INTERVIEW: Jessica Flinn takes the retail route

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The British jewellery designer with the hunger to grow business.

Her business is only four years old, but in that time Jessica Flinn has carved an enviable path as a British designer with collections sold through independent retailers, galleries, House of Fraser and now her own multi-brand shop in Sheffield. She tells Kathryn Bishop about balancing both sides of her business, customer shopping habits and why you have to speculate to accumulate.

There are two types of people in the world of business — those that are the go-getters, always driving their own name and business forward, and those that prefer to be directed and led by somebody else.

In the case of Sheffield designer and retailer Jessica Flinn, the former description fits like a glove. In just 15 minutes of conversation, she has thrown out phrases such as ‘hunger’, ‘risk’ and ‘fire in the belly’ to describe her desire to make her own-label jewellery brand a success. “I suffer from this little thing called stubbornness,” she says with a laugh. “It simply won’t let me rest.”

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Her career in the industry to-date is testament to this. It has been just four years since Flinn graduated from Sheffield Hallam University and launched her collection of decorative steel jewellery — a simple idea that won her plenty of attention and home-grown fans, celebrating the city’s historical steel industry.

Since then, Flinn has racked up an impressive list of accolades: she signed a contract with Argos in her first year of business to create pieces that were sold through 750 stores; then followed a collection for The Jewellery Channel; she was named a Professional Jeweller Hot 100 NexGem in 2012; scooped the Duke of York’s Young Entrepreneur Awards in 2013; and last year was co-opted to the British Jewellers’ Association’s National Committee. On top of this, in November 2013, Flinn strode confidently into the world of jewellery retail, opening her own independent jewellery shop in Sheffield.

As the shop reaches its first anniversary, Flinn recounts the decision to take the somewhat daunting step into retail — an area that can be fraught with high overheads, tricky landlords and a need to invest in stock.

“I decided to run a pop-up shop in Sheffield opposite Green + Benz, which we thought would be great for us as the area attracted an affluent customer,” Flinn explains. “We were totally wrong. We did the pop-up but didn’t make a penny profit, despite selling lots of stock.”

Undeterred, Flinn looked upon the experience as one that proved her product was right – and that she could sell directly to the public – but that a better fit of customer was elsewhere. Rather serendipitously, Flinn was wandering down Sheffield’s independent mecca Sharrow Vale Road – a high street complete with a butcher, baker, post office, clothing boutiques, beauty salon and most recently a craft beer shop – when she spotted a poster advertising a lease in a greengrocer’s shop window.

“They were moving to a larger space down the street but had two-and-a-half years left on the lease,” Flinn explains. Not one to miss an opportunity to, in her own words, “give it a go”, Flinn snapped up the space and hasn’t looked back. “We opened the shop on November 16 last year and on the first day people came in and were the perfect customers — they had a little bit of disposable income, liked independent products and were ladies that lunch.”

In the weeks that followed the opening, Christmas sales rang merrily through the tills and January arrived in a heartbeat. But with little experience of jewellery retail, Flinn admits the 11 months since have been very much about trial and error. “Obviously we’ve had quiet months like January and February, and we weren’t sure about how the summer would go, but we’ve got to know our customer and realise that they aren’t the Facebook generation — if we have a promotion on, we don’t just mention it online but put it in the window too, and it brings people in,” Flinn says.

She has also ascertained what different types of customer want; from the larger-than-life ladies in their 50s who opt for cuffs from her steel collections, to those seeking out the detail and delicacy of her silver lines. “If you asked me a year ago, I’d say my customer is bold and likes exciting things but having a retail outlet I now see them in a completely different way,” she says, enthusing about the insight running the shop has given her. She’s found that for 10 necklaces and pairs of earrings sold, only one bracelet will sell. “So now when I plan my wholesale silver range, I’m planning it out by asking ‘What’s the statement piece they’ll buy one of and the other pieces they’ll buy 10 of?’”

The shop has also provided local employment opportunities. Flinn has a growing team, which now includes her mother who works full-time in the shop and “lives and breathes” the business, plus an admin assistant, a sales assistant and a web and graphic designer.

As a result, Flinn has been afforded more stability and with it the luxury of time to design. Hand-in-hand with this, she has the opportunity to trial products in store before they are put into wider production for wholesale customers.

Speaking openly, Flinn recognises that the business has been moving quickly, but asserts that in business one “needs to speculate to accumulate”.

Flinn reports that she has never struggled to gain private backing, mentioning that for many of her investors it has been a heart-over-head situation. “When you’re passionate about your product and business, private investment is the best way to go,” she says. “It is typically straightforward to get a meeting and communicate what you’re about — it’s often more about the person than facts and figures.”

Pondering whether this get-up-and-go is what has made her successful, Flinn notes that some fantastic British jewellery designers simply lack the same level of drive needed to succeed. “They have no fire in their belly; you need tell everyone about your brand, tell the person you’re sat next to on the bus,” she says with a laugh. It is also about wearing the product — something many designers fail to do on a day-to-day basis. “But now I have the shop, it means I can wear all the brands we sell and not feel guilty about wearing other people’s jewellery,” she adds with a smile.

On the subject of wearing and showcasing her own collections, we touch on the subject of Flinn’s decision to eschew UK jewellery trade shows in 2014, after becoming a regular show-goer over the past few years. Penning a column for Professional Jeweller about the decision in February this year, Flinn spoke about the expense of shows versus the amount of buying that took place, adding that meeting retailers or buyers face-to-face was likely to be much more fruitful.

“For little designers, people don’t place orders at shows like they used to. They’re not for me and I stopped enjoying them in a way,” she says. Recognising the positive reviews of IJL 2014 and the lure of shows in 2015 “to show people where we are now”, Flinn concedes that her decision probably won’t be forever.

For 2015, Flinn will launch spring-summer and autumn-winter ranges, plus a number of micro collections set to launch throughout the year across Flinn’s steel and silver ranges. “I’m always feeling inspired, so if rose gold is popular, I can get a small collection done and out,” she states. “And already for autumn-winter next year we’re going bigger and brighter.”

September 2015 will mark the fifth anniversary of the Jessica Flinn brand. “We’re hoping to quadruple turnover by the end of September 2015, which is our year-end,” she reveals. “Every year so far has been so different — we had an amazing first year, a disastrous second year, an even worse third year and a brilliant fourth year. You can’t predict it.”

But none of this has discouraged Flinn. Referring back to her stubbornness, which in fact translates as true dedication, she says: “I’ll keep going until things are right. I know this is what I want to do and what I care about.”

Pausing for a moment, she continues: “Because I’m inexperienced [in retail] I don’t follow the rules; if you don’t have that knowledge you learn on the job and I’m learning as I go.” She admits that naturally she has made some mistakes, “But things are going right; you’ve just got to keep the faith.”
 

Flinn’s Designer Friends
Alongside her own collection, the Sheffield shop also sells jewellery from about 20 British designers, including LucyQ, Jana Reinhardt, Alexis Dove, Cabbage White and Claire Troughton. Many of them are friends of Flinn’s or designers she has shared trade show stands with. “Last year I did the Country Living Christmas Show with Jana Reinhardt, LucyQ and Kokkino, which allowed me to see their product as the consumer does. As a result, the first three guest designers in the shop were those three; I knew they would sell and in turn they were willing to take a risk on me.”

Jessica Flinn in the House
At present, Jessica Flinn’s jewellery collections are sold through about 15 House of Fraser department stores, including the store in her home city of Sheffield, along with Gateshead, Edinburgh, Croydon and Cheltenham. Flinn’s investment in stock for these stores has been large, with her work extending to creating special POS for each store and visiting the shops and sales staff personally. “You have to motivate the staff by going in and seeing them,” she says. “They don’t except you; it’s a personal touch” Alongside House of Fraser, her pieces are also stocked in independent department stores Browns of York and Clerys in Dublin.

This interview was taken from the November issue of Professional Jeweller magazine. To read the issue in full online, click here.
 

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