Professional Jeweller editor Stacey Hailes caught up with some of the country’s leading independent jewellers at the Company of Master Jewellers’ latest bi-annual trade event to find out what hurdles they expect to have to jump this year, and how retailers and suppliers can work together to bolster business for the UK jewellery industry.

On the panel:

Chris Ellis, managing director, Dipples (CE)
Harriet France, director, Jeremy France Jewellers (HF)
John Henn, company director, T.A Henn (JOH)
Judith Hart, director, Judith Hart Jewellers (JH)
Lisa Curley, marketing and communications manager, Company of Master Jewellers (LC)


As independent jewellers, what are the biggest challenges you are facing at the moment?
JOH: Ageing staff is a big problem for me. Ageing staff who are struggling with the changes in the industry regarding any sort of technology, and they all seem to be struggling to understand that it is a service to our customers that we establish what they are interested in and offer to supply them with information regarding their interests. It’s proving unbelievably difficult for my staff to ask simple questions about the ‘dirty word’ of marketing. I was away last week and my staff didn’t take a single piece of email information, and when I am there they force themselves to ask the question, ‘Would you like to leave us your email address for targeted marketing, which would be just suitable for you and you can unsubscribe easily at any time?’, and they sort of fight their way through it but it doesn’t come naturally. But I have a 17 year old who can ask it at the blink of an eye and doesn’t get fazed by it at all, but I do think for me my biggest challenge is getting my staff to engage with modern processes.

JH: Do you want to take that information? Do you actually need it or want it?

HF: I think it is vital.

JOH: I do believe we need to be able to talk to people about things they are interested in, and it’s kind of part of what we do. They’ve walked into our store because they are interested in a brand, then I for one would be interested in receiving marketing related to a product that I was already bought into, but I don’t want to hear about a whole pile of other stuff which is unrelated. I expect that there is a level of security with the company that I am dealing with, so I am not expecting spam stuff to come from these people, and quite rightly if we did keep spamming them they would just block us anyway.

HF: We’ve had some staff who have felt very uncomfortable asking for email addresses and the way that we have trained our staff is to say, ‘What gives you the right to take away their choice?’ Because by sending them an email saying, ‘We have a Ti Sento pre-launch preview event coming up, you’ve bought Ti Sento in the past, would you like to come and view the collection before it is available to the general market and pre order items from the SS18 collection?’, who are we to look at a person and think they will not want to leave their email address and therefore not want to see the new collection.

John Henn and Harriet France discuss the challenges of managing staff of different ages.

Aside from data capturing, is there anything else you expect to be challenging this year?
HF: For me engaging and retaining millennials whilst keeping older staff happy at the same time, because what the older generation want and what the younger millennials want seems to be something very different. Something I have experienced with my younger millennials, the under 24s, is that one applied for a part-time job and another applied for full-time, but both of them have ended up requesting four-day weeks because they feel like their work-life balance isn’t right. That their opportunity to expand themselves personally isn’t adequate in the two days they have off when they are full-time. It’s really trying to keep them engaged and interested, and help them to want to stay and be passionate about the trade in the same way that the older generations are. It’s quite difficult to treat two very different age ranges in very different ways but not ruffle the feathers of one side or the other.

JH: It’s really tough with millennials. I was on a course not that long ago about that very topic. I have a son, who is 28, and he works for a company and he is there at his desk eating healthy snacks, and he is very much into his gym and health and fitness, and there are other people across the way with their cream cake and biscuits, and he’s actually being critised because he is into healthy options. He also works three screens at one time, and the guy opposite only works one screen, and he questions why he needs three. But my son is doing his work and doing what he should be doing, but feathers are being ruffled. It’s exactly the same thing as you are saying Harriet. You’ve got one guy over here with his cream cakes, and the other with healthy snacks, and how do you keep those two happy in one office or one shop?

HF: And how do you train all your staff in one day? How do you engage with all of them and keep it interesting? It used to be that you would have a training day and you would pass round the box of donuts to keep everyone happy, but for one of our girls we did a training day and it was her fasting day because she has one or two days a week where she only eats 300 calories. How do I train and keep this person interested in a day’s training when she is not keeping her sugar levels up?

JH: They learn differently as well. I’ve got age ranges from a 16-year-old Saturday girl right the way up to a lady who has been with me 30 odd years, but I think if you are a small business it is possible, you just have to perhaps split the training a little bit – say half in the morning and half in the afternoon – but I totally agree and I have first-hand experience of how difficult it is.

Independents face many obstacles this year, but are working hard to drive business during difficult times.

CE: The phycology behind the different ages is so different. I see that in my son and he is only ten. Coming back to some of the biggest challenges, how do we target the younger generation through marketing because the way that they look at marketing stuff is completely different to how I would. I’ve had a chat with some of the magazine companies that we use, and they are not pushing the magazines so much and it is more about digital marketing, and geo-location targeting. And it is trying to work out how to target them because at the end of the day, in the next 20 years, they are going to be the ones with the money who are going to come in and buy engagement rings and they need to know about us rather than go onto the internet.

HF: The internet is the next big obstacle isn’t it?

CE: I think one of the interesting things about the internet, and I believe it was mentioned in the members meeting, is they said the level of transfer from bricks and mortar to internet in the jewellery industry is a lot lower than anywhere else.

LC: It was anecdotal, but it felt that the jewellery industry in particular was a bit slower on the uptake of fully e-commerce transactional sites. But the message was very much get your store experience and your digital experience hand-in-hand so if consumers do happen to shop online they are seeing the same experience that they will get in store. And in our retailer post-Christmas survey that we sent out there was a lot of feedback that retailers were feeling they definitely needed to have their websites ready before this fourth quarter. Before Black Friday, Cyber Monday and the actual run up to Christmas shopping, because retailers had felt that they had lost out by not having it. And whilst that might not make up a big percentage of their sales, it’s having the choice for those shoppers that do want to shop from home.

CE: One of the things about the jewellery trade is it is very touchy feely. People want to see a diamond. You can’t see what it looks like and a lot of people can’t trust what they are buying online at that kind of level. But the issue is more what happens when there is a tipping point in the high street and most other retailers don’t need to have shops because they are doing so much more on the internet. If there aren’t shops on the high street people aren’t going to come into Norwich to come to my shop if there is nothing else in the city. So I think where we might be safe, we are also not safe because of what is happening in other retail sectors.

The internet is a huge challenge for bricks and mortar jewellers at the moment, but I think millennials really do value the customer experience and look for more than just price and ease. If you can make someone shop in your shop because they want to shop with you and your staff, they will remain loyal.
HF: They are saying more and more that millennials are accepting they are not going to be able to buy houses and rather than saving they are buying experiences and trips away and activity days, and they are a lot more focused on the now and the memories, than they are on physical items, so I think you are probably quite right about giving a good experience. We do get customers that come in, and yes they have done their research online, but they don’t want to buy online all the time. It is not true for everybody but many have given themselves as much of an education as they can online – rightly or wrongly informed in some instances but that’s by the by – and they come in because they want to know that they are standing in front of Harriet France who is telling them this ring will last a life time, and in 20 years’ time they will have to come in and get the claw work re done because it will probably be wearing a bit thin, and they can come in once or twice a year to get their ring cleaned and we won’t charge them for that service, but we will ask them to give a donation to charity on behalf of our time, and that they can come in and ask as many questions as they want and if they are annoyed or angry or confused or disappointed, they can come and talk to my face and not sit waiting for their inbox to pop up with a generic email from whoever happens to be in the office at the time. And I think people want to have that reassurance still and I don’t think that’s something the internet can ever provide.

Are your millennial staff engaged when they are at work?
HF: Oh absolutely. They are absolutely focused. I would say their output of work is higher than expected.

CE: We find that too.

Retailers says stronger relationships with suppliers are key to growth.

Do you think you have done something specific to engage your millennial staff, or working hard just comes naturally to this age group?
CE: I think it is more of the mind-set.

HF: I also wonder whether it is because what they are good at is quantifiable. Now I have some older members of staff who aren’t very good at doing their brand ambassador reports every month, and printing off a report and analysing the data and writing it down and giving it to me, and they are not very good at writing a quick email, but what they are very good at is actually building a relationship with a face-to-face customer and creating trust. And that customer may not spend £5,000 now on the item they are looking at but they could be back in ten years time and spend £10,000. And that is not easily quantifiable, whereas somebody sitting in front of a screen and doing CAD images and emailing customers with those images is a very quantifiable thing, and you can say — well you’ve generated five CAD images today, you’ve emailed 12 customers, you’ve had two appointments, and you took £5,000 out of the two of them, and that is the volume of work that you have done. That is not to say that the older person who has built that relationship with the person who hasn’t bought yet is not just as important. So it’s just the millennial in store has a more quantifiable skill set.

JH: You get the best of both worlds.

HF: We always say, when I am talking with my team, when a job has got to be done we know what’s a ‘Dolly’ job and what’s a ‘Molly’ job, and we know people have different skills and there is no point giving a ‘Dolly’ job to Molly’ and vice versa, because they are going to take twice as long and not do it as well.

JH: And that’s good management isn’t it? You know your staff’s strengths, you know their skills, so you know the best person to give that job to.

CE: One of the issues that we find is we can’t replace staff like-for-like. If we have a more mature member of staff leave, I don’t want a 16 or 17-year-old taking their place because they are completely different. They are at different points in their careers, different points in their lives, they have different priorities, also, customers don’t always want to be served by someone who knows nothing about what they are doing, and a more mature customer probably wants to be served by someone in their 50s or 60s. And we’ve had lots of people work way past retirement and go down to two or three days because they love the job, and they have so much knowledge and so much rapport with customers which I think comes with age. And it would be nice to be able put out an advert that says we want a mature member of staff but we can’t. We are not try to be discriminating, we are trying to give someone more mature an opportunity, and you very rarely get that person apply because they assume, because it’s a shop role, you are going to want to get someone young and pay them minimum wage.

Does anyone else struggle to replace staff like-for-like and attract employees of all ages?
JH: Yes, recently we interviewed someone who applied in the end but when she came to the interview, she was an older lady, she said, ‘Oh I am so surprised I am here for an interview’, and we said, ‘Oh, but you applied’, and she said, ‘Well I very nearly didn’t because I was convinced you would want someone younger’. And tactfully you’ve got to say well actually you are here because you are not younger and she got the job and she is marvellous because she communicates.

HF: That’s it, because even if they have not got the jewellery experience, to have communication skills is a vital tool in our trade, especially when they are completely customer facing, and it is not always something millennials have. It’s not something that comes naturally to some people.

CE: You don’t get life skills without life. If you have lived for 50 years, you’ve got 50 years’ worth of life experience. You can’t expect someone in their twenties to have that same level of skill.

JH: And you are right, some people do want to be served by someone older.
That’s important to note. The industry keeps talking about the millennials and they are absolutely important because they are the next generation, but you can’t forget all the other ages that will still be shopping in your shop, and they are the ones which will be very loyal to you.

JH: We had an older couple come in the other week who actually apologised to us because they had actually been away on holiday and purchased a piece of jewellery somewhere else. They said they had to come in and tell us they were so sorry.

Our editor offered insights into millennial consumers.

Time is flying away with us, and we have talked a lot about the challenges, but what do you think independent jewellers can be doing to drive growth over the next 12 months?
JH: I believe there should be a lot more cooperation between the retailers and the suppliers, I don’t think it is just down to us as retailers. And I think there has been a little bit of brand bashing out there at the moment, and maybe rightly so because the brands are coming to us and they bring out the seasonal collections, and then two-three months later there is another season, and then everything left is half price, and that’s a challenge because we end up sat on a lot of dead stock because it’s last season and out of fashion and that accumulates. So I do feel there should be more cooperation between the retailers and the suppliers – they want their brand to look good in the window – so help us. Take back some of this dead stock and use your clearance opportunities. That will then help us to keep things fresh and new for the customers, and hopefully that will attract them.

CE: With any firm we deal with, especially a brand, we get a written guarantee that if sales do not perform within the first 12 months stock goes back and we get a full credit, and also that they do stock swaps and it is not on a two for one basis, it’s on a like-for-like basis. Because if they are going to support us that way, I am going to support them by spending money.

JH: That would be great to get those guarantees from brands.

CE: You don’t always. But there are ways of working it through.

JH: That would encourage me to support the brand even more.

HF: You are more likely to replenish. If you can get a one for one deal, then that means you are more likely to want to replenish the items which are selling through, whereas if you are going to buy a one for two you will think you’ve still got too much stock and you can’t justify buying the core best sellers again. You can’t justify having that volume of that particular brand.

JH: It is particularly difficult with the brands. Because people are so much savvier, they know that stock is last season and they don’t want it anymore.

How do you think suppliers and retailers can be working together more closely?
HF: For me, moving back quickly to jump forward, I think key factors to drive growth for us as an independent jeweller is the ability to customise and say yes to whatever the request is. Being able to offer bespoke services. So not focusing so much on the brands but the fine jewellery side. And I think for us what we are finding more and more is customers want slight modifications on an item they see in a window — just to have a personal touch and to know they’ve made that conscious decision to make it unique. And I think the suppliers can support the independents like ourselves in that sense. It’s being able to provide images for social media, to show customers more visual options without having to carry the livestock, and sending regular stock lists of their new stones, because there is nothing more of a pain then having to leave your customer for 15 minutes while you call five different companies to get stone lists.

JH: Online lists are very good. These enquires almost always happen at the weekend when these suppliers are more often than not closed.

HF: Companies like Raphael Gemex have a fantastic facility on their website where you can customise with your own branding on top so it is non comparative, and there is actually an option to change the colour of the metal, so if someone is looking for yellow gold they don’t have to look at a white one on screen, and they give you all the different quality options, and that’s what customers need to see. You can show them four different metals and three different quality options.

JOH: It is very easy to upsell on products using that because you’ve got all the information in front of you and it is great tool alongside the samples. I do think instead of having a million pounds worth of diamond stock, we will end up with one hundred thousand in diamond stock and the rest as samples because the younger people aren’t expecting to buy the thing on the spot and walk out the door with it. We still do carry some anniversary rings which are real because the 50+ do like to walk out the door after making a purchase, but anybody under that age is absolutely happy to have it ordered, and the fact that it is priced live on the day means that the discount has disappeared because there is no need for a discount.

JH: I don’t think we should be afraid to ask suppliers questions. My motto to my staff is I want you to make it as easy as possible for that customer to buy from us, and I think that the suppliers should make it as easy as possible for us to buy from them.

The year ahead is about streamlining businesses and strengthening omnichannel

Just to close then, can each of you share your thoughts on the year ahead and what you will be focusing on as a business over the next 12 months?
CE: I think this year is going to be a very challenging year on the high street for various reasons, some are in our control and some aren’t, and until this year is through it’s kind of going back to basics — looking at what do we need? What is our core stock? What has been sold that we should replace? Not necessarily expensive things, it could be silver and St Christopher’s — just trying to make sure we have the right stock at the right time for the right people coming through the door, which sometimes we miss.

JH: Two things come to mind. One is the old saying, which is my favourite saying, which is profit is sanity and turnover vanity, and I think we all need to look at margin and we certainly as a business are looking at margin, and working very hard. We are looking at our brands. And yes I think there is a general move among the independents to look at brands and maybe go to the more generic jewellery. Because yes, there is more margin there, but I think it is going back to our roots as jewellers. And I think possibly that’s one root forward. And for us as a business, we are looking at our IT, and our website, and the social media side. So that’s what we are concentrating on — our core business, our IT, and social media and marketing, and that is going to be the drive for us this year.

CE: Off the back of that we’ve got to remember that there is a name above the door, and it is our name, and it is not a brand, it is us, and consumers come to us, and we need to have our stock out.

JOH: We are going to start to try and be better at managing the numbers of our staff. We’ve done some work with Jo Henderson, who is giving us some better disciplines about understanding who is selling what and the number of transactions and add on sales, and the harsh reality is that there’s two of us in our business putting all the money in the till, and another three really not earning their wage, and for us this year is going to be making them properly aware of it and making everybody answerable of the wage they get paid. So this year I am going to turn the heat up on my staff.

HF: I don’t think it is going to be an easy year. I think it will be quite challenging. We are looking at streamlining our brand and our consistency, from seeing the name above the door, walking in, the colour tones in the store, the images on social media reflected in the window displays, the bags and the boxes complementing the colours of the brand overall reflected on the website and just kind of bringing everything together as a recognisable and familiar independent family name. I think continuing with our staff training which we try and have a full days training for every member of the sales team once or twice a year. Really honing them in and making them think about it, and also after sales relationships with our customers, and enabling them to contact the customers on a non-aggressive way and maintain a relationship. Focusing on let’s build friends that will come back later and making ourselves a friendly environment to come in and shares your experiences with. So that’s what I am looking forward to and what my focus will be.

JH: I think it will be really challenging. It is going to be a tough year. We haven’t even mentioned Brexit which is amazing.

Thanks goes to the CMJ for allowing us to host this roundtable during their bi-annual trade event. Photo credit: Paul Martyniuk.