With an aim to be the strongest jeweller outside of London, Berry’s dominates the luxury jewellery market in the North of England with its nine store empire and has ambitions to expand further when the time is right. Here, our editor Stacey Hailes sits down with the director, managing director, and chairman to find out what drives the business and keeps it firmly rooted on family grounds.
Berry’s Jewellers wasn’t born overnight, but it certainly grew at an impress rate. In fact, there was a season of about a decade where the jeweller opened a new store every year.
While retail launches have slowed for the time being, Berry’s has ambitious expansion plans, but the senior executives are in no rush to do this before the time is right. Now in its fourth generation, Berry’s was founded in 1897 by managing director, Simon Walton’s, great grandfather, who ran just one small store in Leeds.
Berry’s chairman, Jeffrey Walton, was the first ‘in law’ to join the family business, and initially planned to just ‘give it a go’ for six months. Like so many in the jewellery trade, he found his passion, and 50 years later he still plays an integral role in the company, alongside his son Simon Walton, and nephew, Marcus Rosenburg. It’s these three senior executives whom our editor, Stacey Hailes, meets with at one of the company’s Leeds stores.
In total, the trio run three Berry’s boutiques in Leeds city centre, and a fourth called Owen & Robinson.
Berry’s was Jeffrey’s first foray into jewellery, and he took to it like a duck to water. Not only did he learn about the retail side of business, he also used his experience in wholesale as a textile supplier to give the company an advantage in a competitive market.
“In Leeds we were not the top shop, there were other shops who were better than us, but when I went in I thought, ‘Right, we are going to get there’, and gradually we did. We got the watch agencies and started importing ourselves. I went to Basel for the first time by myself and I thought, this is for me,” shares chairman of Berry’s, Jeffrey Walton.
He continues: “At that time, I really couldn’t expand into other retail stores. I was learning. But, the business I had before was in textiles, and I was the first person to sell into all the supermarkets non-food. So I knew about wholesaling and I started importing gold chains myself, and we ended up with eight reps on the road suppling quite a lot of jewellers, and we were buying goods ourselves for the shop at very good rates. And then on the diamond side we developed, and that’s how the business developed in many ways. In the end we supplied, mainly gold chains, to about 400 stores.”
While Berry’s does not run this wholesale arm anymore, the lessons learnt during that time has served the company well, and put the team in good stead for buying jewellery and selling pieces at competitive prices.
Cousins Simon and Marcus joined the family business 30 and 23 years ago respectively, after attending university.
When managing director, Simon, came into the company, Berry’s still only had one store in Leeds. In that original Berry’s boutique he worked closely with his father and grandmother and together they decided it was time to expand. Little did they know they were destined to grow from one to almost ten stores in a decade.
“At that stage we decided to open up stores,” Simon explains in detail. “We were well established. It was still a local Leeds business, and then various opportunities arose.”
He continues: “There was a recession going on at the time and there were family businesses selling the businesses, there were public companies selling shops, and we almost opened a shop a year up from 1989 until almost the year 2000. A shop a year. It was absolutely crazy. We were going from one shop to literally 8-9 shops in ten years, then we spent the next ten years catching up.”
The second store they opened was in York, where they took over from Ingles — an old and very well established family business Berry’s used to supply.
In Hull, when department store Carmichael’s shut down, Berry’s opened a jewellers with staff from the retailer’s high-end luxury jewellery department. In Leeds, the company bought rival jeweller Owen & Robinson, and still trades under that name today.
“When we bought Ingles we didn’t know how it was going to go — we had never opened a store before,” says Jeffery. “Well it was a success straight away. So we thought, we should be doing more! So we opened a shop a year.”
“When you go from one to two you double the size of your business, and the more shops you open the easier it gets and you learn from your mistakes,” adds Simon. “And there were various opportunities. Through various contacts we bought two Watches of Switzerland shops — one in Newcastle and one in Leeds. We then opened a shop in the Victorian Quarter of Leeds.”
Not one to miss an opportunity, Jeffrey Walton discovered a jewellery shop was leaving the Victorian Quarter while he was having a haircut in a salon opposite the space. When the hairdresser mentioned the jeweller was closing down, he told them to forget the haircut and went straight back to the office to phone his property guy. The following day Berry’s owned the jewellers and the unit next door. “These opportunities arose. We were in the right place at the right time, wanting to expand, and then we re-fitted them, put our own jewellery in, put our watches in, and that was the journey really,” Simon continues.
“That was 2001 and then as we were growing and renting shops, we decided as we were making profits, because we retained a lot of money in our company, we should buy our own free holds, so we own most of our shops and all the free holds,” Jeffery reveals.
Berry’s empire now includes three Berry’s boutiques in Leeds, one Owen & Robinson in Leeds, and Berry’s jewellery stores in Hull, Nottingham, Newcastle, York, and Windsor.
In recent years the focus has been on improving the shops – and in many cases – expanding them to make more room for watch brands demanding more space, and to showcase its vast supply of jewellery.
In its home city, Leeds, Berry’s is in the midst of refurbishing its flagship on Albion Street. Having outgrown the building, the company bought the store next door, which was previously rented to Carphone Warehouse.
Once complete, half the store will be devoted to fine jewellery, with the remainder to watches. On the outside, the flagship will have 150ft of window all the way around.
Ultimately, it will be a landmark store outside of London, with Berry’s aiming to be the biggest luxury jeweller outside the capital. It will also offer a better working environment to staff, and feature new, larger workshops.
For the next 12 months Berry’s faces the same challenges as the majority of luxury jewellery retailers on the high street.
Retailers will still be coming up against the effects of Brexit, and continuing to compete with online businesses. Simon explains: “For the past year our figures are up on the year prior, but I personally think it is going to be tough.”
“Brexit is a challenge. Consumer confidence at the moment is weak. People are worried about various things, the future, economy wise and politically, but we have said that for a number of years and we have been surprised,” Simon continues. “People are still getting engaged and married and having anniversaries and we keep battling. When Brexit happened we sat here with our heads in our hands thinking it was the end of the world, and we boomed for 18 months, predominately on watch brands. We are not expecting any records. If we do anything like last year we will be over the moon. I think as long as we don’t lose focus on the end clients we’re ok, and the end client is everything to us, so hopefully we will get our share of business.”
In terms of the places where Berry’s resides, the jeweller is actually in a very strong position. Leeds is improving every year, with many favouring a shopping trip in the city over one in London. Hull had its tenure as the City of Culture last year, and Windsor is set for an influx of visitors over the next 12 months because of the impending Royal Wedding.
Berry’s is also very dominant in each of its locations, building a strong brand and loyal following wherever it trades.
That being said, the retailer is no longer just in competition with other jewellers, instead, the execs point out, the company is competing against the holiday industry and all luxury goods. And, of course, the internet.
“We have an online presence, we sell online, and it amazes us what we sell online and that people are happy buying online rather than visiting the store,” says Simon. “Geographically online we are stronger where we have a shop presence. Unfortunately it is the future in terms of information finding, selling, and marketing. However competitive the high street is, the internet is getting even more competitive.”
In response, Berry’s has been focusing on making its stores ‘experience boutiques’, giving shoppers a reason to walk through the doors, rather than hide behind a screen online.
“The days have gone where you sit in a shop and wait for a customer to come to you. You need to do events and marketing,” Simon adds. “We’ve done more and more events over the years. A lot of them watch orientated. But we have tried to move that customer from a customer just being part of the Berry’s world, to a customer becoming more of a friend, and moving that relationship a little bit forward.”
With watch brands becoming so dominant in the marketplace, many jewellers are having to decide whether to just focus on the timepiece opportunities in the industry, or to try and balance watches with jewellery.
For Berry’s, abandoning the jewellery side was never a question.
We undersell ourselves with jewellery, we don’t shout about it enough.
“I can’t emphasise enough, we are jewellers,” shares Simon. “We are jewellers who over the years were 70% jewellery, 30% watches, but now it has reversed the other way, but we are very proud of the jewellery that we sell. And over the next few years we really want to promote the Berry’s brand and sell more jewellery. The whole of our trade has become almost obsessed with watch brands, but we are jewellers first and foremost, we are still selling some amazing jewellery pieces, we are very good at jewellery. We undersell ourselves with jewellery, we don’t shout about it enough. All our shops have some fabulous jewellery in and we should be selling a lot more so as a company we are refocusing our attentions on jewellery.”
He continues: “Our most important sale is that engagement ring sale, because that engagement ring sale is probably the biggest jewellery purchase that you have initially. If they buy an engagement ring from you, you tend to make that customer a customer for life. That first sale is the most crucial thing for us and our business is very much geared to the wedding and engagement ring market. We don’t want to appear like a multiple with all watch brands. We are still trying to be a jewellers that happens to sell the leading watch brands. But it’s a challenge and we are on that journey.”
As Berry’s refocuses on jewellery it also hopes to manufacture more of its own goods.
While Berry’s expands, adapts and continues to position its business as a jeweller relevant for today’s consumer, one thing that will never change is the foundation of the company — a family business through and through.
In fact, it’s this element of the business that should be considered one of its greatest strengths.
At the top of the company, the senior executives work extremely well together. While they may not always agree on certain things, they all know each other’s strengths and together have proven time and time again they know how to make the business a success.
“We work for the company rather than ourselves,” shares Simon, with his father adding: “We are not a multiple, as far as we are concerned we are a family business, and that’s how it comes over to all our customers.”
Our customers enjoy dealing with a family business. We don’t want that image of a big multiple. We want to be a high quality independent family business.
Simon continues: “Our customers enjoy dealing with a family business. We don’t want that image of a big multiple. We want to be a high quality independent family business. That’s our image that we want. The bigger you get the more challenging it gets because you are pulled in every direction.”
By being pulled in different directions, Simon is referring to the balance between running the company and being on the shop floor — where all three executives love to be.
Simon explains: “Our difficulty is running the business on it and in it, and sometimes we are too in it, than on it, and we are constantly trying to get that balance. We are customer-facing and we all have clients that want to see us and we enjoy that. We have never been a jeweller sitting in a board room or an office. That’s our ethos. We are on the shop floor all the time. The customer is the first thing. The business leans on the customer.”
And when customers are served by the directors, often they have no idea they are being served by the owners. In addition others who visit the store don’t realise Berry’s is present in multiple cities, because they just see it as their very own family jewellers, and this is how the team likes it to be.
At present, Berry’s employs just over 115 people, including jewellers, watch makers and sales staff. The business is geared towards nurturing it for the next generation – Simon’s son has already shown interest and even soared on the shop floor over Christmas – and also growing individuals in the company, often offering opportunities for promotion, bonuses, and leadership.
In each store, the managers and assistant managers think of the branch as their own, and play crucial a role in choosing what jewellery the location will stock, and events they will put on.
“We are very lucky,” says Simon. “The managers and assistant managers have been with us a long, long time. They are a great bunch of people. They work hard. And it is not just about the money they earn or the bonuses, it’s about being part of a family business and being able to pick up the phone to a family member and discuss something. And I think that is the benefit of working for us. It is frustrating for them in some ways, because a big group offers more opportunities so to speak, but a family business also brings advantages.”
Staff retention is extremely strong. Berry’s has 60 members of staff who have worked for the company over 20 years. All of those have got clients, and generations who come into store just to visit them. A strength Berry’s has over other jewellers who struggle with high staff turnover.
Berry’s certainly has a bright future in the industry. Having already done the ground work for a strong and profitable future, the next few years should see the business cement its offering — strengthening its identity as a jeweller and an agent of the largest watch brands, and also, with this, solidifying the Berry’s brand.
The chairman of Berry’s concludes: “I think the multiples have got very strong accountancy methods, they look at their businesses financially, and so do we. We can all give almost every figure that we do. An analysis. Whereas a lot of people could have a lot of dead stock and cash flow. We know off by heart exactly where we are and what we are doing. So I think no matter how slow it goes we will come out from this in a strong position.”