Business in Hull has changed dramatically for the better over the last 12 months, with many jewellers commenting they were pleased Professional Jeweller didn’t visit last year.
Why? Because while the title of ‘UK City of Culture’ has boosted business in the area, the preparation to get to this point was less than pleasant.
It is no secret that Hull has often been the victim of bad press, so once it had secured the City of Culture honour, a title only bestowed every four years, the buzz began early with residents pinning high hopes on the transformation the year would bring.
And they weren’t wrong to be hopeful. Research suggests more than 1.4m visitors attended cultural events and activities in Hull during the first three months, while researchers also noted Hull Trains reported a 17% increase in passengers in January 2017 in comparison to the same month last year. Moreover a half year review revealed the art festival boosted the local economy by an estimated £60m in the first six months.
Indeed, Hull embraced its status and used it as a catalyst for change. However, before welcoming an influx of visitors to the city centre, the whole area needed to be transformed.
What would usually take place in a city centre over a number of years, happened in the space of about six months as Hull City Council committed to a multi-million pound investment to ensure it made the most of this opportunity to show the world exactly what the city has to offer.
Roads were blocked, getting in and out of the city was a nightmare, and in the end businesses were deeply affected in the run-up to 2017, with some independent retailers – thankfully not jewellers – closing down.
The biggest problem of all though was the Christmas trading season, which for most retailers across the country is the most profitable time of the year. Unfortunately, despite all the work being completed in the city centre by the end of November/ beginning of December, the damage had already be done and the season was a disappointment for retail businesses last year.
“The Christmas period was a complete write off for any business, last year” shares Berry’s Jewellers’ Hull store manager Nicholas O’Connor, who echoes the words of nearly all the jewellers Professional Jeweller spoke to. “Some businesses closed down, we survived, but we had holes and barriers outside of our windows.”
Berry’s Jewellers was in an unfortunate location when it came to being affected by the work taking place. A lot of the changes were happening right outside its store window, with shoppers having to follow a one way system and browse over an eight foot gap to view the retailer’s luxury jewellery offering.
“It all got finished by the end of November, just in time for Christmas, but the damage had already been done. People didn’t really want to come to Hull because they had seen the bad press of it all. They had seen it was chaos to get in, chaos to get out, but now, 2017 is a different year. The City of Culture will help change things and bring more people to the city.”
For many jewellers the major problem was lack of footfall — something businesses rely heavily on during the Christmas trading period. In fact, things got so bad that one jeweller told Professional Jeweller that even they ventured into the city once to do some Christmas shopping and didn’t return again because it was too stressful.
“It is difficult to sit back and moan now because the city hasn’t been invested in for a number of years, but it’s certainly nice to be sat on this side of it, because it was really challenging over Christmas last year,” explains Hugh Rice sales and marketing director, James Rice. “Because of limited access to the town, we lost quite a bit of trade to other cities as the city centre was a difficult place to navigate. I am really looking forward to this year without those limitations and the City of Culture has been great.”
2017 presented a completely different year for the retailers. While footfall is still not what it used to be, the city’s jewellers are confident locals will return to Hull this Christmas, with visitors in toe. After all, December marks the end of Hull’s tenure as the City of Culture, so the festive season offers the perfect opportunity to see what all the buzz has been about.
“Hull has not always had such a glamorous past, so it is nice the hear Hull in the news for positive reasons,” Rice says when discussing the impact the year-long festival has had. “It’s nice to add some civic pride back and have investment, I think it is really special if you can get those things together.”
Branch manager at independently run, Ian Blowers Jewellers, Richard Smith, adds: “We have more business coming to the town centre, the city is wonderful now, a lot of money has been spent and lifted it all out. If you look at the visitor numbers, it’s gone up massively this last year.”
For Berry’s Jewellers, the retailer now has a great view from its windows again, and 12 months on its able to see that the transformation was just what Hull needed in order to make businesses survive the strains being placed on the UK high street.
“It seems to all be worth it,” shares the store manager. “They wanted to get a million visitors for the year and we had that in the first four months. There are a lot of people coming to Hull. Also, the local people have been quite good as well and that’s great because the local people make the city as successful as it is. The local people want to come to the city they don’t want to just bypass it and go to Leeds and York. They want to come in and even though the state of the city was terrible last year, now it’s more open and a lot more going on, it gives people a reason to be proud of the city and if you are proud of your city you are going to come in and spend money.”
While the City of Culture has proved to be the lift Hull needed, the end of its time does not mark the end of the city’s investment and stream of positive news. Many jewellers are also upbeat about leading global engineering and technology services company Siemens investing £160m in a new rote blade manufacturing facility, project construction, assembly and service facility at Green Port Hull.
It has also been announced that the company running Hull’s City of Culture events is going to continue as a permanent independent arts organisation. From next year this group will be renamed ‘Culture Company’, and will carry on commissioning “world-class arts” programmes to build on the achievements and momentum made in the last 12 months.
“I am also looking forward to the next few years,” shares Rice. “We’ve had big investments from Siemans to hopefully make this a green energy hub. It would be nice to be synonymous to an industry again, especially something as universally appreciated as green energy. It’s a nice place to be at the moment, certainly in my 31 years I have never been prouder to say I am from Hull.”
Humble Hull boasts of a strong sample of jewellery retailers, all of which have their own USP in the city.
Just to paint the picture, starting from the station where Professional Jeweller entered the city, directly next to the station is St Stephen’s Shopping Centre, where Hugh Rice is the only jeweller inside, and then opposite the station shoppers can find the majority of the city’s retail hubs — including a couple more shopping precincts and pedestrianised streets.
This section of the city offers another main shopping centre – Princess Quay – where national retailers Ernest Jones, Warren James and Beaverbrooks are located. A stone’s throw away is Berry’s Jewellers, which is positioned on Queen Victoria Square, Ian Blowers Jewellers, which is the other side of the square, and Segal’s Jewellers, which is opposite Princess Quay in the Paragon Arcade.
Segal’s is a very friendly and welcoming family-run jewellers, which was established in 1919. During its time in the city the business has expanded, and now spans over several units in the well-located Paragon Arcade.
The business stocks and buys gold, silver and diamond jewellery, and has a unique selection of products in its windows. The wide-spread offering, and ability to offer part exchange, separates Segal’s from the other jewellers in the city, but its strength also lies in looking after staff, and in turn, having employees stay with the business for a long length of time.
“We’ve had staff here who have been here years and know what they are talking about,” shares a partner of Segal’s Jewellers, Jo Roos. “Some of them have been here longer than I have, and we have repeat customers. We know a lot of customers by their first names, and we give a real good and personal service. which makes a difference.”
“My brother is a real people person and I tend to stay in the background, making sure the staff are happy and know what they are doing,” Roos explains about the dynamic of the family business. “I am sort of the cog. We all have our own niche and all work together to make sure it ticks and works.”
Ian Blowers Jewellers is also a long-standing, family-run, independent retailer in the city. While the company does stock high end jewellery pieces, watches account for the biggest part of the business.
Over the past 40 years, Ian Blowers Jewellers has become known for sourcing and selling the highest quality pre-owned watches to discerning clients, many of which aren’t even in Hull — or the United Kingdom.
“We are one of the biggest second hand watch dealers in the UK now,” branch manager, Richard Smith, shares. “We’ve got a great reputation throughout Europe, and indeed the world. We sell watches all over the world, and we are sending out watches every day.”
By quite some margin the store’s best seller is Rolex. Above the shop floor, Ian Blowers has offices which enables the team to keep up with international demand, with Smith revealing: “For every one watch we sell over the counter we post five equivalent, so the internet is extremely valuable to us.”
Not too far from Ian Blowers Jewellers, the other side of Victoria Square, is Berry’s — the city’s luxury jeweller.
Berry’s dominates the North of England, and although Hull is one of its smallest stores, it is still every bit as important.
“We are one of the smaller shops in terms of turnover and profit, but at the same time we don’t get thought of any less, they don’t set us unrealistic targets, because they know we are a smaller shop,” explains store manager, Nicholas O’Connor. “We don’t have all the brands, but we still have the high quality jewellery that the other stores offer, we just have to have the customer and client base in Hull.”
With a policy of quality in every quarter, Berry’s waves the flag for high luxury and excellent customer service.
O’Connor says: “In certain cities such as Leeds and Newcastle, it is easy to have that high end luxury sector because you have the clientele, but it is a bit trickier in Hull because the low sort of economy. There is wealth in the surrounding areas but a lot of people go out of town. Ultimately, we are one of the highest, if not the highest, luxury jeweller in the city, but at the same time we’ve got to be quite realistic with the clientele that we have. So we do have a range of things which are slightly lower in terms of value but it doesn’t demolish in terms of quality. So high luxury, high quality would be our slogan.”
“As a company we strive ourselves on high customer service as well,” O’Connor continues, adding: “It is important to offer good customer service because here you’ve got to get customers at the first instance because otherwise you lose them in a city that is not renowned for its multiple customers or passing trade for high value, so if you’ve lost them at an early stage it’s difficult to get them back. You’ve got to offer the good customer service and keep a high level, and having a good staff retention helps that because you then see familiar faces.”
Not too far from Berry’s is Whitefriargate, where jewellery giant Pandora is located, and Princes Dock Street, which is home to Oresome Gallery and Jewellery Workshops.
Oresome Gallery is run by two trained jewellers, Victoria Prince and Nicola Champman. With workshops on site, the duo create unique designs for consumers to browse, and specialise in bespoke commissions and running workshops which allow customers to make their very own piece of jewellery.
Courses vary from a ‘beginners workshop’, to working with couples to create handcrafted wedding bands.
“Our USP is that everything is bespoke and we never make the same thing twice,” shares Prince. “It might be very similar but there will be some element of it that is different. It’s not like other jewellers where everyone could be wearing the same thing.”
“We are unique really,” adds Chapman. “We do everything on site and we run the workshops as well, and everything in the gallery is from us, we don’t buy anything. We manufacturer ourselves too. A lot of our core business is commissions.”
The only other store in the city where the workshop plays an important role is Hugh Rice Jewellers. In the Hull store, the company’s flagship, customers on the shop floor can see through to the workshops out back.
For Hugh Rice, this is about holding firm to its roots and what it became known for in the city. The company started as a traditional jewellery store with a highly successful service business, before relocating to the shopping centre and expanding into branded jewellery as well.
While some jewellers don’t believe you can marry fashion and fine together, Hugh Rice has certainly managed to succeed in this and has the store perfectly laid out to cater to both.
The store has two entrances to the shop — one which brings consumers to the branded side, and one to the traditional side. Once inside the facility people can move in between the two. Furthermore, at the back of the store the service area takes pride of place and there is a quiet space for clients to sit down and discuss bespoke queries.
“We saw the branded side as another string to our businesses bow,” Rice shares about the expansion, adding: “Instead of customers coming to visit us once or twice a year if we were lucky, we then got the opportunity to have them other times of the year as well. But, all these years later one of the biggest footfall drivers is still the service side of the business. It’s still nice to have that as part of the business and it is what a lot of people’s earliest memories of the business would have been. It makes a big difference to sales because we can do, for example, a same day ring sizing here, rather than send it off.”
He concludes: “They say you can’t be all things to all men, but I think with a big enough shop behind you, you can have a go at that. I think it is a bit of a myth that customers don’t shop across the shop as well. It is difficult to pigeon hole your customers as only a branded customer, or bridal customer, because we have seen that is not correct. We have seen customers shop on both side of the store quite merrily, and it is a nice string to the bow.”
As far as city’s go, Hull has an excellent jewellery scene, which shouldn’t be overlooked. Staff in the jewellers of Hull are extremely friendly and knowledgeable, and are among some of the most welcoming Professional Jeweller has ever visited.
The people of Hull have every reason to be proud of what the city has become over the last 12 months. Businesses in the area should continue to embrace the positive changes and look forward to a brighter trading future.