Ian Middleton: The sad closure of Argenteus Oxford

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The indie retail MD on closed retail doors and brand new beginnings.

By Ian Middleton, managing director and co-founder, Argenteus

"On Sunday September 28 we closed our final Argenteus store on Cornmarket Street in Oxford. 

It was a sad day for us all, not least for the final member of our sales staff who had been with us for over 17 years. In many ways we’d come full circle as our very first store had opened 20 years earlier, almost to the day, just around the corner. During that time we’ve opened and closed nine different stores across the country, but as an Oxford based business, shuttering our final store here was a very bitter pill to have to swallow.

The closure represented the end of a process we’d begun last year with our departure from Covent Garden. At that point we’d identified that our two remaining stores, being in such high profile and high cost locations, simply weren’t viable any more. Back in the glory days of the early noughties such locations paid for themselves easily. Now with high street spending in the doldrums and no equivalent re-balancing of property costs, something had to give.

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In the final analysis the massive overheads on such a small store no longer justified its existence for us. A prime location store that once formed part of our much larger portfolio could no longer be maintained as a single entity, especially after we lost the income from our more profitable London store.

Moreover, these running costs were now preventing us from remaining competitive in the wider market, particularly online.

Prices both in store and online were being dictated by the cost of maintaining our physical presence, whilst many of our competitors are now pure-play online or operating out of less expensive locations. The leases on both our stores were assessed to have a significant sale value, so we decided to dispose of them and concentrate on our other channels.

The nature of trade in Oxford had also changed drastically since we first opened the Cornmarket store in 2001. Lack of concern from the city council over polices that are having a hugely negative impact on retailers in the area is compounded by poor husbandry of the city centre shared spaces. After being pedestrianised some years ago, Cornmarket has become a nexus for illegal pedlars, unregulated and intrusive street performers and large tour parties who clog up the streets, deterring serious shoppers. This has resulted in a trading environment that is completely at odds with mid to high end stores.

Repeated attempts at engagement with the council to try to get them to address these problems proved frustratingly fruitless. In the last few months a new city centre manager has begun to address these issues, but unfortunately for us this was too little too late as we were already well down the road towards selling the store.

The long term commitment to the initiatives being pioneered by the new town manager are by no means certain either. As it stands there is no clear indication if the new measures that she has put into place are likely to be financially supported beyond the end of this year. We also felt that the imminent upheaval and change in focus that is likely to accompany the redevelopment of the Westgate centre would make it unlikely that we’d choose to renew our lease when it expired in 2016.

There are of course other reasons for the closure of the store that will be familiar to many other independent retailers. These include the growing dominance of branded jewellery, the rise of the internet, increases in rent and rates, the escalating cost of precious metals and the fall in the value of the pound.

The issue of rates has been particularly thorny in Oxford, as council policies such as eye-watering parking charges, crumbling local transport infrastructures and the city centre management issues, have all played a major part in reducing the profitability of the store. We repeatedly approached the council for help on the rates burden, but apart from additional deferral arrangements, we were offered no sustainable long term options.

Our landlords – AVIVA – were equally unhelpful. We asked on several occasions to renegotiate the lease terms and obtain a reduction or temporary suspension of the rent, but these pleas fell on deaf ears. Indeed it took them nearly three months to reply to our initial request for a meeting. After a year of marketing the property we warned of the prospect of the store ultimately being left empty due to lack of interest. The landlords attitude was at best disinterest and at worse total apathy. Our original plan was to close the store earlier this year, but the landlords scuppered a deal we’d agreed with a mobile phone accessories operator in January.

There then followed several months shepherding another deal, although this one required a change of use which needed to be granted by the local planning department. Delays by planning officers and the customary disinterest from the city council dragged out that process for a further three months, during which it became apparent that, like much of the council administration, the planning department was in total disarray.

An additional last minute hurdle was then thrown up by the superior landlords, Magdalen College, who appeared just as we were about to exchange contracts, demanding that we duplicate most of the process already completed with our immediate landlords, whilst paying their lawyers and advisers a further hefty fee for the privilege.

Our overriding concern was to complete the sale and ensure an orderly departure for Argenteus, whilst also safeguarding the interests our suppliers, designers and employees. It was painfully apparent that such issues were of no interest to our landlords or council departments as they piled on additional delays and costs. Ultimately we felt like a small business piñata, twisting in the wind while all these various organisations took opportunistic bites out of us. So much for the culture or support being touted by the likes of the British Property Federation.

The closure of the store was predictably an emotional experience, helped by the hundreds of loyal customers who came in to say how sorry they were to see us go.

Happily though, we were delighted to be able to announce our return to Oxford in November in the form of a concession within Oxford’s oldest independent department store – Boswells. This marks a new direction for Argenteus and one which we hope to expand on in the coming years. It also prompts a new look for us and a new logo, to be revealed soon.

 

Having rid ourselves of our property millstones, we’re all now very excited to invest in these new opportunities to capitalise on our 20-year reputation for offering innovative and individual jewellery. One of the most immediate impacts of the closure of our stores will also be a major reassessment of prices both online and in our new concession.

Other plans for the future include a redesigned website and the final stages of development of our online designer marketplace. We’re also mulling our own branded jewellery collection and further expansion via a number of non-traditional channels as well as further concessions if the Boswells trial goes well."

 

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