This feature has actually been a long time coming.
Whenever the Professional Jeweller team attends an industry event, they always find it fascinating to sit down with the sales agents and hear their stories from travelling around the country.
In all honesty, sales agents often provide us with some of the most insightful information because they have a good overview of the trade, yet they are not given much recognition for what they do and the role the play in helping business boom for both jewellery industry suppliers and retailers.
Unlike many in the industry, sales agents spend the majority of their time on the road. They spend their time visiting a wide selection of jewellers, and they work for a handful of suppliers, or, if they are in more of an account manager or sales representative position, they will be committed to one brand, but still look after a variety of retail accounts in allocated locations.
It is worth noting that there are different types of sales agents. Some are self-employed and work for numerous suppliers, while others will be employed by one brand and will be in charge of looking after retailers and opening new accounts in a specific region. There are also agency companies, which will hire agents to work for them and look after their clients.
No matter the type of employment they have though, due to the nature of their job, sales agents are able to paint a bigger picture of the UK jewellery industry, and, moreover, they get to see what retailers are really like when they pop in unexpectedly, and that can be extremely eye opening.
Here, we talk to sales agents and agency directors with reps on the road to find out what got them into the job (in case anyone fancies a career in this area of the trade) and what they’ve noticed through their travels to different stores up and down the country.
After 16 years of employment in the industry, Steve Todd entered the world of self-employment as a sales agent just over two years ago.
Working with River Mounts, Allied Gold, Connoisseurs, and Bering Time, Todd predominantly looks after the South West, South Central, and South Wales areas of the UK.
After working as a sales representative for companies in the trade, Todd was largely attracted to the role of self-employed sales agent because he wanted to be responsible for his own destiny and work in his own style.
He shares: “As a sales agent I feel more flexible to offer what my customers want, and to respond to their needs without being tied to have to push the latest promotion or product in one area. I am now able to offer watches and jewellery, contemporary and traditional, services and products — something that I couldn’t do as an employee for one company.”
He explains to Professional Jeweller: “I’m fortunate to have great products and brands in my portfolio that I know can, and do, help grow a jewellers business. Being a sales agent enables me to keep my fingers on the pulse of the trade to respond and adapt what I offer in a much more proactive and responsive manner.”
Ian McWilliams, who represents suppliers such as River Mounts, Connoisseurs, and Greenspark in the South East of England, was also attracted to the ability to be his own boss.
McWilliams says that the harder you work in the job, the more rewarding it is, and that’s something he likes about his position.
For Judith Williams, who is the director of Brioso Agencies and works as an agent on behalf of Nomination, her route to working as a sales agent started in retail.
She shares: “In 1982 I worked at the new Debenhams store in Cardiff. It was meant to be a temporary job, but I never looked back. Selling, customer service, targets and problem solving was in my blood.”
Williams continues: “Ten years in retail were followed by various rep roles with great sales and account management training which led to various national account roles with big brands. Becoming a self employed sales agent was a natural progression in this industry and I really love being involved and wearing lots of hats.”
Travis Burne also started in retail, working with a family jeweller in Scotland, before working as both a rep and a sales agents, and then starting an agency with Matt McCawley in 2007.
Their agency, BurneMcCawley Ltd, provides jewellery brands and manufactures with a sales team covering the UK & Ireland.
Burne shares a bit of the story: “As a rep, my first job was with Hirsch selling their watch bracelets around Scotland and North England in 2003. Within a couple of years I was given the opportunity to work for The Tanzanite Company as their northern sale rep. To have been able to help grow and nurture a gemstone’s sales was incredibly rewarding. Bringing the public to appreciate tanzanite meant participating in events from in-store presentations to select clients, sale events alongside retail partners, even attending Rotary club dinners and once giving a presentation for the wives of a Masonic lodge whom a retailer was a member of.
“I’m now a sales agent for my company BurneMcCawley Ltd. Our first company we partnered with, I’m very happy to say we still work with them, is Tivon Fine Jewellery. We now have a great collection of fine jewellery brands, working with gold and silver, diamonds and gemstones that we do our level best to find the right retailers to partner with and help build a successful business for all involved.”
Between them the directors of Connoisseurs UK, Philip Goodman and Gavin Merrison, have a background in retail and sales.
With both these experiences at hand, they understand the need of retailers and suppliers, and work hard to play not just a sales role, but a supportive role too.
PEAKS AND TROUGHS
For these sales agents, travelling is one of the biggest perks of the job.
While for some people being constantly on the road is a daunting prospect, for the sales agents Professional Jeweller spoke to it’s a joy.
Not only do they get to explore new places and visit different jewellers, they also get to meet new people and hear their often insightful and inspiring stories as well.
“Meeting lots of interesting and inspiring business people is a perk of the job,” says Philip Goodman, with Judith Williams adding: “It’s a very sociable industry, I’ve made some great friends and colleagues from all over Europe, the UK and Ireland. I plan my own diary and love visiting different places and meeting different people every day. And of course, I never tire of seeing the seasonal new jewellery collections. But the best perk has to be visiting the Nomination head office in Florence at least once a year.”
“I love meeting people, seeing new things and exploring new places as well as pandering to my love of gemstones,” continues Travis Burne, adding: “As an agent I get to travel, not only most of the UK, but also a lot of Europe and occasionally further abroad; all in the name of work.”
Todd emphasises: “Every day I’m in two, three, four or more different towns and cities meeting different personalities and businesses. The variety, sociality and freedom that this role offers is a big appeal to me, particularly because I’m not great at sitting still.”
It’s not all about simply being on the move though, being a sales agent is a rewarding job as well.
Todd explains: “I find it particularly rewarding when I can see that I have helped a family business to increase their turnover — now that I’m self-employed I can empathise better with the peaks and troughs experienced by the retail jewellers.”
And for those that are self-employed it allows them to be flexible, create their own work pattern, and not miss too many family events.
Furthermore, being your own boss can be extremely rewarding in itself.
McWilliams shares: “You are answerable to yourself for your own actions and this spurs me on to do better every week.”
Self-employment, as many will know, is not without challenges though.
When business is tough for retail as a whole that of course has a knock on effect for others working in the industry — including sales agents.
“When times are more challenging on the high streets, as is widely reported currently, I’m faced regularly by the financial challenge of having to take a punt at whether to go to work some days,” says Todd. “If I have nothing in the diary I could stay at home and guarantee to earn nothing. Alternatively, I can go out – spend money on fuel and the car costs, spend money on parking, possibly hotels as well and stand to lose money that day – or maybe by being out I’m pleasantly surprised to take an unexpected order or open a new account.”
He continues: “95% of the time I will go out because I believe that my role is about more than selling. Yes, selling pays the bills, but good service and relationship is rightly critical to retailers. In the long term, I believe that money can’t buy that and the service is remembered and appreciated much more.”
Other challenges include keeping a variety of suppliers and retailers happy all at the same time.
In addition, the job of a sales agent has evolved and no longer is it strictly about ‘selling’, but about training staff and putting on events that will help retailers drive footfall and in turn sales as well.
This can be time consuming, and hard to balance, especially when you have numerous demands to manage.
Not to mention the job is extremely relational, and time needs to be given to building and nurturing relationships as well.
“Some challenges, are out of my control,” confides Williams, “but some are due to my own workload due to Nomination’s growth, retailers’ needs and demands. I’m not complaining — it’s a great problem to have.”
Safety and security is also worth a mention as well, especially in light of a salesman for Le Vian getting attacked by a gang (who got away with a £4m jewellery haul) in a car park in Staines.
And, last but not least, selling is no walk in the park, especially in the wake of increasing uncertainty on the British high street.
TALES FROM THE ROAD
Now to the next bit, what have these sales agents noticed on the road?
What’s the ‘mood of the industry’ (that’s a question Professional Jeweller always gets!)? What’s some of the good, the bad, and the ugly happening in the UK jewellery trade?
The general mood is that things are tough, but they are not as bad as some may fear it is.
For every store that closes, there is another company taking things up a notch, investing in staff, marketing, and the customer experience, and in turn seeing results.
Goodman says: “Things are not as bad as it seems. Having been a retailer, it is easy to get caught in the news and your own store’s bubble. When you travel the country you see a whole different perspective of the market, and for the better. There are amazing businesses and people we can all learn from.
“So if you have been stuck in your store or office for a few weeks, go visit other towns and jewellers, send your staff — see what products and service they offer and how their sales paths differ. This for me always provides new enthusiasm and energy to bring back.”
Todd adds: “The high street is going through a transitional period and realigning what it is all about. Service and experience is required for businesses to really excel.
The high street is not full of ‘shoppers’ anymore. Instead it is a place where people meet to catch up and be sociable. Footfall is unquestionably down, but I do not believe that finances are. Because of this, jewellers are in a great position to see this period through to the other side.”
Burne has noticed an increase in retailers promoting the name above the door more than the products inside.
He reveals: “The market became very brand oriented and in some areas still is. However I am seeing more and more retailers moving back to marketing themselves rather than handing over large amounts of their real-estate to one brand or another.”
Some innovations that have caught the agents’ eyes include sales boosting events, engaging staff training, and getting word out about the business in the local community.
Burne details a specific event he witnessed: “Recently, Jack Murphy Jewellers invited me to participate in an event with them. I’ve done many events but this one was different. They made sure their clients had an amazing evening with a meal, entertainment, fine jewellery, fashion catwalk show and interviews thrown in. It made the clients feel like one of the family. Don’t get me wrong, I much prefer a pure sales event but this added the pizazz and the feel-good factor for the jeweller to keep their clientele interested and also show them how valued they are.”
Todd tells the story of a jeweller that invited consumers to bring in their jewellery boxes from home and have their pieces cleaned.
Staff would go through the pieces and ask if there were any that they didn’t wear, and then tell them about how the jewellery could be recycled or updated.
He shares: “The customers were getting their jewellery cleaned for free, and turning their unwanted jewellery into something they would wear again. The shop was building relationships with the local community, selling jewellery cleaning products, mounts, and getting a small profit from the scrap metal. Everyone wins!”
McWilliams once witnessed a jeweller offer a free bracelet for customers who collected a couple of tokens from a local newspaper advert. On launch day there was a queue outside the store as far as they eye could see.
Elsewhere Goodman saw a sales team member pop in a single jewellery dry wipe in each gift bag, and then invited the customer back to learn about home-care products.
Innovation doesn’t just have to come from above. Any team member can contribute to ideas and help lift sales, which is why having the right team is key to survival.
Merrison points out: “I’m always amazed that good quality service is still the most important thing in jewellery stores and the stores that don’t offer this are the ones that are struggling — it seems so obvious to me.”
It’s when a member of staff doesn’t act professionally, or demonstrates a real lack of knowledge, that warning bells go off for the sales agents.
As much as they want retailers to invest in their products, they want to make sure the partnership is right and that the staff will be do a good job at selling it to the end consumer.
“I am surprised, thankfully very rarely, when speaking to some of the sales staff in store with their lack of knowledge of the products that they are selling. In this day and age, there is no excuse for lacking in knowledge when the brick and mortar stores have to compete against online,” explains Burne, with McWilliams adding:
“Customer service is key. If you give your customers a great experience they will never forget, they will return time and again and they will tell their friends about how good you are. This is everything from how the stock is displayed, how courteous and professional the staff are, how the goods are wrapped, the overall ambience of the store, the sense of ‘occasion’ built into the sale – all of these things trump the online buying experience.”
If bricks and mortar jewellers want to compete against online, they’ve got to make everything about the physical retail experience better.
But in all honesty, some jewellers will talk the talk but not walk the walk, with the agents telling Professional Jeweller of horror stories ranging from one jeweller’s paint work chipping off the walls and the cabinets looking like they’ve not been dusted in years, to another witnessing a customer coming into store for a ring clean and the sales staff simply taking the ring, sending the lady for a coffee, and giving the item back without so much as engaging with the potential shopper or using the opportunity to capture information. Others have walked in and not even had a member of staff look up and say hi.
The stories from sales agents about things that have shocked them on the road could be turned into an entire mag, but we are not here to name and shame. Instead we suggest looking at your own store with a fresh pair of eyes and making sure you are not missing any problems that might be directly under your nose.
It is a competitive market right now, and even the smallest detail can make the biggest difference.
Furthermore, jewellers should make sure they are not stuck in their ways. The way consumers shop has evolved massively, even in the last couple of years, so change is vital to survival.
“I strongly advise retailers to look at what they do,” advises Todd. “If it’s exactly the same as it was ten years ago then there’s a strong chance that they aren’t making steps to offer what the shopper of 2019 wants.”
“Try out new ideas and give your clients something to talk about,” says Burne, with Williams adding: “Be brave. Take a few risks. Believe in your business and your choice of brands. If the coffee shops are busy then the customers are in town and not at home internet shopping.”
Sales agents are here to help. Next time one walks through your door, find out what they can do for you, from recommending products, to training staff or providing eye-catching marketing materials that may help drive footfall through the doors.