Not just any low-rent store

Crazy George’s is a thriving Northern chain, renting to the hard-up anything from a lamp to a sofa. But will stigma hamper its expansion?

A bed for the night, a cooker for the week and a month’s trial of the latest hi-tech

dishwasher. Those are among the offers at at Crazy George’s, the Thorn EMI-owned rental chain that in one year has established a mini-empire.

With 12 outlets now, and another 16 or so still to open in the chain’s predominantly North-west and West Midlands heartland, Thorn may have hit on a largely untapped market.

While the sluggish housing market, rising repossessions and negative equity have led demonstrably to a renaissance in rented housing, for most of us, the notion that we should rent something as personal as a sofa, or a bed, goes violently against the ownership-at-all-costs grain.

Although it has always been socially acceptable to rent a TV or video – not least because it avoids the perennial problem of technical obsolescence – there are perhaps few of us who would feel happy about renting a dining table, or a desk.

The most well-heeled gardener or DIY fanatic would think nothing of renting a particular item once a year – the top-quality petrol-driven hedgecutter, or the best-of-range rotary demolition hammer – but would they be as keen on using a rented standard lamp?

Yet at least part of the thinking behind Crazy George’s still-developing strategy is that for every household forced by circumstance to rent rather than buy quality furniture and electrical goods, there are many more who could be persuaded to hire, if only it could be made more socially acceptable.

Thorn EMI makes no secret of who Crazy George’s prime market is – the impecunious and unemployed, in short anyone who can’t afford the 400 for the outright purchase of a dishwasher, but who can stretch to 12 a week rental.

While many marketers would prefer to sweep unemployment under the carpet, preferring to aim their products and services at the recession’s survivors and thrivers, rather than its casualties, Thorn EMI embraces the dole queue and the Giro rather like Camelot embraces the latest big Lottery winner.

Crazy George’s makes it simple for those who have little materially to live the dream of Nineties consumerism – by allowing the weekly-paid to pay weekly, for example. More important, it also frees them from the strain of a credit check, permitting them to take away the fridge or the video without any humiliating delving into their credit rating or their personal circumstances.

While each rental agreement does follow a “discussion” with Crazy George’s staff as to whether the customer can afford the extra 10 a week or whatever, the only obligatory reference check is to ensure that the customer’s address is genuine.

As a long-term player in the rentals market, Thorn clearly knows its business. But to provide some of the less fortunate in our society with expensive consumer durables without even checking on their circumstances sounds like a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it?

High-risk strategy or not, Thorn EMI’s research suggests that there is a clear and largely untapped market of about

4 million Britons who are, for a variety of reasons, denied credit by everyone from car dealers to catalogue houses.

Unemployment alone can be enough to get an individual blacklisted, as of course can previous bad debts, criminal proceedings and any county court judgments against an individual.

But as the company points out, it isn’t only the unfortunate and the plain crooked who tremble when they read the words “subject to status”.

Many thousands of blameless, often affluent, people are also denied credit because of hiccups in the credit reference agency system; because they share exactly the same name as a former debtor or because they live in a particular house that many years ago was listed in the don’t-touch-with-a-bargepole category of addresses.

Such is the ever-widening net of credit blacklisting that there have even been cases of people being denied credit because they have similar-sounding names or addresses – known as the Acacia Road and Avenue syndrome.

Nor do the errors end there. Sometimes whole estates – mini-communities – are denied credit because a computer says that there are high numbers of unemployed, or previous bad debtors with the same postcode, regardless of the individual circumstances of particular applicants.

Rather than fighting shy of such headaches, Crazy George’s welcomes them. “We believe that our system of no credit checks provides access to a whole range of new household and electrical goods to people who are currently denied them,” says a spokeswoman.

“We certainly don’t exclude people simply because they are unemployed, nor do we penalise those whose circumstances change once the rental agreement is taken out.”

Another of Crazy George’s claimed unique selling points is “guaranteed equity”, which means that if a householder is obliged by misfortune to return the rented dishwasher, the clock can be stopped until they are better off. Once they re-open the agreement, the standard three-year rental term, after which they usually purchase the item, begins again where it left off.

Mintel retail analyst Neil Mason says that as many as one in ten consumers already views easy-to-pay credit and interest-free credit as a chief reason for purchasing electrical goods. The further lure of credit without a credit check would doubtless prove far stronger.

But Mason, who believes that as many as 7 million people do not have access to credit, also believes it is too early to say how much of a risk Crazy George’s no-credit-check policy is, or to estimate how heavily the loans themselves are being subsidised.

In the meantime, Crazy George’s must decide whether there is sufficient mileage in moving South, where there may be more resistance to the idea of a rented three-piece suite, and whether its range should be extended to encompass many more items.

Car hire and holidays could be added to the service in the future, hints Thorn, but clothes and jewellery will take a more fundamental change of heart.

In the meantime, while it’s long been considered normal to hire a video or a book from the local library, it isn’t so easy to hire an iron or a kettle from the local electrical store.

With cash restraints and maybe the growing urge to try before you buy, those anomalies could be about to change.

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