Business View Caribbean interviews Dennis Harris, General Manager of Unicomer Group Jamaica, as part of our focus on Best Practices for Retail in the Caribbean.
With more than 950 stores and over 1.7 million feet of retail space, the Unicomer Group is a driving economic force in Central America and the Caribbean. In all, operations span 21 countries, and employ 14,000 persons across the group. As market leaders in the appliance and furniture retail sector, with familiar long-time store chain, Courts, Unicomer Group Jamaica is one of the region´s largest consumer durable goods retailers.
Dennis Harris, General Manager for Unicomer Group, Jamaica, gives the backstory of this ambitious corporation. “Unicomer Jamaica currently operates six brands/sub-brands. The largest brand is Courts, which started back in 1959, and sells furniture and appliances. It was acquired by Unicomer in 2006 and that’s when our Jamaica operation began. Before that, Courts had a long history as part of a U.K. business that ended up in financial difficulty and had to sell off its assets around the world.”
The Unicomer Group bought the Caribbean portion of the British business, which had locations, at the time, in 11 island countries. Jamaica is now one of 15 countries forming the Unicomer Caribbean unit, including the Dutch Caribbean islands of Curacao, Sint Maarten, and Bonaire. The unit has a Managing Director who works out of Miami, and Harris, as Managing Director for the Jamaica operation, reports to him. Prior to 2006, Unicomer Jamaica was on the Jamaican Stock Exchange, but it is no longer a listed company. It’s now a private company with restrictions on sharing financial information.
Harris says no one else in the area can match Unicomer for the breadth and size of its retail operation. “We have some large companies in the Caribbean region; people like the Massy Group have retail operations, but they are a conglomerate with financial services, motor vehicles, and stuff like that, as well. We have a company called Grace Kennedy in Jamaica also, which is a conglomerate with a bank, and so forth. But we are very much focused on retail, and there isn’t anybody across the Caribbean that has that same level of reach that we do.”
The business has continued to grow and develop. New brands include Courts Optical, Courts Ready Cash, Lucky Dollar, Ashley Furniture Home Store, and Radio Shack. In America, Radio Shack has disappeared, but when it first went into receivership, Unicomer bought the rights for Central and South America, and the Caribbean. The brand is doing well in Jamaica and has a strong following.
Ann Marie Walters, Business Unit Director for Unicomer Jamaica, oversees the branch performance, operationally and strategically, as it relates to growing the brands, and the intentions for Jamaica. She notes, “It’s really about looking at those brands that are doing very well, and continuing to expand them. We started with Radio Shack in Mandeville, and we intend to add two more Radio Shack brands in the country before the end of the year. Also, Ready Cash, our cash loan business, is something we focus on for expansion; we see it as a very good business model.”
Unicomer Jamaica employees about 1000 persons in-house. Add to that, contractors, delivery people, and technicians, and there’s another 600 to 700 persons that work for the company. Community service and charitable activities are extremely important. Headquartered in El Salvador, the Unicomer Group allocates funds across all its businesses through a CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) budget. Every country within the group has an amount to spend. Harris explains, “We have to make sure we have a thorough program that covers all the areas of community development and community building – sports scholarships, building small business enterprises, small donations, basic humanitarian needs – it is quite wide ranging from that point.
“Our overall vision and ethos is to try to improve the quality of life in Jamaica. That is what our company was founded on – being able to provide furniture and appliances to the wider Jamaica. This speaks to the Courts brands, but it is also the philosophy of our other brands as well. Because it is a relatively low-income country, we need to make sure things are affordable and achievable. That underpins everything we do. One of our key deliverables is that we provide credit to our customers. Not only can you buy that fridge or stove, but if you don’t have enough cash you can take it out in installments. And we provide the financing for it to help improve that quality of life that’s so needed.”
The tagline for the Courts brand is “Adding Value Every Day,” something the company strives towards for its customers and the country of Jamaica. Harris adds, “In a way, our CSR is part of that drive of adding value for the people here. We have more than 60 stores, and we’re literally in every corner of Jamaica. Our differentiator is the investment we put into our employees in terms of training and development. We strive for service and excellence in everything we do. That doesn’t say we get it right all the time but, believe me, it really upsets us when we don’t get it right.”
Courts is one of the strongest brands in Jamaica, and Unicomer is building that brand awareness because it believes its retail expertise is second to none in the Caribbean. “Being part of a larger group gives a tremendous competitive advantage,” says Harris. “Sitting around the table, discussing business and building relationships with huge companies like Whirlpool and GE, who provide appliances for us. And Oracle, which really helps us with our systems. It allows us to operate internationally, as well as locally.”
A large portion of the furniture the company sells is made in the area. It encourages local manufacturers to grow on the back of Unicomer’s growth by sending as much business their way as possible. From an economic aspect, the company believes that buying Jamaican makes sense in many ways, and helps to grow the country, as well.
Harris is full of enthusiasm for Unicomer Jamaica’s future. “The digital revolution will help us,” he asserts. “What we see Amazon doing is something we keep at the forefront of our minds. What’s happening elsewhere across the world, and how we change – taking into account the expanding use of the internet, and being able to utilize that. We have our own website that people can make purchases on, and we see that increasing over time as people get more comfortable with its usage. My philosophy in terms of our customer experience is about serving them how they want, when they want it, and where they want it.”
Walters adds, “Training our people is a big focus for us as a group, and as a country. At Unicomer University, we make sure all our staff goes through proper training, so when they’re interacting with our customers, they’re educated and knowledgeable about what they are doing. We want to develop more people internally, so they can grow in the business – not just looking at how they contribute as they are. Creating a balance between online and instore purchases is important, including an efficient transaction time, and positive customer experience when people come into the store.”
Two generations have grown up with the Courts brand over 50-plus years. Now, under the umbrella of Unicomer Jamaica, the company continues to offer the positive, friendly experience customers have come to rely on, along with products, credit, and promotions that are changing lives for the better.
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Unicomer Group Jamaica
WHAT: Large retailer; brands include Courts, Ready Cash, Lucky Dollar
WHERE: More than 60 locations throughout Jamaica