FEATURE: Mococo founders on flagship triumph

Lee and Maureen Hooson, co-founders, Mococo

North West-based branded jewellery retailer Mococo opened the doors on its new Chester flagship earlier this year, offering customers a luxury experience with accessible prices. Sarah Louise Jordan speaks to founders Lee and Maureen Hooson to find out how hard work, perseverance and healthy dose of risk taking have paid off…

Stepping through the doors of Mococo’s new Chester flagship boutique, it is almost impossible not to be impressed. It’s contemporary rather than stark, welcoming yet exciting, accessible but special — the perfect environment for some of the UK’s most coveted fashion jewellery brands.

Of course, this carefully constructed retail environment is the result of the hard work of founders Lee and Maureen Hooson, who invited me to see the boutique for myself earlier this year.

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With a portfolio of stores in Chester, Liverpool, Wrexham, Birkenhead, Ruthin and Mold, and a Pandora concept store in Wigan, Lee and Maureen admit that their new Chester location feels like a positive step in the right direction. Lee comments: “It does feel like a step forward, but it is only a step in a direction that we’ve always wanted to travel in.” What stopped them making the leap was the same thing that stops most retailers — finance. Having invested around £3 million in the new store (a listed building and therefore tricky to overhaul) it’s clear the move represents some big risks.

What’s more impressive is that, as a business, Mococo has reached this stage of expansion without borrowing funds. Lee explains: “To get to this stage organically is so tough when you can’t borrow money from anybody and you have to do it with yester

The husband and wife team opened their first store nine years ago with a budget of £500; using furniture from their home, borrowing desks, tables and chairs to outfit the space. Maureen had 22 years of experience at Boodles under her belt, and knew the luxury atmosphere she wanted to instil in her own, more fashion-forward store. As the company grew naturally, Lee and Maureen began to consider their financial situation more closely, only to get some surprising feedback.

Lee explains: “If we had borrowed money from somebody we would be sitting on 20 stores now rather than just seven. So it is a little bit disheartening but that’s what happens when you open a business in a recession when nobody lends money.”

In this market, Lee and Maureen invited a “big hitter” to step into their business. The individual wanted to know more about the pair, before asking them for a tour around their stores. Lee adds: “I took him on a whistle stop tour. I took him to our different stores and he just did some basic tests. At the end of the day I dropped him off at his car and he looked at me and said ‘If I gave you any of my money to enhance your business I would feel like I was stealing sweets from a child. The business is fantastic and you don’t need me and you don’t need my money’.”

The investor encouraged Lee and Maureen to build a dossier and return to the move accounts. It was seemingly simple advice that worked and Mococo got the cash flexibility it needed to grow in-line with Maureen and Lee’s ambitions.

Maureen is comfortable with this organic business growth, but Lee admits he is more of a “gambler”, adding: “If somebody came to me four years ago and said, ‘here’s £5 million I will lend you the money’, we would be sitting on 20 shops. So in that sense it doesn’t make me feel good. I feel disappointed that there was nobody out there big enough or bold enough to take us on.”

Having listened to this, Maureen says: “It’s funny because I’m the opposite. I feel fantastic. Look what we’ve done on our own organically. Nobody is saying to us why aren’t you at such and such a place at 10 past nine in the morning. We can pick and choose because we are our own bosses, that to me is priceless. We have nobody breathing down our necks.”

It’s clear that Lee and Maureen offer the balance the other needs — making them an ideal business partnership. They have also known tough times, especially when Lee watched the economy and property markets implode around him in 2005. It was around this time that Maureen also made the difficult decision to leave Boodles, resulting in a testing time for the couple and their children who had become used to the trappings of a comfortable lifestyle. Despite reaching “rock bottom”, Maureen says it was the “best thing” because it led to a new life in jewellery retail.

Lee explains: “We drove up to Birmingham when Mo started the business to the jewellery show at the NEC and we pulled in to the car park and I looked around and there was an Aston Martin and a brand new Range Rover. I looked at the cars and decided we’d been missing something, but I said don’t you worry; we will have one of those very, very soon. And it happened like that.”

Fortunately, Lee is talking about building Mococo from the ground up rather than stealing cars! In 2015, the business has around 110 members of staff, including 15 in their head office just outside of Chester. The new flagship store in Chester, aside from its expansive shop floor, also has a sizeable second floor training and office space — allowing Lee and Maureen to invest in staff training. This will incorporate Mococo brand training followed by jewellery brand training sessions, ensuring every member of staff is up to speed on the latest collections.

Lee says: “The ultimate compliment to Mo or myself would be people trying to poach our staff. When people try to poach you know you’ve done a good job.” Returning to the shop floor, what’s striking about Mococo’s Chester boutique is its layout of shop-in-shops separated by swirling carpets and circular till points. When they opened their Birkenhead store, for example, Lee and Maureen stripped the old-fashion glass corridor-style entrance way in favour of a simpler store front with a clear view to the interior — a way of encouraging people to come in rather than gaze at the windows.

Maureen says: “This is Lee’s concept and it works so well for us because with the old-fashioned jewellers, you’ve managed to get them [the customers] to come in the store and then you have to take them out of the store again so they can point at the window. We’ve got this new concept, you come in to the store and we will look after you. We are standing by you and we will take you through.”

Describing the Chester store, Lee adds: “This whole thing [the floor space] is a grid of real estate and each square in that grid is responsible for its own welfare. If a square isn’t performing we change the square.”

In-keeping with the grid system, each area is largely independent from the next, meaning brands can be quickly changed including all the fixtures and fittings without affecting the one next to it. “We are able to move a pod at any given moment, so if we wanted to redecorate a section we can do it without affecting brands B, C, D, E etcetera. It’s a carousel. We are only here to sell what people want, it is just that simple.”

In terms of what people want in 2015, Mococo customers are grappling for the latest Olivia Burton watch — with designs flying out the door according to Lee and Maureen. Elsewhere, Spanish brand Uno de 50 is performing well, having been introduced when the Chester store opened earlier this year. Maureen says of Uno de 50: “We’ve sold a good chunk of it since we’ve opened considering there’s no advertising going on. People just walked in and said, yes, I want one.”

Daniel Wellington watches, Thomas Sabo, Michael Kors jewellery and Chlo- Bo are also strong performers at Mococo, but Lee isn’t afraid to admit that, should a brand decline, he would ultimately strip it from the store. Maureen notes: “I think it is just a different market here in the North West. Alex Monroe is big in London, and we love that style, but it doesn’t sell in bucket-fulls here. People tend to go for the bigger brands, whereas I think down South they tend to go for a little bit more bespoke, a bit of Shaun Leane and Stephen Webster, which we adore.”

Welsh gold jewellery brand Clogau is also performing well in store, and its point of sale certainly makes an impact on the shop floor. With three stores in North Wales, Clogau has a more instantaneous appeal for customers in these regions, although the brand also holds its own in Liverpool.

When it comes to taking on new brands, Maureen says: “If we haven’t [got plans to introduce new brands] then we will shut down next year. You’ve got to have new brands all the time. We have Daisy and it has been plodding along and I almost removed it at one point, but all of a sudden bam! It’s flying. Sometimes one will pop up like a little bit of magic, like Olivia Burton.”

Despite this, Lee and Maureen are also realistic about the impact Pandora has had on their business, with Lee noting: “One of the reasons we are sitting here today is because we found a brand called Pandora and it lined our pockets really well. We looked after it and we protected it. We were doing well prior to Pandora but Pandora was a catalyst to the next level.”

He continues: “There’s always something that will come around but there will never be another Pandora. Never ever will that happen again — maybe in 100 years if you’re lucky. But there will always be a Nomination, a Coeur de Lion, or a Daisy.”

Mococo supplements this branded offer with its own-name items, including candles, perfume and its fine jewellery and gemstone line Coco Kiss (soon to be renamed Kiss by Mococo). Maureen says: “Coco Kiss was a big learning curve for us because it was the first time we’ve ever done it properly on any sort of scale.”

Lee adds: “I’m about to take it further. We burn candles in the store so we said let’s have a candle and we spray our bags with a perfume so we thought, let’s have our own perfume. Anything that is related to the business I am going to do [produce] next year, so we are going to go in to manufacturing. We will launch our own range of items and we will brand them. What we’ve got [Coco Kiss] is a small bridal collection. It’s made in Germany and of fabulous quality, but it doesn’t sit in with our price points and it is not commercial enough.”

I ask if this focus on own-name products and collections is down to Lee and Maureen accepting that their store is now a brand in its own right. Maureen replies: “I feel with Mococo we are becoming a loved brand now. We hear people talking about us very fondly and they’re proud to have a piece of jewellery, even if it is a branded piece, from Mococo.”

As Mococo continues to expand, Lee and Maureen have inducted their son Oliver into the family business with fantastic results. “Naturally we want him [Oliver] to eventually take over certain sides of the business but he’s got a lot to learn,” Maureen says. “He’s picking it up fast and he has got an eye for new brands and bringing them in. He’s got great taste.”

Lee and Maureen are particularly pleased that Oliver has a talent for brand spotting, buying, and also social media, which has been a big growth area for the company in recent years. Despite this, Lee and Maureen admit that Mococo’s website has been a difficult area to manage, with big financial losses and problems only now being fixed. Lee says: “The cost of running it, postage and packaging, the people operating it, [Google] AdWords, anything you can think of. When you put all of those into a spread sheet it comes out with minus numbers.”

Fortunately, these issues have now been addressed and Mococo’s website has a crisp, slick feel with plenty of visuals, videos and products on display. Maureen continues: “You can’t not have a website nowadays, it isn’t possible. The great thing with the website, as most people find, is that it’s great for turning over old stock. Last year was just unfortunate circumstances one after the other. But we’ve addressed all of those now and we’ve knuckled down. For a tenth of the cost of last year we are actually seeing a greater turnover.”

With the website now back on track, social media on the increase and the bricks-and-mortar stores flying, have Lee and Maureen ever considered using their skills to sell diamond jewellery?

“We are not ready for diamonds yet,” Lee replies. “I get really annoyed when I’m in a room with other jewellers that mix £50,000 tennis bracelets with leather bracelets. Why would you do that? If I did sell diamonds I would have to rebrand the business and open a different type of store altogether and sell them in a different way.”

He continues: “Maureen doesn’t like diamonds, she doesn’t like the risks associated with them or the insurance costs and I totally get that. We tried to sell expensive watches once, but it doesn’t work here.”

You get a clear sense with Lee and Maureen that they love jewellery and the jewellery industry, but that they’d be just as adept at selling cushions or cosmetics if they had to. Their complete focus and brand awareness appear to be the cornerstones of their success, mixed with a genuine passion for pleasing their customers and training bright spark staff members. With a solid store portfolio under their belts, we look forward to seeing where the Mococo name will appear next.

This feature originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Professional Jeweller. Read it here.



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