SPECIAL REPORT: Jewellers contend with the elements and retail barriers in Durham

In possibly one of the friendliest cities in the UK, both originality and tradition are king. When Professional Jeweller visited the northern city it was met by the warmest of welcomes and saw how a raft of longstanding jewellers and the likes of newly-established brands are able to co-exist.

Following on from last year’s trip to Newcastle, Professional Jeweller returned to the North East of the country for another dose of Northern jewellery retail experience in the Durham. The city, which embodies the cosy atmosphere of a historic town, homes a variety of nationally renowned landmarks, a quirky café culture and a bumper selection of independent jewellers.

While Durham claims the title of a city, it’s easy to forget that when you’re wandering around its cobbled streets. The shopping centre, which places national chains alongside family-owned businesses in a humble and inoffensive manner, is rooted to the market square, with sloping side-streets jutting off in every direction.

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With the winding river Wear that cradles the town centre and a more-than generous offering of historic attractions, including a lavish castle and a towering cathedral, it’s not hard to understand why Durham attracts an impressive amount a tourists, something the jewellery retailers are quick to cash in on.

A stone’s throw away from the very heart of the city, Durham’s famed market place, is Silver Street. While the street might appear like a secret side jitty, it is a prime location that benefits from the market’s heft footfall.

For Silver Street-based jewellery and interiors store Moon, tourism is one of the biggest opportunities and advantages of trading in the city. Moon first set up shop in 2009 in a village just outside the city and quickly saw enough demand to warrant a second shop. After growing the business for several years, husband and wife duo Joanna and Mark Soulsby, with the guidance of their financial advisors, decided it was time to close the doors of the two stores and move the business to Durham, but not before testing every tiny detail.

Joanna tells Professional Jeweller: “Our bank manager said ‘you will do absolutely amazingly well in Durham’ and she had all of her businesses in Durham so she was very supportive and giving us all the indications that we should really do it.

“So then we sat in the market square and counted people, looking at the footfall, thinking about where people turn and what their pattern is and where would be best for us actually to be. So we decided on Silver Street, which is great for the jewellery shop as well.”

As well as residents from local cities, towns and villages who visit on a regular basis, Durham also manages to attract tourists who travel far and wide to catch a glimpse of Durham’s renowned castle and cathedral.

Joanna adds: “It’s a touristy place as well, we get a really good mix. [Because of the castle and cathedral] We get a lot of tourists from America, tourists from China as well, Asia, Middle Eastern, we get such a mix really and it’s really good and I think that’s one of the main factors.”

For Jacqueline Lamb, owner of Marla Jones Jewellery store, which is positioned just off the market square in the shelter of the indoor market, the city’s calendar of seasonal events gives retailers a major opportunity, which is unique to Durham, to cash in on.

Lamb tells PJ: “We get a lot of visitors and tourists to Durham. They come to see the cathedral, especially in the summer month. Then we have festivals on later in the year. It’s very busy for the Christmas festival.”

Beyond the historic culture and a catalogue of events that pull people into the city from near and far, Durham is famed for another retail-impacting aspect, its Russell Group-recognised university.

Durham University, which boasts over 17,000 students and is currently ranked as the UK’s sixth best university in the official league table by The Complete University Guide, is a doubled sided sword for local businesses.

Students are notorious for being low-end spenders, leaving premium jewellery retailers out of the game, says Peter Bramwell of 130-year-old, family-owned independent jewellery store Bramwells.

The managing director tell PJ: “In Durham most of the people you see out there during term time are students and not many of them buy expensive jewellery while they are students.”

While students and not necessarily big spenders in store, that’s not to say they don’t have a good impact on retail in the city on the whole, says store manager of 13-strong Marketcross Jewellers’ Durham branch, Jerard Largey.

“The vast majority of our customers are local people as opposed to students, coffee shops do phenomenal business with students and they bring a vibrancy to the town. So don’t get me wrong, they’re not a bad thing, they’re a good thing for the town but not necessarily for this business. I would say they have a positive impact,” explains Largey.

In addition to their presence on the high street there is one jeweller where students are happy to part with money in exchange for jewellery, and that’s at affordable, fashion brand-led jewellery retailer Blaze.

The fresh and clean-lines store, that offers the likes of Daisy London, Swarovski and Links of London, which is still within its first year of opening, specialises in affordable and modern jewellery, which fits university students’ jewellery shopping list to a t.

Blaze’s managing director, Michael Lewis, says: “Durham is classed as a very affluent area with a heavy student population as well. Students are more affluent here, generally that’s the consensus. We get a lot of students come in with like £100 that they have all pooled together for their friends.

“Our challenge can be when the students go away because they are a big part of the population.”

But it’s not just students putting money together for birthday gifts and style-driven scholars that can be of substantial benefit to the jewellery scene. As well as the affluent students that take residence in the city, the parents of the university students have a big impact on business when they visit the city.

With a range of stock that covers a wide variety of pricepoints, with stock from ChloBo, Guess and Coeur de Lion, Largey finds parents often buy for students. He adds:“Because Durham is one of the top universities it attracts a high calibre of students who often have a lot of money and their mummies and daddies come up here to visit them and make sure they’re doing okay and we then get the opportunity to sell to them. Through the year we don’t often sell to students, it’s mums and dads come in and purchase.”

As well as the tourist culture and the ups and downs of hosting students, jewellers are also able to make a pretty penny from local trade. Despite its size, the North East of England doesn’t home many major retail hubs, which pushes people from neighbouring villages and towns to the bright lights of Durham.

But despite Durham’s generous catchment area, some potential shoppers have been put off making the journey due to parking struggles, according to Largey.
The high parking rates for the day and lacking of free on-street parking are enough to put off a substantial group of potential customers, despite the affordable park and ride option.
Largey adds: “The biggest challenge we have in Durham is the parking issue, trying to get in and actually park and be able to park for a reasonable amount of money is quite difficult.
“If you want to park in the multinational car park just next to us it’s £11 to park all day so that might be quite reasonable compared to larger cities but in the north east of England people are quite canny with their money and why come into Durham city centre for the privilege of shopping when they can go to out of town shopping centres and park for free?”

It’s not just parking, for the Northern city, weather can be one of the biggest issues plaguing the high street.

Due to the city’s location, it has some of the most varied weather in the country, which, of course, throws a spanner in the works for retailers.

While Professional Jeweller was visiting the historic city, Durham saw its first snowfall of winter. For a tourist visiting the picturesque city, it took the experience to new heights, but for retailers it was a massive head ache.

In no less than 10 minutes of the relatively heavy snowfall, the previously heaving market square had drawn to a halt as shoppers had retreated to the warmth of one of the many coffee shops.

Mark from Moon tells Professional Jeweller: “We are weather depending in Durham. A lot of people won’t come into Durham, they’ll go to a shopping mall.

Imagine when this [the rapid onset of snow that suddenly covered Durham] happens and we’re relying on a catchment area of 15 to 20 miles.”

While challenging weather can be an issue whichever high street you venture in the UK, independent jewellers in Durham are finding themselves at a particular disadvantage as the limited offering of flat, indoor shopping opportunities in the city pushes shoppers out of the centre and into the major shopping centres that lie within a stone’s throw of Durham, including the Metrocentre.

Feeling the pinch of the Metrocentre, family-owned Bramwell’s managing director, Bramwell, tells PJ: “If you go back 50 years, people come into the city to do their shopping and now they have migrated into the out of town sites with large, free parking, they do most of their shopping without venturing into Durham.

“When the Metrocentre first opened there was a noticeable change, but we are used to it now but we do know that most of the time when you go there, the car parks are pretty full and that’s because people have gone there. Durham just doesn’t has the breadth of shopping that it used to have.”
The jewellers of Durham may be at the mercy of the weather and other unavoidable factors, however there are some challenges where the end is in sight. As a city on the grow there are some substantial developments in the works that, whilst they will enhance the city centre in the long run, are temporarily throwing up some issues.

The university, which consistently nabs one of the top five positions on the national league tables, announced a new ten-year strategy earlier this year that proposes a £700m investment scheme to improve the campus, create 300 new academic posts, increase the size of the university to 21,500 students and attract more international students.

While the prospect of expanding the city is an exciting one that poses a host of new retail opportunities, there is, of course, the matter of intrusive building work to put up with in the interim.

For market shop trader Lamb, while the building work has off potential shoppers, she understands it will be worth it further down the line.

She tells PJ: “This year, I don’t think I’ve ever been so quiet. I think the only reason I have been so quiet this year is because we have had quite a few problems with the building work and cranes. That’s one of the biggest problems we have had to face this year. Hopefully in a year’s time we will have new hotels and shops opening so it will probably go up.”

With such stiff competition on Durham’s high streets and more than a few challenges, it appears to be crucial for each independent jeweller to have a clear cut unique selling point. Blaze’s MD Lewis spotted a gap in the Durham jewellery market and devised a USP that clearly sets his newly opened store apart from the city’s offering of historic, family-owned jewellers.

“The other jewellers are old-fashioned, traditional, and I have gone for a totally different look with only modern, contemporary jewellers. We have a bright store with clean lines rather than an old-fashioned look. We are modern,” explains Lewis.

But while the contemporary look helps Blaze pull in customers, it’s Marla Jones’ quirky aesthetic that is key in attracting loyal clientele and makes the store stand out from the likes of its fierce competition.

No matter where you go in the UK, when you step foot into a retail establishment for the very first time you want the visuals to wow you, something which Marla Jones Jewellery manager Lamb is all too aware of.

The entrepreneur, who specialises in unique precious gemstone pieces and only buys in one of each piece, is on a mission to get her jewellery noticed with her USP, creativity and artistic flare.

The very manner in which Lamb’s one-of-a-kind jewellery is displayed is perhaps one of her strongest representations of her USP. While some of the pieces, which sit in vintage-styled, wooden-rimmed glass cabinets, are displayed on t-hangers and ring stands typical of a high street jeweller, others look to be more eye-grabbing as they are draped over bottles and geode crystals.

As well as using her design to stand out, Lamb uses her stock as somewhat of a marketing tool. In order to stand out from the other retailers in Durham, the business owner goes to great lengths to acquire exclusive stock.

And Lamb isn’t the only one, the husband and wife duo behind Moon is keen to build a strong and loyal customer base with fresh, original and unique jewellery.
While the other shops on the high streets have secured exclusive deals to sell certain brands, Moon plays a different game altogether. One of the most fundamental differences between the Moon and the other jewellery retailers in the Northern city is that the independently-owned and run store doesn’t sell any branded stock at all.

When Moon first started out in 2009 it was dedicated to supporting local designers, something which is still near and dear to the business. Over the past eight years, the company has evolved from having a handful of jewellery designers, to now boasting a team of 90.

While there is definitely no shortage of jewellers in the cosy Northern city, they all appear to co-exist without stepping on each other’s toes and have all successfully carved out their niche place in the market

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