As Professional Jeweller represents the UK jewellery industry, we thought it was about time we visited a city outside of England. Editor Stacey Hailes hops on a plane to meet independent jewellers in Belfast to discover how business is performing in Northern Ireland’s capital.
Thanks to Storm Doris, Professional Jeweller arrived in Belfast after a bumpy plane ride. Hopefully it was Doris, and not our arrival, which made it a quiet day in the city. Driving from the airport to the centre it was evident Doris had already taken its toll on the trees in the area. Walking to the first jewellers at 11am was like walking through a ghost town. It appeared not many people were willing to give up their warm beds to go shopping in the high winds and rain.
It was definitely Doris putting people off though because as soon as the sun broke out later that day, footfall picked up rapidly, and being a Thursday where many shops open for late night shopping, there was a buzz around Belfast in the late afternoon, which carried on throughout the whole of Friday.
Belfast is the capital and largest city of Northern Ireland, and although small, it has lots to offer locals and visitors alike. It has blossomed from its humble beginnings into a vibrant place packed with history, culture, fantastic restaurants, shops, top tourist attractions, and above all, friendly locals!
A large tourist attraction for the city is Titanic Belfast. Last year the museum, a £77m building designed to emulate both the bows of ships and the emblem of Titanic owners the White Star Line, was named the number one tourist attraction at the World Travel Awards. Since opening in 2012 it has welcome over three million visitors.
Elsewhere, and most recently, tourists have flocked to the city to visit the home of the Titanic Studios where Game of Thrones is filmed. The studio is also a stone’s throw away from other filming locations across Northern Ireland, and fans of the show can now do several tours dedicated to the TV phenomenon.
The size of the city centre makes it manageable for people to get around on foot and see all they need want in a day or two. In terms of shopping, the majority of stores are all within a ten minute walking distance of Belfast City Hall, which is the civic building of Belfast City Council located in Donegall Square. The Hall faces north and effectively divides the commercial and business areas of the city centre.
While all of the city centre’s jewellery retailers are a short walk away, and can be found in streets which link back to Belfast City Hall, there are a couple of shopping areas to highlight. Firstly, Queen’s Arcade, which has been in the heart of Belfast since 1880 and links Donegall Place to Fountain Street. The Arcade offers a unique shopping experience and is the home to three jewellers — Signet’s Ernest Jones, Lunn’s Jewellers and Lauren May.
Secondly, Victoria Square – Belfast’s premiere shopping destination, which opened in 2008 and offers customers a wide variety of shops, restaurants and entertainment – including a glass dome which provides visitors some of the best views of the city. Jewellery wise boutique.Goldsmiths, Swarovski, Goldsmiths and Lunn’s Jewellers are located inside Victoria Square, alongside a large House of Fraser department store.
Business in Belfast
Belfast appears to be a city on the rise and has a lot of to offer businesses in the area. This can be reflected by the number of jewellers who have more than one shop, whether a couple in the city centre, or a presence in the city centre and the suburbs.
In the past 12 months the city centre has enjoyed the addition of new independent bars and restaurants, and over the next year or so numerous new hotels will be opening in the area — including the Hastings Hotel’s £30m Grand Central hotel and a large luxury hotel on Bedford Street.
For this reason, many jewellery businesses in Belfast are confident about the future, especially in light of what Belfast used to be like not so long ago.
“I am old enough to remember when it was dreadful and very, very difficult to do business in,” reflects Fred J Malcolm director, Neil Watt. “When the troubles were at their peak and your windows were getting blown in every so often, you were down here in the middle of the night sweeping up glass and then trying to start again the next day. So things have certainly improved a great deal since then.”
Fred J Malcolm is a family business which has been running in Belfast since 1926, although it’s only been in Watt’s family since about 1966. Watt says it was a well established business when his family took over, but he hopes they have taken it forward through various things they’ve done.
The store had a huge refit about nine years ago, where the business acquired the property next door and doubled in size. Fred J Malcolm is a traditional jewellers, which stocks diamond jewellery, coloured gemstones and silver gifts.
Watt continues: “Belfast has become a vibrant, ‘go to’ city. People come over for weekend breaks and there is lots to do. For the younger people there are lots of restaurants and bars and night clubs. People say what they like about it is that it is a manageable size. You can get around it quickly. Once you’ve parked your car or come in on public transport, you’re in, and you don’t have to go too far to get to where you are trying to go. Hopefully it’s only going to get better.”
Iain Warke, director at Gardiner Brothers, adds: “Like every other city it has its problems, fortunately are problems are not as bad as they used to be as you know with the history of Belfast, it was a very trying time to do business in because you had influences which you are no control over, plus it meant that people like yourselves didn’t travel to Belfast and there was no tourist trade at all. Thankfully that is hopefully heading towards a more normal environment.”
This year marks Garinder Brothers’ 80th anniversary. Warke is third generation, while his son, who studied at GIA, has joined the business and taken it now into fourth generation. The retailer stocks fairly high end jewellery items, and prides itself on doing bespoke orders and selling its own range.
Although the jewellery retailer is slightly off the beaten track, and does not have much of a passing trade, Warke recognises the importance of a strong tourist trade to keep business in the city of Belfast booming.
“We have now got a tourist trade, which was never here before, but with our niche in the market, we don’t really take advantage of that,” explains Warke. “We have a very highly respected name within Northern Ireland and we rely heavily on that and people tend to travel to us, which is good because people come in with the view of buying something.”
Independent jewellery retailer, Steensons, is also slightly away from the central shopping area, but still within a ten minute walk of Belfast City Hall.
Despite the passing tourist trade being limited, the store enjoys local customers popping in on their lunch breaks, and has enjoyed a business boom from Game of Thrones, having created pieces for the award-winning TV show and securing a licensing agreement with HBO to stock a collection based on the series.
Steensons, which was set up by Bill and Christina Steenson at first as a wholesale business, opened its first store in Belfast in 1988. As the retail side of the company picked up, the owners slowly reduced the number of stores they were supplying wholesale to and by 1998 they had almost completely cut out all wholesaling and predominantly manufactured jewellery collections to be stocked in their own outlets.
Today Steensons prides itself on selling its own unique collections alongside British and European designers. Due to the niche nature of the store many customers make a special trip to visit the family jeweller.
Brona Steenson-Spencer, director of Steensons, comments: “Belfast is a relaxed city. People expect to get good value for money, I would say there is not a lot of pretentiousness in Belfast, they appreciate the value that’s in it and the craftsmanship that goes into it.”
“We are slightly off the main shopping area, but we prefer that,” Steenson-Spencer adds. “We focus a lot on customer service so we prefer that we actually can spend an hour with a customer while they select a pendant, than this feeling of here’s the next customer. And it is still good. There are a lot of offices around so we get people come out on their lunch break to select pieces. We get a lot of office collections buying a piece, and really going to a jewellers is going to get something unique and special, so people take the time out.”
Steensons has a 5* hotel being built opposite the store and a new hotel opening next door, so the company is very much looking forward to the trading that will bring next year.
Elsewhere, Lunn’s Jewellers’ managing director says he could never be more proud to be part of the city.
“My grandfather started the business in Belfast 64 years ago, and Belfast in so many ways is the heart of everything we do, but we also have a store in Londonderry — so that’s incredibly important to us too,” remarks Lunn’s Jewellers’ managing director, John Lunn. “Belfast has so much to offer. I am quite involved with a BID project and there are a lot of things we are trying to do to showcase Belfast for what it really is.”
Lunn adds: “The retail, as you would have seen from the other businesses, is super. The food is fantastic, hotels are really good, the night life is excellent. It is a vibrant city. We feel we are lucky to be within Queen’s Arcade, which is a lovely tourist attraction to come and visit in itself because of its history. And then we’ve got the other store in Victoria Square which is the latest shopping centre, which is fantastic to have. The whole city is lifting. Belfast is quite generally in very good shape.”
Brexit in Belfast
In the mist of the positive transformation that businesses in Belfast have witnessed in recent years, is the cloud of uncertainty Brexit brings.
For jewellers in Belfast, concerns about leaving the European Union are wider than most areas in the United Kingdom as business owners fear the consequences of a hard border.
Despite reassurance from British Prime Minister Theresa May that both governments want to see a “seamless, frictionless border”, jewellery retailers and political figures in Ireland are still concerned about the implications.
Ireland’s taoiseach, Enda Kenny, has spelled out Ireland’s fears of a return to customs posts and border checks in a meeting with the Prime Minister, stating that there would be “very negative consequences” of a hard border being imposed on the frontier between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Most jewellery retailers Professional Jeweller met echoed these apprehensions.
Argento chief executive officer, Peter Boyle, comments: “Brexit is a disaster here, we voted against it, against the hard border, and we have political turmoil at the minute which is causing real fear. Nobody wants to go backwards. I don’t think people in the UK realise how serious it is. The border is a disaster. It’s is a reminder of our differences. We have a gigantic cloud on the horizon.”
Alongside political unrest, Boyle also has concerns about consumer spending. He adds: “Consumers doesn’t need to have a bad time to stop shopping, consumer just needs to think it might get worse next month.”
Watt from Fred J Malcolm continues: “The uncertainty that Brexit is bringing is a problem, whether it turns out to be a good thing or not, I don’t know, but while we wait to see, people’s confidence and their confidence in spending and investing and moving on is reduced.
“When Brexit came in June nothing very much happened for a few months, I mean the rest of the year was ok, Christmas was pretty good, but the start of the year we’ve noticed it slow down. We are concerned in Northern Ireland, given that customers do come up from Dublin to spend, but a hard border where you are going to get searched and stopped and quizzed about everything, is going to have a huge effect on that business both sides of the border, so that’s a concern for the immediate future.” Alongside a hard border, exchange rates in the light of Brexit also affects business in the city of Belfast, due to its close proximity to Dublin.
Warke from Gardiner Brothers explains: “As the Pound weakens, then the Euro becomes more powerful, so people tend to shop up here, but then there are times when the Pound is very strong and the Euro weaker and it is a lot more expensive for people to shop here.”
While John Lunn is aware of the concerns and challenges ahead, he is positive for Belfast’s future and believes the key to moving forward is businesses in the city working together.
“There is no doubt there will be a mix of both challenges and opportunities with whatever comes, but the key is that the city centre works together.”
“There is no doubt there will be a mix of both challenges and opportunities with whatever comes, but the key is that the city centre works together, combining both the private and public sectors, through all of this to not only further promote Belfast for the great city that it is, but to continue to offer a destination that is a great place to visit,” says Lunn.
Brands in Belfast
As a city, Belfast boasts a strong variety of jewellery retailers. While there is naturally some overlap, most jewellers have their niche in the city.
For example, Steensons stocks its very own jewellery collections alongside designers who complement the company’s offering. The store director reveals that the business has made a conscious decision to steer away from brands and looks for designers who make their own jewellery rather than shipping it to the Far East.
“Although we stock other people here, what we sell is still pretty much 70-80% Steensons work, that’s what customers come in looking for,” Steenson-Spencer shares. Bestsellers for the store include two nature-inspired ranges ‘Flower’ and ‘Leaf’. These have been Steensons bestsellers for over 35 years as consumers keep returning to add to their collection.
At Gardiner Brothers and Fred J Malcolm, diamond jewellery is the order of the day. Both traditional jewellers have a variety of diamond-adorned products to offer and enjoy loyal, and strong-serving customers.
At Fred J Malcolm, the retailer prides itself on customer service. This does not mean the store goes for gimmicks, reductions and a bottle of champagne, but rather the team are friendly, approachable and knowledgeable.
While the store attracts a variety of customers, from people coming in to spend a modest amount, to those wanting to spend tens of thousands of pounds, recently Watt has noticed an increase in guys coming into store on their own to buy engagement rings.
He explains: “A lot of guys come in on their own and they need help and guidance. And if you’ve got a man on his own, choosing a ring, you try to encourage them to go for something relatively plain as there is nothing to not like about a solitaire diamond ring. These guys are very brave and they also set up the proposal with Steven Spielberg like care. They don’t just get down on one knee and propose, they arrange it around a weekend away.”
The staff at Fred J Malcolm have even been known to help with proposal plans, with Watt sharing an anecdote of a time he rang his wife to help a young gentleman who was looking for a place to propose in a specific area of the country.
At Gardiner Brothers solitaire diamond rings, three-stone rings and diamond earrings and pendants are having their moment. Elsewhere, the store does a lot of bespoke ordering and believes this is something the business is very strong in.
Lunn’s Jewellers also sells diamond jewellery alongside luxury brands such as Chopard, Mikimoto, Roberto Coin, Shaun Leane and Fope to name a few. For the diamond jewellery side of the business, the jeweller stands out from competition with its very own brand of diamonds — Portfolio Fine Diamonds.
Lunn remarks: “We pride ourselves on being a third generation, luxury jewellers, and we are blessed to have the top watch brands and jewellery brands in the world, and our own leading diamond brand, which is a big pride of ours. We really consider ourselves ‘the’ luxury jewellery retailer.”
“We pride ourselves on being a third generation, luxury jewellers, and we are blessed to have the top watch brands and jewellery brands in the world, and our own leading diamond brand, which is a big pride of ours.”
Lunn says the brands are fantastic at communication and will often fly over from England to visit the jeweller. He says this support is really important as a phone call and emails can only help so much, but when someone comes into store it really brings the brand alive.
Alongside top brand partners, Lunn says the store’s offering is complemented with excellent customer service. Not only are the staff approachable and knowledgeable, but Lunn’s has a dedicated ‘after sales’ team.
“We want to make sure it is all about the experience and customer service, but whenever the customer leaves we want to make sure that they have a service and after sales that is truly dedicated,” shares Lunn. “That’s really important to us. It makes us slightly unique in what we do.”
This year Lunn’s Jewellers’ Queen’s Arcade store will be undergoing a complete make-over.
Everything inside the store will change as the managing director looks to create an environment customers will walk in to and say “wow”. The refurbishment is set to be complete by the beginning of May.
On the other end of the spectrum, Argento provides a retail platform for fashion jewellery brands to shine in Northern Ireland.
Argento has a large shop in the city, alongside an outlet boutique and a Pandora concept store. Brands stocked at Argento include Swarovski, Nomination, Thomas Sabo Daisy London and Olivia Burton — a particularly strong seller for the company.
“It’s a brave choice to come in here and try and compete with us. We are very dominant in what we do here and we hope to keep it that way.”
Discussing the competition, Boyle says: “It’s a brave choice to come in here and try and compete with us. We are very dominant in what we do here and we hope to keep it that way. We don’t intend to give that up anytime soon.”
In Belfast you are never more than 20 minutes from an Argento store as the company also has a presence in all the suburbs surrounding the city centre. “We are so dominant now both in Belfast and Northern Ireland that truth be told if someone wants to come in and get a good distributor, really we are your man,” shares Boyle.
He adds: “We are a margined based business and some brands come in and ask you to sell a margin that is not viable and we don’t allow it. We are in a position where we don’t have that many competitors so that company can’t go and sell to the guy next door. If they want to distribute the product they’ve got to give us the margin.”
Boyle says Argento has a very good reputation in the industry and brands know they can rely on him.
Argento has a very loyal client base, who is very price conscious. As a result, the team does not dictate to a customer what they should spend.
“We have a fair idea of what they want to spend, from track record, and we try and tender our product purchase to that,” says Boyle. “My customers aren’t buying £100 products. The customer walks into our store to buy a fashionable product, it’s not a cheap product, but it is an affordable product.”
He continues: “We are good at what we do. We are obsessed with detail, we have good staff training and we have good management structures. We have a strong team who are happy, reasonably well paid, and seem to like working for us. We are confident we are the right partner for these brands.”
Shifting the focus away from England has afforded the opportunity to appreciate the jewellery trade from a sometimes overlooked pocket of the UK. These are just a few examples of how the jewellery industry in Belfast is a diverse one and each retailer is certainly confident in the part it plays.
Belfast is a growing city, and while the future is uncertain for everyone trading in the UK, it has positive prospects, and jewellery retailers who truly understand business in Northern Ireland and how to keep it thriving through the good times and bad.