SPECIAL REPORT: Exeter’s shopping districts boom despite challenges from infamous hotel blaze

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Following on from last month’s cityscape in Plymouth, Professional Jeweller editor Stacey Hailes popped to Exeter on her route back to london to visit jewellers and find out how business has been blooming amid challenges following the city’s infamous Hotel blaze.

Exeter is a small city which packs a big punch. With a rich history, a wealth of visitor attractions and a selection of stylish places to eat and shop, it’s an ideal place for people looking for a fun day out.

Offering a modern shopping experience, in a setting of architectural splendour, consumers are able to easily walk between Exeter’s different shopping districts. From the award-winning Princesshay area, to the main high street and Cathedral Quarter, no shop is too far away from the next.

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The Princesshay shopping precinct was built in the early 1950s to replace buildings that had been severely damaged in the World War II Baedeker Blitz. Demolished alongside some surrounding buildings in 2005, and rebuilt and re-opened in 2007, today the area boasts of 70 stores including big high street multiples such as Zara, Next and Apple. On the jewellery front it is home to a Pandora and a Swarovski concept store, and a contemporary-looking Beaverbrooks boutique. This area is noticeably more modern than the rest of the high street, and it offers a stylish place to shop, eat and drink among the city’s more historic buildings.

Running parallel to Princesshay is the main high street, which includes the entrance to a small under cover shopping centre called The Guildhall (home to H Samuel, F. Hinds and Warren James — and to be honest, in need of some TLC as it is looking extremely run down compared to the rest of the city). On the high street department stores John Lewis, House of Fraser and Debenhams can be found, alongside popular fashion chains, music shops and stationary stores, and for jewellery — Ernest Jones, Goldsmiths and independent retailer Ivor Doble.

Just off the high street, on Castle Street, local jewellery designer Erin Cox has a stylish boutique, while independent fashion-focused jewellery retailer Polka Dot Gallery can be found in St Martins Lane – a popular walk through for shoppers going from the high street to the heart of the city – the iconic and historic Cathedral Quarter.

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Polka Dot Gallery stcoks unique brands to the city

With a striking 800-year-old Cathedral, luxurious independent shops, including jewellery retailer Michael Spiers and a spacious green area, tourists and locals flood to the Quarter. Upon visiting, the area was packed with people busking in the season’s unexpected heatwave, many of whom had bags showing evidence of a shopping spree forming part of their day.

For many reasons the Cathedral Yard is the talk of the city, but part of this is because it suffered the loss of what has been claimed to be the oldest hotel in England — the Royal Clarence.

The Royal Clarence Hotel, which dates back to 1769, made national press when it was destroyed in a major blaze in October last year.

While plans are already in place for the hotel to be rebuilt, it will never be the same, and its closure at the moment has left some businesses in the area struggling without the trade the Royal Clarence attracted. Erin Cox Jewellery’s manager described it as “a jewel in Exeter’s crown”— it had survived the war and was historically significant as records show it to be the first building in England ever to be registered as a hotel

Since the fire, close-by retailer Gem Star quietly closed down just leaving a sign on its doors stating that the business has had to shut due to circumstances beyond its control. Many that Professional Jeweller spoke to believe the company merely struggled without the hotel’s trade.

Polka Dot Gallery, situated on the side of the hotel, had to close for two weeks directly after the fire, and remained the only business open in Martins Lane for six weeks after that. With the Clarence clientele being a core part of the store’s retail business, the effects of the fire can still be felt for this jewellery retailer.

Having relocated two years ago, Michael Spiers Jewellers is a stone’s throw from the hotel, with only a store and a restaurant between.

Talking about the impact the fire has had on business, director Adam Spiers, explains: “The tragic fire on the morning of October 28 meant that all businesses around the cathedral were closed due to either being directly involved or affected by the fire due to public safety. We were one of the lucky businesses who were able to reopen our Exeter store a week later after the incident when the safety cordon had been moved further back. Being the busy Christmas trading period, sales were not adversely affected by the disruption and ongoing work undertaken outside of our store.”

He continues: “We were always aware that business may become challenging in the first quarter of 2017 due to the lack of accessibility to Cathedral Green. However, thanks to the amazing work carried out on the hotel by contractors, the majority of lanes have now re-opened to the public, once again reconnecting the main high-street with the Green. We are extremely thankful that no one was injured or harmed by the fire and we look forward to the coming months and years, where the progress will continue to build and enhance Cathedral Green, enabling the heart of historic Exeter to beat strong once again.”

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Beaverbrooks manager explains the impact of the fire

Additionally, half the high street was also closed for some time, with stores on the open side experiencing an increase in footfall after the fire.

“Ironically, we actually saw an increase in footfall after the fire, as people were coming in the city to see the shell of the building,” reveals Beaverbooks Exeter store manager, Ned Giongo. “The local community really came together after the fire and to show their appreciation. Local residents petitioned for the Exeter fire fighters, who fought the hotel blaze for over 50 hours, to turn on the city’s Christmas lights in November last year.”

With the surrounding areas now fully open for business and the hotel in the process of being rebuilt, the Cathedral Quarter looks set to blossom again, with The Ivy even revealing plans to open on the Cathedral Yard where Waterstones used to be.

Business in the City

While all jewellers were quick to sing Exeter’s praises, overall reviews of business in the city were mixed.

Due to crippling business rates and high rents, independent jewellers have been struggling on the high street, with Carol Anne Jewellery, located in Princesshay, shutting its doors at the beginning of June after 10 years of trading in the city.

“I am afraid that the dreaded combination of landlord greed and toe curling business rates in conjunction with a very challenging trading scene have meant that a renewal of the lease is not an option,” Carol Anne Jewellery’s business owner shares with Professional Jeweller. Polka Dot Gallery’s director, Julia Scruton, further comments: “Sadly, a lot of the independents here in Exeter are closing down due to unaffordable rents and business rates. We have lost two independent jewellery shops in the past month.”

Scruton says other challenges include a “serious homeless situation” and a lot of mentally impaired roaming the streets and causing unpleasant incidents of public nascence, creating the wrong atmosphere for a family day out.

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Erin Cox has made a name for herself in the city

Other independents struggle with footfall in their positions just off the main high street, with some commenting that due to Exeter being one of the best places for shopping in Devon and its surrounding areas, many consumers visit the area to take advantage of its selection of multiples and high street chains, rather than exploring the unique boutiques the city has to offer.

“The footfall is not great up here [Castle Street] and it has gotten worse over the last few years sadly,” explains Erin Cox Jewellery store manager, Susie. “I think all of Exeter’s independents in the quieter streets are experiencing the same sort of thing. People are coming for Exeter’s high street because there are no big towns in the North of Devon for good shopping. Often people come from the more remote places from Devon to Exeter particularly to shop and often they’ve looked online and made a list of fashion chains they want to visit.”

“It has taken a long time and a lot of hard work to achieve what we have gained so far and there is still a long way to go,” shares independent jewellery retailer Silver Lion owner, Louise Wraith, who took over the business 11 years ago. “Even though we are in a central position in Exeter, it is hard to encourage people to come down our street, if they don’t know what’s here. Being off the beaten track does however mean that the rent and rates are affordable for a small business. Our customers have to find us but when they do, they often return delighted with their discovery.”

Despite low footfall in their locations, independents such as Silver Lion, Polka Dot Gallery and Erin Cox Jewellery thrive on the strength of offering something truly unique, and each of these businesses provide a customer service which is second to none.

At Erin Cox Jewellery the designer has made a name for herself in the city, and often people will make a trip into town to view her unique collection of handmade jewellery, or make an appointment for a bespoke commission.

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Michael Spiers offers a luxury experience

At Silver Lion, the retailer specialises in silver jewellery and, with a workshop on site, it is able to make stock adjustments to suit individual tastes, and provide a repair and bespoke service.

Elsewhere, Polka Dot Gallery has a strong selection of contemporary jewellery, including designers such as Andrew Geoghegan and Cara Tonkin which cannot be found anywhere else in the city.

For the multiples, the city’s reputation as a destination shopping area is of course a positive for business.

Beaverbrooks manager, Giongo, shares: “ Being one of the largest cities in the South West with a varied retail portfolio makes Exeter a desirable shopping destination and we have loyal customers who travel as far as Land’s End and Surrey to shop with us. Exeter boasts one of the top universities in the world, so there is a large student population in the city and with its sandy beaches, rolling countryside and famous cream teas, Devon and the surrounding areas are a popular destination for many holiday makers each year.”

“With such a wide range of beautiful wedding venues in Exeter and the surrounding areas, it is wedding season throughout the year and so diamond and wedding rings are a popular choice,” adds Giongo. “We have such a good relationship with our customers that our newlyweds often come back in store to show us their wedding photos and we’ve actually been invited to customer weddings before!”

Due to the city’s university, F. Hinds has seen an increase in younger consumers buying engagement rings, as well as a surge in watch sales.

“We attract a very broad cross-section of ages and demographics,” shares F. Hinds sales development director, Jeremy Hinds. “Different customers visit us for different things — some use us for most of their purchases, some buy their most precious pieces from us, others rely on our range of services — even something as simple as popping in for a watch battery.”

Since moving to Cathedral Yard two years ago, Michael Spiers has had a fantastic response from both consumers and staff who enjoy the store’s shiny new location.

The employees can’t believe their luck that they get to work in a luxurious environment every day with an amazing view of the Cathedral, while consumers have been enjoying making an afternoon of being in the Cathedral area.

“We are based on Cathedral Yard now, so we have a Côte restaurant next door to us, which drives footfall past our store at lunch time and we just read last week that the Ivy is planning to open up two doors down from us,” shares director, Adam Spiers. “For retailing it is us, a beautiful shoe shop, a couple of cafes, a hotel they are rebuilding, an art gallery and restaurants, so it is all luxury retail, restaurants and coffee shops.”

Michael Spiers group manager, James Walker, adds: “People trust us and they have grown up knowing us and the brand. And I think what Michael Spiers has done so well over the years is from the very start it stood for something and it was different and it stood out on the high street. What’s brilliant is yes, Exeter has been fantastic for us, but what we have successfully done over the years is just take it up a notch all the time. We never ever sit here and say everything is perfect. We are always working on the next project and it is always about how can we improve this? How can we make our customer experience better? How can we make the windows better? So we are moving all the time and I think that is so key at this day and age.”

So while Exeter might have its challenges, the city is one that keeps on growing and evolving and with a strong selection of multiple and independent jewellers in the area, it has all it needs to be a destination place for jewellery purchases in the South West.

The Princesshay and Cathedral Yard shopping areas are particularly impressive, with one offering a modern and stylish high street experience, and the other providing the perfect place for those looking for a luxurious customer experience. However, a lot can be said for the jewellery retailers off the beaten road who have made a name for themselves as a boutique not to be missed in the quaint, historic city.

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