Plymouth is a vibrant waterfront city packed with attractions, shops and local restaurants for people of all ages to enjoy.
Known as Britain’s ‘Ocean City’, Plymouth has a rich maritime heritage and is said to be one of the most dynamic waterfront cities in Europe.
Offering a picturesque waterfront and harbour, and charming cobbled streets, alongside a selection of independent retailers, high street multiples and a variety of places to eat, the city has become a popular place for tourists to visit, and with the rise of staycations in Britain, this summer should be a busy one for businesses in Plymouth.
However, things have not been smooth sailing in the area, with many jewellers highlighting a decrease in footfall and a need for some TLC on the high street. But, that being said, the independents are ready to work hard for sales, and pride themselves on a customer service that is second to none and draws in a very loyal clientele from all along the South West coast.
Plymouth has a great selection of shops. It has a wealth of independent boutiques, galleries, bars, cafes and restaurants, and a shopping centre which houses all the fashion chains consumers expect to see on a day out in the city.
The most popular part of the high street, and the area which enjoys a greater footfall, is the Drake Circus Shopping Centre.
Drake Circus is a 425,000 square ft covered shopping mall in the centre of Plymouth, which opened in October 2006 but has quite the history — including surviving the Plymouth Blitz of World War II relatively intact.
After going through some changes from its original state, the plan for how Drake Circus looks now (a much larger centre with modern interior) was drawn up in the early 2000s, and after suffering a few setbacks, the old centre was demolished, and the new building opened in 2006.
The following year, the centre won two retail industry national awards, including Retail Week magazine’s ‘Shopping Location of the Year’ award. Earlier this year Drake Circus also won an accolade for shopping centre customer service at the REVO-ACE Awards.
The only independent retailer inside Drake Circus is Drakes Jewellers, which moved from its position on the high street to the ground floor of the shopping centre when it opened its doors.
Following its success, Drakes decided to expand and moved to a much larger position upstairs, spanning across four units to create a bold presence with a wow-factor which tempts customers across the threshold. The retailer’s new and improved doors opened in December 2014, and its Pandora franchise moved to its original position.
Also inside Drake Circus are jewellery multiples Ernest Jones and Fraser Hart, while Warren James is located on the high street near one of the exits.
Directly outside of Drake Circus is a pedestrianised horseshoe-shaped shopping area, where consumers can go out one exit, and travel around a long loop filled with more shops and restaurants to the shopping centre’s other entrance. Outside in this area, which largely covers New George Street, Armada Way and Cornwall Street, independent jewellery retailer Michael Spiers is located in a prime position on the corner of the horseshoe bend, while other jewellers such as H Samuel, Wray & Co and Robins & Moore are just off the loop further down New George Street and Cornwall Street, towards the city’s theatre.
Another notable shopping district for Plymouth is the Barbican and Sutton Harbour, which is a popular place for visitors to spend time in the city. Featuring cobbled streets, eye-catching views of the harbour, and a selection of independent shops, is a destination area for people looking for something a little bit different, in an environment that feels extremely British and quaint.
In this area a traditional jeweller, named The Jeweller, and contemporary jewellery retailer Victoria Sewart Jewellery Gallery can be found.
The Plymouth Pound
For jewellers in Plymouth, the city offers an area that attracts visitors from all around the country, and further afield, as well as consumers who pop in from nearby towns.
“There is a huge catchment area and Plymouth is a great holiday destination,” explains Wray & Co Jewellers director Andrew Statton. “Being Britain’s Ocean City we get busy during the summer months. With the hope of further development to the city’s waterfront, we expect to get busier and busier. We are very lucky to live and work in a beautiful part of the world.”
This year marks Wray & Co Jewellers 130th year in business — making it the city’s oldest jewellery retailer. Opening its doors in Plymouth in 1887, the family-run jeweller has seen the high street change, strive and struggle — standing strong through it all. A testament to this is the fact that when, within a fortnight of each other, two of Wray & Co’s stores were destroyed during the Plymouth Blitz, the business owner at the time (the founder’s son) didn’t even stop trading, instead he sold his stock from the front window of a chemist.
“There are challenges, but you can say that about any high street in the country. Rather than looking at the negatives we try and focus on the positives. When you have been in business for the amount of time we have, including having two shops destroyed within two weeks of each other during the blitz, all these challenges and problems seem small.”
With four shops all located in the South West of England, Michael Spiers is a jewellery retailer with a strong understanding of business in the city and its surrounding areas.
The company, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, opened its first store in Looe in 1956, followed by a second store in Plymouth in 1969.
The business rose to the challenges of competing with long-established local jewellers, and today boasts of a respected store in the city which brings the luxury of Bond Street to the South West.
“We opened in Plymouth because it was the biggest city in the South West,” explains Michael Spiers director, Adam Spiers. “I love Plymouth. It is an amazing place, but we are a dockyard city, without a dockyard, it’s a real shame, and there are social issues here more than anywhere else. However, we have a huge amount of business here, a lot of businesses are based here because it is really easy to get to from Cornwall and Devon.”
He adds: “High street retail has changed so dramatically in the last 10 years, the recession was just a game changer for everybody because we all had to get it right. There is a very well known retailer based in Plymouth called Chris Dawson, he’s our first billionaire, and one of his sayings is: ‘Always run your business like it is in a recession.’ Why do you need a recession to get really focused? Why do you need a recession for sales? You have to present your store in the absolute best way possible, and of course when things are getting tough you’ve got to look at ways to be the best, but you always need to be doing that.”
Ray Robins, the founder of Robins & Moore, an independent jeweller in Cornwall Street next to the city’s market, says business rates are an issue, even with the recent reevaluation.
“It is just too ridiculous for words,” he remarks. “I spoke to a government minister recently, and he asked what do you do for a living, and I said retail, and he asked how is retail in Plymouth? I told him the reason the high street is empty is because of people like him. If they [the Government] don’t want a high street, don’t have it, they should be slashing business rates as much as 60%, the same as rental values. I know for a fact that there are several properties in Plymouth that have been hoping to see a slash in business rates but they have actually increased. And that is mirrored all over the country.”
Robins also says that Plymouth has seen a massive decline in footfall over the last four years, with the area by the market taking a particular hit. However, he is reluctant to move to the mall due to the price concerns.
“The top end of town where the mall is, that is where the most footfall is, but then rents are 20 times the price, down here a lot of these shops are council owned and rents are affordable,” Robins shares. “We looked at moving to the mall ten years ago, but on a shop this size in the mall I would have to take £40,000 before I made a penny and that is a small shop this size. Here, I can take half that and go about and be happy.”
Despite challenges on the high street in general, Spiers of Michael Spiers reveals that the company’s Plymouth store has consistently been up every year.
“We have never been down and I can’t see how we ever can,” he reveals. “When we moved here it was tough, the city had loads of issues, specifically the city centre, over the last 20 years it has completely changed, even with the recession. The mall opened up. Bigger stores moved there. Over the last eight years those spaces on the high street have been re-filled. From here now we are very well let as a city.
Plymouth is a great place to live, a great place to do business, and a great place to come on holiday. Hotel owners are also forecasting amazing business for the West Country. Because of the Euro, people still go away, but Joe Public is coming to Devon and Cornwall. So that’s great and should drive business.”
Victoria Sewart decided to open her contemporary jewellery gallery away from the high street to better suit her stock offering and clientele.
“I wouldn’t want to be on the high street, because it is not us and I probably wouldn’t be able to afford the rates either,” shares Sewart on her decision to be located by the harbour. “The Barbican has always been historic and arty. There’s lots of little lanes and cobbled streets, artist’s studios all around the back, and other galleries, so it’s got a real unique vibe and it is very touristsy as well, especially in the summer. So it is just a nice location and to find a shop on the main street 11 years ago was perfect. I wouldn’t move. It is by the water, it is a lovely part of Plymouth.”
With many jewellers trading within the small city, it’s important for each one to have a USP, and know exactly what makes them stand out from the others.
In Plymouth, all the independent jewellers showcased to Professional Jeweller an outstanding customer service, with editor Stacey Hailes being welcomed into each one by more than one member of staff. Wray & Co Jewellers stands out for its long standing history. Despite not being in a ‘hot spot’ location, people will seek out to find the jeweller who more often than not has been serving the family for years.
“We have a wide range of customers from the young to the older generations, some of whom have been served by my great grandfather all the way down to me, which is very special,” shares Statton. He continues: “We specialise in antique and second hand jewellery and it’s been in the same family since opening in 1887. My dad has had over 30 years experience in the trade and his knowledge is incredible. He leads from the front and his knowledge is filtered onto me and my colleagues to provide one of the best customer services in Plymouth.”
While Wray & Co won’t be making a big song and dance about its anniversary, the milestone does provide the opportunity for the company to reflect on what it does best, and focus on this for the next 130 years.
In a similar position to Wray & Co, just off the high street, is Robins & Moore Goldsmiths, a company whose USP is the foundation of the business.
Launching 28 years ago, the company started in Plymouth market with just a small workshop after it discovered a niche in the city for quick repairs and alterations. The business first launched with the name Express Goldsmiths, which served the company well until it moved to a shop unit next to market and became more known for selling quality fine jewellery and engagement rings (all of which are examined by the owners before going into the windows to check it is only serving consumers the very best).
Feeling the need to have a name which sounded more upmarket, especially for bridal customers, the store rebranded to Robins & Moore Goldsmiths.
“That’s better than express because express is where you get your pizzas from,” jokes Ray Robins, “and that rebranding has done us really well. In Plymouth now we are the go to place for handmade jewellery. We’ve got three units within the market, so we’ve got two goldsmiths working down there and one working here. We can take on anything from simple re tipping to a three or four grand remodelling job.”
Robins understands the importance of changing and adapting, and believes having the ability to do this quickly is where smaller retailers can do better than the larger chains.
“I always think the big multiples are like an oil tank and we are like a speed boat,” he explains. “We can change direction a lot quicker, but we are trying to get that message out again. Just because we are a small independent, if you want to buy a solitaire for a million pound we can do that for you, if you want to buy a silver ring for £15 we can do that too. We’ve got a reputation in Plymouth now that is second to none.”
He continues: “If anyone can tell me why Mrs Smith would not buy a diamond ring for me and why they would buy one from someone else, then I would alter my business to agate that problem. We are cheaper than everybody else and there is nobody in the world offering better customer service than us. We are competitive, we are friendly. There is no reason to go anywhere else apart from here.”
Robins & Moore has worked hard for its reputation, and definitely goes the extra mile to make sure customers are happy — this includes not putting a limit on product guarantees and even, in some cases, re-doing a bespoke piece if a customer decides they don’t want it.
“There is not another jeweller in this city that would do that. We do everything we can to make the customer happy. You probably can’t make everyone happy but if something goes wrong we put it right. I wouldn’t want to sell a piece of jewellery and go for a drink one evening and people point me out as the guy that sold them a piece of rubbish.”
Elsewhere, Michael Spiers is the only jeweller in the city authorised to sell some of the big watch brands, including Rolex, and Drakes Jewellers has the exclusive rights to some of the bestselling fashion brands.
Michael Spiers strives to excel in watches and jewellery alike, revealing the business is 50-50 between the two. The key for this independent retailer is to only stock brands that are really right for the stores.
“We’ve offloaded quite a few brands that are not working for us and ones that work in one particular store might not work somewhere else and vice versa,” Spiers explains. “We are quite ruthless with it. If they are not working, it’s gone. We have to keep moving forward, and we make mistakes and we learn from them really quickly.”
Spiers admits jewellery sales dipped at the beginning of the recession, and that consumers turned to brands at this time. But, over the last three years jewellery has been huge again as people have become more comfortable and more willing to take a risk on unbranded jewellery.
While Michael Spiers has recently invested in some fine jewellery brands such as Fope, which has performed extremely well, and most recently Mikimoto, the next exciting project for the jeweller is to focus on its diamond offering for its diamond anniversary.
At Drakes Jewellers, the store has a layout different to any other in the city, in the fact that its diamond/ bridal boutique is segregated from its fashion side to ensure the shopping experience is perfect for all consumers.
Drakes director, Monqiue Hirshman, explains: “Whether you’re buying a gift for somebody, and you are just popping in on your lunch hour, if you want a gift from our branded side of the store you can be in and out, it can be fast paced. The music is different as well. We have different music playing both sides because the other side of the store is the bridal, so it is much more about coming in, having a drink and staying for a while in a much more relaxed environment that is away from the hustle and bustle. That makes us very different because jewellers do tend to be all things to all people and we wanted to create a point of difference.”
Stocking brands no one else in the city has makes Drakes a destination store for fashion-conscious consumers in the city. However, it is the bridal side of the business which accounts for a larger proportion of the store’s sales.
“With wedding rings we see a year on year increase,” shares Hirshman. “Slowly we are seeing the average of what people are spending on their engagement rings has gone up as well. People say weddings are on the decline, but they are not in our store. The bulk of the business is bridal.”
To capitalise on the bridal business and the rise of brides looking for something a little different, Drakes invested in an inhouse workshop dubbed the Drakes Jewellery Hospital. The new service offers an option for consumers to create bespoke pieces, alongside re-modelling, repairs, rhodium re-coating and more. Elsewhere in the city Victoria Sewart also has a workshop on site, but the jewellers main USP is the vast range of British jewellery designers it houses.
From up-and-coming local talent, to established creatives such as Ruth Tomlinson, the gallery offers a unique collection of contemporary jewellery.
On why she supports British designers, Victoria Sewart remarks: “For a start, I am a British designer, so I did all my training and studying and then I was supplying galleries like myself up until I opened this one 11 years ago. There is so much beautiful and wonderful talented designers out there creating amazing jewellery, I think, why would I go anywhere else?”
Sewart does admit though that sometimes consumers need educating on contemporary designer jewellery, but they are beginning to understand,
“It is more difficult in Plymouth,” she shares. “If I was in London I could be a little bit more flamboyant and out there. We do have to be quite conservative with our contemporary jewellery, but we are finding that more people are getting interested in contemporary jewellery and appreciating the different materials as long as we can explain what they are and how they are being used.”
While Plymouth high street could do with a lick of paint, it’s definitely a city not in danger of business slowing down too much — especially as we enter the summer months.
Furthermore, all the jewellery retailers in Plymouth are passionate about their stores, products and customer service, and shine above any areas of the city which might need improving.