Inside huge auction house thriving in face of Covid-19 selling bargain designer goods

South Wales General Manager Jonathan Beasley says the auction house has been busier than ever during the pandemic (Image: WalesOnline/ Gayle Marsh)

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While so many of the UK's businesses are struggling thanks to the impact of coronavirus, there are some for which the pandemic has only accelerated their trade.

Like the John Pye auction house in south Wales – the largest indoor general auction house in the whole of Europe.

The 14 acres of industrial warehouse packed full of any item imaginable from furniture to TVs and cars (and even Katie Price's infamous bright pink horse box).

It's where designer handbags can be snapped up for just a third of their normal retail price and where you can pick up pretty much anything – from Jimmy Choo sunnies to last summer's parasol set from John Lewis.

As high street retailers struggle with store closures and bankruptcies, thanks in no small part to the coronavirus pandemic, the business is positively thriving, reports Wales Online.

John Pye Auctions operates a kind of giant car boot sale clearing stock from collapsed shop chains, closed-down restaurants, and failed manufacturers.

The man in charge of overseeing every single item – approximately 10,000 at any one time – is 30-year-old Jonathan Beasley.

He’s worked at the Port Talbot site for four years ever since it opened in 2016.

There are plenty of bargains to be had on designer labels
(Image: WalesOnline/ Gayle Marsh)

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It's the busiest he's ever known it and the company, which has its headquarters in Nottingham and has been trading for more than half a century, has had its best few months on record despite the pandemic.

The Port Talbot auction house said it has seen "unprecedented liquidations with corporate insolvencies, product returns, and failed deliveries from the biggest names in e-commerce and high street retail to millionaire bankruptcies".

John Pye is where John Lewis jettisons its returns and end-of-line stock or where the contents of the doomed BrightHouse chain ended up.

It’s where 3,500 crates of brand new and ex-display mobile phones – all from the collapse of the Phones 4u chain – were sold off.

Even cars seized by the DVLA and stolen goods recovered by the police – but where the owner can’t be traced – often end up there.

The huge warehouse unit is filled the goods
(Image: WalesOnline/ Gayle Marsh)

Four years ago there were just two salesrooms at Port Talbot. Now there are 10 with five more planned.

"We are just growing into our space," says Jonathan. "To begin with we didn’t have the stock volume to start with.

"But everybody wants a bargain and now our name is getting out there." He's not wrong. For the first time ever the business received two million hits on its website in August.

Apart from the luxury items nothing has a reserve price and it is not uncommon to land a real bargain.

Everything is sold as seen and nothing can be returned so savvy bidders visit to check if their dream sofa has a missing leg.

There are public viewings for most of the auctions for four hours before bidding starts later that day.

John Pye doesn’t own the stock – it takes a cut from the sale price with the rest going back to the retailer.

In the past, they've sold boats, Formula One cars, perfume, fine wines, enormous machinery, and even aeroplanes in the past.

The auction house takes stock from stores that are being forced to close down
(Image: WalesOnline/ Gayle Marsh)

As the retail closures mount up the company is expecting a busy end to the year.

Jonathan is nervous about revealing the names of the brands and companies that come to John Pye – while some retailers, like John Lewis, encourage their name to be used to advertise products there are many non-disclosure agreements that prevent other well-known names being identified.

"Having their name on the listings can de-value their brand," he says. "But others – like John Lewis – encourage it because they know it will add value." It's not his job to question their reasoning or motives for offloading stock and indeed Jonathan gives little thought to it.

"Whether it’s stagnant stock taking up space in their warehouse or customer returns that are too good for landfill but can’t be sold as new they'll come in to us," he shrugs.

Site manager and associate director Noel Mulready has worked for John Pye since the 1990s and has seen the effects of economic turmoil on the auction house business.

He was with the company when the 2008 recession happened and he knows what’s coming over the next 12 months, he says confidently.

The auction house has seen their number of registered bidders rise dramatically
(Image: WalesOnline/ Gayle Marsh)

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"After lockdown we had our three best months on record," he explains. "Recessions work for us because a lot of companies go into liquidation. But at the moment the government are still safeguarding businesses so we are not seeing that quite yet.

"We will see that next year unfortunately – we’ve already seen a few, like BrightHouse, and unfortunately we'll see more.

"In 2009 it was a good year for the business and then as we came out of the recession people had more money in their pockets and confidence to buy again. I expect that will happen again after coronavirus."

It's a business that can do no wrong then, I suggest, with an almost guaranteed upwards trajectory. He laughs and agrees. "We are making profit," he says coyly, though he won't say exactly how much.

John Pye Auctions recorded its highest auction figures in its 52-year history, with a 79% sales increase compared to pre-lockdown, after handling some of the biggest cases in the fall out from Covid-19. Since re-opening after lockdown the firm, which has 16 sites across the country, says its staff have cleared out more than 240 stores.

When rent-to-own operator BrightHouse went into administration in March they inherited 371 articulated lorryloads.

Staff have cleared out more than 240 stores since Covid-19 hit
(Image: WalesOnline/ Gayle Marsh)

Noel and Jonathan have seen it all. There’s nothing they haven’t sold, except livestock. They even sell property.

Two years ago they sold off 20,000 wedding dresses and hundreds of shoes, even laying on Prosecco for brides while they browsed.

They've sold a Grade II listed former military fort in Pembrokeshire and even a former pub in Mumbles earlier this year.

The reality of the business, which isn't really 'retail' but more like a giant warehouse operation that looks more like Amazon in function, is a kind of giant organised jumble sale. And it is growing at a phenomenal rate. In 2008 there were just 50 people working for John Pye – today there are 600.

In Port Talbot men and women in hi-vis vests are busy unpacking and setting out stock.

The warehouse is divided into sections, or 'rooms', and each one is stuffed full of neatly-ordered items laid out for viewing.

There's a row of sofas next to a barbecue next to a treadmill opposite a shelf of electric scooters.

There is plenty of stock for buyers to browse through
(Image: WalesOnline/ Gayle Marsh)

There's a row of identical desks, lamps, and matching side tables, which have been stripped out of a hotel and are now being sold to the general public. Who would want those? You would be surprised, Jonathan tells me, adding that many landlords head to John Pye to furnish rented and student flats.

To me it looks like the dustbin end of the retail industry – a swollen underbelly of the commercial world and a symptom of our demand for stuff and over-consumerism.

Jonathan doesn’t see it as unwanted stuff. "We don't have anything that we don’t sell," he says. "Everything gets sold. Somebody wants it regardless."

"It does make me question the mark-up that companies and brands put on their stuff," he admits.

"At first I couldn’t believe what people were returning. I couldn’t get over how many returns there were.

"But now I’m more worried about where it belongs, and where it needs to be, and where’s it’s going and getting the money to the right people at the right time."

Designer labels are there for the taking
(Image: WalesOnline/ Gayle Marsh)

As he says this we are stood in the premium room, almost entirely given over to fashion item.

One such item is a pair of Jimmy Choo sunglasses: these retail at £340 but will probably go for half that, Jonathan says.

A row of identical Aspinal of London clutch bags are also display, which can typically retail for £550. There’s no reserve so you can get a real bargain.

"That’s what attracted me to auctions," says Jonathan, who used to spend hours in TKMaxx. "That rifling through and getting a bargain. But it all does depend on the person."

Jonathan notices seasonal trends – especially with clothes. He points to a shelf with around 20 electric scooters lined up. He’s never had them in before. "We didn’t see any last year," he said.

Lots of people come for bathrooms. A lot of people have set up their own business just by buying from John Pye and then selling it on. They have one buyer based in Cyprus who snaps up all their white goods and ships them out in containers for the ex-pats on the island.

People love to snap up a bargain bathroom deal
(Image: WalesOnline/ Gayle Marsh)

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It’s how Jonathan came across John Pye in the first place – he started off fixing up furniture and selling it on for a profit.

A decade ago John Pye was a single warehouse in Nottingham handling bankrupt and liquidation stock and you had to turn up in person and bid. But the recession, and technology, have been kind to the business. It is now Britain’s biggest firm of commercial auctioneers and Port Talbot is one of 16 warehouses across the UK.

Driving its growth has been the string of bankruptcies during the recession that have supplied its stock – and the fact that buyers no longer have to turn up in person, bidding instead over the internet.

Retailers just can’t recoup their costs by taking returned goods and processing them. It’s much more economical for them to get John Pye to do the leg work.

Adam Pye, managing director at John Pye, said: "This is the sixth recession John Pye has supported clients through. We had thought the great recession of 2008 was the deepest but this is proving to be bigger. Locking down a whole economy for the best part of three months has had a huge effect on restructuring and insolvencies.

Electric scooters are a relatively new addition to the auction house
(Image: WalesOnline/ Gayle Marsh)

"We're definitely at the start of these type of instructions. We've only been back eight to nine weeks or so and we've seen our busiest month ever for retail chains along with pubs and restaurants.

"The likelihood is that with a lot of the pubs and restaurants that are no longer there the actual assets in those premises such as the fridge-freezers, the coffee machines, whatever it may be, we get them and sell them at auction."

The result is 10 articulated lorries arriving at Port Talbot every day – even more this month because the English warehouses are largely shut because of the lockdown across the border.

It's a huge logistical operation and it's Jonathan's job to itemise everything, photograph them for the online catalogue, divide them into lots, and then set them out in the warehouse ready for sale. There are experts within the business who value the stock as well as data-wipe electronic goods that come in.

A pair of Jimmy Choo sunglasses might got for half their recommended retail price
(Image: WalesOnline/ Gayle Marsh)

"I spend the majority of my time looking at stock coming in and working out where it needs to be," says Jonathan. There’s a fortnight turnaround time. "This should be empty by Friday ready to start all over again."

The contents of the warehouse are worth millions and if it seems like a big responsibility for young shoulders that’s because it is.

"The big worry is how much money is in this room," says Jonathan wryly. He started off at the bottom of the company – quite literally – painting the walls of the Port Talbot warehouse when he started out as an auction porter.

He's worked his way slowly and steadily up the ranks after a stint in the Nottingham headquarters.

“I was a bit of a geek going around with a notepad and pencil to takes notes of everything,” he said.

Designer bags can be purchased for a steal
(Image: WalesOnline/ Gayle Marsh)

But he says he was attracted to the values of the company and the fact that everyone had come through the company, including all the senior managers.

"The fact that the managing director can speak to 30-odd people by first name – that’s what sold it to me," he said, describing his experiences in Nottingham. At its heart John Pye is essentially a family-owned business still run by the eponymous founder and his sons.

Pye senior began trading in 1946, helping people move home with a cart and former pit pony called Spanker. The auction business began as a way to clear belongings his clients no longer wanted and took off when he moved to the Corn Exchange in Nottingham’s Cattle Market in 1969.

Things have moved on quite a bit since and the company has grown into selling cars while there's also a Bond Street premises, in London’s West End, dedicated to selling luxury jewellery and art.

Cycling accessories and parts are just one of the many items on sale
(Image: WalesOnline/ Gayle Marsh)

In his heyday John Pye would be calling bids from just a few hundred professional dealers. Today the business has 500,000 registered bidders, almost three-quarters of whom are shopping for themselves.

And there are bargains to be had.

A Nespresso coffee machine with a recommended retail price of £189 went for £73. A lot containing a Smeg toaster, a Breville toaster, and a Russell Hobbs kettle went for £46. The kettle alone is listed on Currys website for £39.99.

A Kenwood Multitone Kitchen Machine, which is £220 on the Currys website, was snapped up at auction for £100.

A John Lewis Siberian goose down duvet, which is listed at £370 in store, went for £115.

John Pye Auctions on the Kenfig Industrial Estate is the biggest general auction room in Europe.
(Image: WalesOnline/ Gayle Marsh)

Of course there are auction fees and shipping costs to add on to this but it seems it's not unreasonable to expect a 50% saving on in-store prices.

Some of the recognisable high street goods appear to be real bargains – though what we can’t be told is why it was at auction. Was it ex-display? Or, perhaps more concerning, returned by a customer?

Not that that deters the bidders. The trucks continue to rumble down the M4 and the cycle begins again.