Furniture – Arighi Bianchi – Report Back


17 May 2024


Disley Golf Club lounge was filling up rapidly, coffee was poured and pastries snaffled, as we settled down to hear the remarkable 170 year story of our famous local furniture store Arighi Banchi from current directors, brother and sister Nick and Sarah Bianchi.

It began in 1854 in Lombardy in the civil war as Italians tried to throw out their Austro-Hungarian masters. It was a silk producing area, so it was natural for Antonio Arighi to move to Macclesfield, then the largest finished silk manufacturing town in the world with 71 mills. He walked for four weeks to get here, Nick said. Antonio was a cabinet maker (like my grandfather) but with no English, to get started he sold clocks, barometers and small instruments, telling his customers that they could try before they bought (it used to be called, “on approval) and thus creating a faithful customer base. Soon he brought over his relative Antonio Bianchi, Nick and Sarah’s great-grandfather, and the firm was born.

The iconic building was opened in 1892, inspired by the great Crystal Palace built by Joseph Paxton at the 1851 Great Exhibition. It’s now Grade 1 listed, and has resisted all attempts to clear it for development, most recently in the 1970s with the help of the Victorian Society and Sir John Betjeman. They have only ever closed twice: in 1919 during the Spanish flu epidemic, and in 2020 during Covid. During WWII they made huge quantities of parachute silk (which means that they probably made most of the wedding dresses of wartime brides in the UK and Europe, though Nick didn’t say so).

Nick himself didn’t join the family firm right away; with multiple language skills he worked for Manchester United FC as a translator – what a dream job! Sarah also started elsewhere and worked for Ted Heath the former Prime Minister for some years, then entered the firm 30 years ago and is now its CEO. Nick came in 2004. The sixth generation are now getting involved, though there’s no pressure on them to join – and in fact they benefit from spending time elsewhere first, perhaps.

Covid was hard, when 141 staff had to be furloughed. During those dark times, garden furniture “went mad!” – and of course has diminished since. Since re-opening, as many retailers have found, lockdown accelerated some massive trends in retailing which were afoot already. Customers’ behaviour has changed. They’ll do more research online, which means they want a better experience when they come into a shop. So customer service is to the fore – a friendly and well-informed staff, making the extra effort to please whoever crosses the threshold. “They’re often parting with a lot of money: we have to make them feel really special,” said Nick. “Our customers are our friends.” The all-day Caffè AB is integral to that business plan, though both recalled that in 1988 when it was suggested (their father had seen one in a store in Chicago) their grandfather was doubtful. And It’s a city centre shop – towering near the mainline station to London and Manchester – definitely not an out-of-town business park experience. And it’s the only physical store they have now.

So the brand is now carefully defined: “Arighi Bianchi is always about quality,” one member said firmly. A family business can do this far better than an anonymous brand. Manufacture used to be done in house, but since the 1920s costs have pushed production away from Cheshire, now to Poland, Latvia and Italy, with many smaller suppliers nearby – upholstery is done in Nottingham, for example. And both Nick and Sarah are aware of the dangers of “old” meaning “old-fashioned” – the firm has to be up-to-date. That said, experienced long-serving staff faithful to the “AB approach” are vital to the company. One character, Graham, joined on a temporary contract in 1974 and is still with them – “a lot of people think he’s Mr Bianchi…”.

A lively discussion followed about how much business can be done online. It’s actually less now than during lockdown as people want to come in; the average order online is below £1,000. Most customers live within a 50 mile radius of the store, which can mean that more distant occasional deliveries – such as to Essex – pose a problem. “But we’ll get the stuff there if I have to drive the lorry myself,” said Nick, and we believe him. When we asked about the 5–10 year plan, the answer was, “We have to grow online. We haven’t nailed it yet.”

Hmmmm.. but that would require warehouse space (expensive) and delivery systems (eye-watering..). And their knowledge and unique experience is in retailing, from an iconic shop. The key to future success surely means getting others to invest in their brand, without losing control of it or quality.

So here are some suggestions, which might be tempting to the next generation to investigate. They would certainly fit a 20-year plan. Otherwise, 20 years from now, they’ll still only have one store, and headaches with delivery.

Firstly, look at other iconic brands which have expanded throughout the UK and beyond. San Carlo restaurants is one, founded by Sicilian immigrant Carlo Distefano in 1992 in Birmingham, it now has over 50 restaurants, mostly by franchising. A conversation in Italian with Carlo (who is often found at their Deansgate restaurant) might be very fruitful.

Costa Coffee is another, founded by Italian immigrant brothers with one coffee shop in Soho in the 1970s, which grew under their own steam before selling out to Whitbread. The family still roast coffee in south London (under a different trade name) to sell to restaurants; if your fine dining espresso tastes like Costa, it probably is.

Locations matter: upmarket medium-sized towns with aspirational populations – Colchester, Winchester, Rochester, anywhere with a cathedral and affluent residents! AB might decide to retain some UK locations and franchise others. One member suggested afterwards that they might look at where Booths have supermarkets (though some are on retail parks). Indeed they could link up with Booths, and San Carlo, and perhaps one or two other quality names, to jointly negotiate leases. That’d be good, eh?

Then there’s the Middle East and further afield – San Carlo has two restaurants in Qatar and is in Riyadh, Bahrain, Bangkok… that can only be done with by serious franchising with local investors, and needs a specialist approach.

If all this works they will need to increase and control supplies far more. Street Cranes bought their steel suppliers (see earlier blog). Perhaps Arighi Bianchi could partner more closely with their main Polish producers, just as they open stores in Warsaw and Krakow. You never know.

It’s so interesting to see how a quality brand is developed and survives. Expansion could be the key to future success, as the family face a future in which retailing looks very different from the world of their ancestors. We wish them well.