FEATURE: Chisholm Hunter director Harry Brown on expansion and online sales

Harry Brown, MD Chisholm Hunter

Far from being ‘just’ a retailer, Chisholm Hunter has turned its network of stores Into a luxury brand in its own right. Professional Jeweller talks to director, Harry Brown, to discuss rapid expansion, online sales and “aggressive” investment.

Since 2012, multiple retailer Chisholm Hunter has been following an ambitious ‘investment and expansion’ strategy — something that was particularly apparent when it opened four new stores in just 12 months in 2014.

The company’s first big step took place at the end of 2012, when it opened an impressive boutique in the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent, signalling its focus on the South-East as an area of interest.

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In 2013, directors Harry and Tracey Brown earmarked £1 million to introduce a new branding concept to the existing portfolio of stores, culminating in the overhaul of their long-established Howgate centre premises in Falkirk.

By 2014, the duo had even more ambitious plans in place, kick-starting with a new store opening in Kingston-Upon-Thames — another strategically important location in the South East of England. In July, the company opened a store in Glasgow’s highly-regarded luxury shopping destination Argyll Arcade, swiftly followed by the acquisition of a former EW Payne store in the Kent town of Bromley.

The latter, a 104-year-old historical relic of an establishment and a firm favourite for local residents, provided more of a challenge and culminated in an extensive restoration project. The store opened its doors in October 2014, and the success has been nothing short of inspiring. And if this wasn’t good enough, Chisholm Hunter also stamped its name on the door of a fourth location in 2014 – its second Edinburgh-based premises – creating 10 new full and part time jobs within the Gyle shopping centre. Cut forward to June 2015, and the company has 24 stores in key high street and shopping centre locations across the UK.

However, as director Harry Brown explains, this doesn’t mean Chisholm Hunter has any plans to slow down any time soon. “We are always looking for new store opportunities,” he comments to Professional Jeweller, “and I’m sure that the landmark 25th store will be special for us as well when it comes.” When asked to describe what makes Chisholm Hunter so successful, Brown points to a number of different factors; from product and marketing to a willingness to invest.

He comments: “First and foremost we are diamond merchants focusing on high quality stones. Increased investment over the last two years on market research has identified that the company is considered to be a luxury brand in its own right. We are well established in Scotland and have been achieving better-than-expected results even in regions where we previously felt brand recognition was still developing.”

Brown has perhaps touched on the million dollar question: how can retailers become brands in their own right, especially those that offer a multi-brand environment? According to Brown, “Our motto is always to be a cut above in everything we do; from the choice and quality of our products to the highly-trained and skilled people we employ. We continually invest in our people.”

This may make brand-building in the retail landscape sound deceptively easy, but there are some hints as to why Chisholm Hunter has made it work where others have struggled. “We added four new stores in 2014, but we also doubled the size of the support centre last year as well. As we get more remote locations it just means that we’ve got a bigger facility to keep up the standards that have made the company successful,” Brown explains.

Brown takes a modest approach to being interviewed, steering clear of the numbers or indeed ‘bigging up’ his business in any obvious way. During an interview for the Professional Jeweller Hot 100 in 2013 (in which Harry and Tracey Brown were named Retail Stars), Chisholm Hunter was forecasting a £30 million turnover — an increase from the £22.8 million recorded in 2012. It was made clear at this point that the resulting profit would be used to fund “significant expansion”.

Chisholm Hunter's store in the Gyle shopping centre, Edinburgh.

Chisholm Hunter’s store in the Gyle shopping centre, Edinburgh.

We’ve already described where this investment was channelled, but what about the over-arching strategy in place? Brown gives some idea, commenting: “We’re very focused and we have an integrated strategy which provides continuity across all disciplines; from marketing both above and below line, social media, web sales, our 1857 gift guide and our visual marketing, buying, HR and training.”

He continues: “Word of mouth is, of course, hugely important in any business and we are delighted that so many of our customers come to us through recommendations from their families and friends.” With word of mouth, continual investment and product all taken into account, Brown argues another essential factor in the Chisholm Hunter brand is its people.

He muses: “Our sites are very prime and the company has been established since 1857 so there’s a heritage there. But our suppliers tell us that we are different to most of the other retailers in terms of our people. They get a vibe from our people. I don’t want to criticise any of our competitors because we all have unique challenges, and clearly if you’ve a larger number of stores it can be a greater challenge to achieve consistency across the network. But I think the culture of the business [Chisholm Hunter] really defines the business.”

Brown continues: “We have been continually trying to improve and every year we have focused on what we’ve done right and what we’ve done wrong. We’ve been quite aggressive in terms of reinvestment in all aspects of training and in the actual fabric of the stores.”

Chisholm Hunter’s bricks-and-mortar stores are now increasingly being supported by its website, which has seen soaring sales in recent years thanks to, unsurprisingly, “continuous investment and marketing”.

Brown explains: “A growing number of customers are purchasing online, but a greater proportion of customers use the website as a research tool and continue to enjoy the in-store shopping experience. “Above all else the website is helping to create even greater brand awareness particularly in areas where our store network does not yet reach.”

Brown agrees with Professional Jeweller on the noticeable return of optimism to the UK trade; both from a consumer and retailer perspective. However, he notes that this sense of revived interest comes with new challenges. “People’s expectations go up and they are looking for more of a retail experience. This continual reinvestment that we are doing has probably been the right thing to do in terms of meeting people’s expectations.”

In terms of creating this retail experience for customers, Brown and his team focus on “having luxury stock priced appropriately, a luxury environment and people who make the customers feel special for what is, after all, a very expensive and very special time for them; whether it’s an engagement, wedding or some sort of celebration”. With a fantastic track record of success and a positive outlook for 2015, does Brown ever envisage a time when he can simply put his feet up?

“We never sit back, we haven’t got to that stage,” he says. “We have a group of ambitious people that work with us and I’m sure if I started to put my feet up they would be the first ones to say ‘come on, there’s a hell of a lot more to do yet’. We have to keep up the momentum.”

This feature originally appeared in the June issue of Professional Jeweller, read it online here. 


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