. And there are still more rumoured to (once again?) be in trouble.

Short termism, lack of investment, and the extraction of crippling fees against ever thinning profits are a recipe for disaster.

In fact I can think of far more failures than successes in our market.

But back to Safestyle…Ryan quite rightly says that his business was founded on making and selling white plastic windows. Our entire industry is founded on white plastic windows.

Indeed, around half of the industry’s output remains white plastic, although much of that is now value added with the demand for flush sash and other premium styles. But the other half of the trade frames sold in in the industry are value added, with colours, enhanced fittings, better performance and a whole host of other elements, allow homeowners to use windows and doors to stylise their homes, rather than just replacing frames because they leak.

Safestyle never changed. The wild-eyed wrestler with his ‘buy one get one free’ rant became a household cliché even here in the deep south, anchoring Safestyle’s commitment to beat any quote.

More recent TV ads featured former England goalkeeper David Seaman, who continued the theme by exhorting ‘great saves’. Seaman might have been a tad less excitable than his predecessor but the core theme of ‘cheap’ was compounded.

The firm’s target market was planted firmly at the low end where the cost-of-living crisis is biting hardest.

I would love to see a breakdown of customers, but I will grow a ponytail if anyone can prove to me that the properties installed were anything other than predominantly low end.

Safestyle failed to evolve. With its primary USP being the undercutting of anybody in the market, when sales began to slip the already slimmer margins, even at retail, were not enough to sustain the business.

Being reliant for its high volumes on lower end installations, Safestyle’s marketing created little appeal amongst relatively upmarket homeowners, that continued to have disposable incomes, even if they were and remain more hesitant to put their hand in their relatively long and fur-lined pockets.

Safestyle put its markers firmly in a sector that has simply run out of money. And their ads and their marketing alienated the brand from the people with the cash.

If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always got. Until it isn’t there anymore.