INTERVIEW: Camilla Rowe talks John Lewis jewellery plans

Opening of the John Lewis store at Birmingham's Grand Central.

John Lewis did something a bit different when it opened its £35m Birmingham flagship by teaming up with local jewellery designers. Head of buying for accessories Camilla Rowe talks to Rachael Taylor about the project and the department store group’s plans to bolster its jewellery offer nationwide.

When a major retailer rolls into town, the sights of independents can almost audibly be heard. But when John Lewis opened one if its biggest stores in the country in Birmingham, it opened up rather than closed off new opportunities for the city’s independent jewellers.

The 250,000 sq ft behemoth at the city’s new Grand Central retail development near the city’s rail station opened in September with a genuine focus on building links with the local community. As well as bringing 650 new jobs to the city – for which it received 10,000 applications – it launched a campaign to align itself with the local talent through an inspiring video and its very own hashtag, #ForwardBirmingham.

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The film, created by local company Blue Monday, told the stories of Birmingham’s sportspeople, musicians, artists and entrepreneurs against a backdrop of inspirational city views. About mid-way through the film, jewellers from the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter appear to talk about the craftsmanship behind the jewels they sell and the beauty of buying from local designers.

While all this community spirit makes for a wonderful piece of viral marketing, John Lewis took the concept further than just a shareable YouTube clip by kickstarting an initiative that is helping to expose local jewellers to the enormous footfall John Lewis commands.

It has given space to six local jewellers – James Newman, Kate Smith, Becca Williams, Rhiannon Lewis, Collette Waudby and Fei Liu – within its department store as part of a scheme negotiated with the Jewellery Quarter Development Trust. While the department store is not paying up front for the goods – the jewellers must offer stock on a sale-or-return basis – the number of lines required are low, and the invoicing for any jewels sold is being handled by the National Association of Jewellers (NAJ). This administrative detail spares both sides a lot of red tape, as new designers don’t have to sign up as individual suppliers. Instead, the NAJ will invoice on behalf of the group.

This partnership will be even more useful as the scheme progresses, as John Lewis is intending to keep the project going with plans to rotate the line up of jewellers every six months to keep the selection fresh.

“The Jewellery Quarter is integral to Birmingham and it’s a fantastic way to celebrate the city’s heritage and see the local reaction to the designers’ collections in store,” says John Lewis head of buying for accessories Camilla Rowe.  “Our Birmingham shop has been a huge success in terms of customer reaction and engagement, and our customers are what matter most to us.”

While Rowe says that this is very much a local scheme tied to the history of the city as a prolific producer of jewellery, she says that jewellery in general is a key focus for the department store group right now and there has been some investment made in strengthening its offer nationwide.

“We are continuing to invest in our jewellery departments to further build and widen our offer,” Rowe explains. “It is important for our customers to feel supported and be able to navigate through the jewellery department. We plan to clearly guide the customer through the department and pull out the trends we are excited about, ensuring our most premium product gets the treatment and environment it deserves along with highlighting any exclusive stories, for example the local designers we have launched in Birmingham.”

How the jewellery is displayed is also being evaluated at present, according to Rowe, and many stores’ jewellery departments will be given an update in the near future. “Each of our shops has a slightly different concept to cater for their local customer, which will include the brand mix and offering,” she says. “Birmingham has the latest concept with new lighting fixtures and a new fashion jewellery wall. We are continually developing and improving this though, and we are currently looking at our newest shop that will open next year in Leeds.”

When it comes to the buying for the jewellery departments, Rowe has a tricky job. As a retailer that attracts a wide range of demographics and ages, the jewellery selection must be a mix of tried-and-trusted names and affordable prices, whilst also retaining an element of excitement and surprise.

“We differentiate ourselves through our offer and service, which is demonstrated within the jewellery department through the breadth of our offer,” she says. “We have prices ranging from £8 to £30,000, with fashion items, new designer jewellers and an incredible assortment of vintage.”

As well as a collection of brands that range from the highly commercial Skagen to its new ethical jewellery signing Mirabelle and emerging designer Jessie Harris, plus the expanding vintage offer, John Lewis is also currently developing its own line of jewellery that will be sold under the John Lewis brand name. This collection is yet to launch but will be a major focus for the department store group when it does. Other plans include expanding what it terms as its “premium branded offer”.

“Our customers are looking for lots of different things, whether a fashion item to update their look, a new designer or even an engagement ring or an investment vintage piece to cherish,” says Rowe. “We work very hard to ensure we create an edited selection of the pieces they will want to buy and be inspired by. Jewellery is an area of the business that is growing, and we have very exciting plans in the pipeline.”

This issue first appeared in the January issue of Professional Jeweller. Read the issue here.

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