The high street stalwarts courting a new era of jewellery brands.
British department stores are transforming from fuddy-duddy to fashion forward, and in them jewellery brands are discovering a new style of retail and a fresh set of customers. But is a slick retail space enough? Rob Corder and a host of British jewellery brands discuss the route to reaching bigger stores.
The warmer weather and a spate of discounting are credited with helping department stores lead a recovery on the high street this summer, with sales rising by an annual rate of 3% according to the Office of National Statistics.
In years gone by some jewellery brands and independent designers viewed the big three department store chains – John Lewis, Debenhams and House of Fraser – with an air of caution due to preconceptions that selling alongside apparel and beauty products would cheapen a brand’s image and lead to price competition that eroded margins. As a result, in the past decade jewellery brands have fought for space at the premium stores such as Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Selfridges, Liberty and Fortnum & Mason where affluent shoppers – many from overseas – are plentiful and less price-sensitive. These stores are also viewed as having better specialist jewellery knowledge than the biggest department stores.
Today the picture is changing, however, partly because the big three department stores have raised their games, and partly because the definition of what is considered real jewellery has moved from being limited to gold and precious gems to embracing silver and semi-precious stones. This has allowed department stores to grab a significant share of the market.
In a survey conducted by Mintel in July this year, 13% of shoppers said they had bought “precious metal jewellery” from department stores in the past five years. This was 2% higher than the number who said they had bought watches from department stores in the same period.
One of the major drivers for this uptick of jewellery sales has been the strength of their online sales. A related piece of research by Mintel in May this year found that half of shoppers buying fashion accessories, jewellery and watches from department stores bought from their websites.
Duncan Groves, who has been mentoring emerging designer AmiAnna Jewellery since leaving contemporary jewellery retailer Charles Fish, recognises that department stores are getting stronger and resolving issues that made them unattractive to brands in the past. “The appeal [of selling in department stores ] now would be having our brand under the umbrella of a trusted name and getting amazing footfall from jewellery and non-jewellery buying customers,” he suggests.
Simon Ogilvie-Harris, founder of Chavin Jewellery, which is sold through Fenwicks, House of Fraser, Selfridges and a number of independent department stores, says the style of shop holds vast appeal. “They are high footfall locations and as a company we are very heavy on merchandising and branding, and this is what fits into the department store environment. This is key as your brand must stand out to be successful.”
However, Groves is quick to point out that jewellers maintain strengths of their own. “High street jewellers are making their shops look like mini department stores and they have great product expertise,” he says.
London Road Jewellery, which is currently stocked in 21 John Lewis stores throughout the UK, believes the department store has significantly improved its product range and customer service for jewellery over the past 10 years. “Most department stores have expanded their offer with more branded and designer goods, especially when it comes to fashion and accessories, and are attracting a younger, more fashion-conscious customer,” says Suzanne Adams, creative director for London Road Jewellery. “For many consumers, John Lewis has become a bit of a national treasure.”
The relationship began right back at the launch phase for the 9ct gold brand, and was set in motion with a single phone call to a John Lewis buyer. “As with most things, the timing was crucial,” recalls Adams. “We contacted the buyer when we were launching London Road and they loved the idea of the brand and appreciated the quality and design.”
London Road’s collections are priced towards the top end of John Lewis’ jewellery line up, with some pieces retailing for close to £1,000, but it has been successful enough to command more space in a larger number of stores as the partnership has developed. Now, London Road works closely with merchandisers and shop staff to ensure the brand is sold in the correct way. “Training, stock control and merchandising are paramount for the success of London Road, and we work very closely with John Lewis [on these areas],” explains Adams.
Breaking into department stores, particularly the top tier of luxury stores like Harrods and Selfridges, is perceived by most brands as close to impossible. Some stores charge brands to be stocked, although this is usually in the form of the brands paying for mandatory marketing and promotion activity. For Lola Rose, getting accepted into the department store fold was a combination of hard work, great product and a bit of luck. “Lola Rose’s first ever stockist was Fenwick 13 years ago,” recalls the brand’s founder Nikki Gewirtz. “To make contact I called the buyer personally. I was a little tenacious to start, but the effort paid off and Lola Rose was born.”
The brand’s second department store presence was within the Talisman Gallery at Harvey Nichols in London, where Gewirtz arrived with a basket full of bracelets. “I asked the shop girls whether they were interested in buying them,” she says. “They took some samples, then I waited by the phone until I received the call saying that they would stock them. After the collection sold in record time, it aroused interest from several other department stores which came direct to Lola Rose.”
Now the brand is stocked in Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Fenwick, John Lewis, Bentalls and other independent department stores in the UK; plus, Bloomingdales, Henri Bendel, Kastadt and Luisa Via Roma overseas.
Both Chavin and Dower & Hall have taken a more traditional route to broker relationships with its stockists, which, for Dower & Hall, include 19 John Lewis outlets, and Fenwick stores in York and Newcastle. “Generally, we find trade shows such as IJL and Spring Fair are great places to meet buying teams,” suggests Dower & Hall creative director Diane Hall.
The brand also sells through independent jewellers, but also via its own branded shops in east London and Glasgow, and appreciates the improvements being made by department stores to improve their service to jewellery shoppers. “In recent years, many stores have improved their jewellery departments with large scale expansions, creative displays and better merchandising. Now, more than ever, jewellery concessions are being positioned in a prominent area of the store. However, there is still room for improvement with regards to staff training,” Hall says.
Claudia Bradby, founder of her eponymous pearl jewellery brand, is stocked in John Lewis stores nationwide. She credits the company for updating its image to embrace more fashion-forward jewellery brands. “What has been really interesting, and thrilling, has been to see John Lewis shed its slightly middle-aged image and to bring in exciting fashion brands like Whistles and Alice Temperley,” says Bradby.
But there is still a way to go before the majority of department stores can be considered risk takers. “I think it would be great to see them stock some less obvious brands,” suggests Bradby. “I get really bored visiting all the top department stores and finding the same big brands everywhere, and little that is new.”
The logistics of driving juggernauts like John Lewis make it more difficult to stock smaller brands, but there is no doubt that the big three, as well as the top tier department stores, are dedicating more of their valuable real estate to both fine and fashion jewellery.
While this could be considered a threat to specialist jewellery retailers, it is also an opportunity for them to show shoppers that personal service and greater jewellery expertise should be appreciated. Buying jewellery should be a personal experience, and megastores will struggle to match the service that traditional jewellers deliver.
This feature was taken from the November issue of Professional Jeweller. To read the issue in full online, click here.